Saturday, 24 April 2010

Norman O’Neill: Suite- Dances from ‘The Bluebird’

It is not often that Norman O’Neill’s name is heard these days in the world of classical music. However, in his day he was a composer to be reckoned with and made a major contribution to concert and recital room music. However he is perhaps best remembered for composing incidental music to many plays written for the West End Theatres between 1900 and 1933. In fact, O’Neill was Musical Director of London’s Haymarket Theatre for many years. Alas most of this music has been lost in the mists of time: however one Suite has survived, albeit rather precariously – the Four Dances from Maeterlinck’s play The Bluebird. The play opened at the Haymarket on 8 December 1909 and is very much a work of its day. It has been compared to Algernon Blackwood’s Prisoner in Fairyland (Elgar’s Starlight Express) and Barrie’s Peter Pan. However, it is unlikely to be revived today: the subject matter and the imagery would be unlikely to be of interest to either children or their parents.
The Suite opens with the Dance of the Mist Maids. The music was culled from a moment in the play when the two children, Tyltyl and Mytyl manage to find their way through the fog to the Land of Memory. At the conclusion of the dance the mist lifts to reveal the children’s grandparents sleeping peacefully outside their idyllic cottage.
The second movement is The Dance of Fire and Water. This commences with a ‘pas seul’ for Water, however it is soon followed by her fighting dance with Fire. At the end of this, Fire is driven back where he belongs – into the hearth. Water sinks exhausted to the ground.
There follows The Dance of the Stars, which takes place in a Palace of Night. Maeterlinck’s stage directions note that ‘The stars in the shape of beautiful girls, veiled in many-coloured radiancy, escape from their prison, disperse over the hall, and form graceful groups on the steps and round the columns. The Perfumes of the Night (who are almost invisible), the fireflies, and the Dews join them, while the song of the Nightingales streams from the cavern and floods the Palace...’ In the stage version this dance opened with ethereal voices, but in the suite this music is given to the fiddles. Finally at a call from Night, all the dancers fly back to their cavern.
The final dance is A Dance of the Hours. The playwright has said that [the boy] Tyltyl has no sooner turned the diamond that a sudden change comes over everything...The flint of which the old cottage walls are made light up, turn blue as sapphire, becomes transparent, and gleam and sparkle like precious stones...The face of the clock winks its eyes and smile genially, while the door that contains the pendulum opens and releases the Hours, which, holding one another by the hand, begin to dance to the sound of music...The souls of the Quartern Loaves, in the form of little men in crust-coloured tights, flurried and all powdered with flour scramble out of the bread-pan and frisk round the room.
It should be noted that the suite has the dances in a different order to that in which they appear in the play. There it is Hours, Water, Mist and Stars. However the composer has wisely changed this and the order presented in the suite makes for a satisfying work that does not need the libretto of the play as an aid to enjoyment.

The Guardian reviewing the Suite’s performance at a Promenade Concert on 31 September 1910 wrote the Mr. Norman O’Neill’s four dances...were accorded their first concert performance. Most probably to those who are ignorant of the story the music would scarcely suggest precisely the scenes and action of the play. But in all four numbers it has the merits of clearness and grace of design, engaging tune, and appropriate colour. The Star dance is especially fanciful, and the close of the dance of the Hours is humorously effective.’ Finally the reviewer notes that Mr O’Neill was most heartily called, and the audience were evidently thoroughly pleased with the music and the performance.’
The reviewer in the Musical Times, 1 March 1910, wrote that:-
‘An all too-familiar class of sacred compositions has been aptly dubbed 'Kapellmeister' music. Nowadays there is need for some similar term for the incidental music which average conductors of theatre bands think they have special ability and a prescriptive right to supply from their own brains. Such a term would sum up the very qualities whose absence forms the chief virtue of Mr. Norman O'Neill's music to Maeterlinck's play 'The Blue Bird.' A composer with an individual style and artistic judgment, he has written music which enters into the fanciful and mystic spirit of the drama and helps to create an illusion and an 'atmosphere' in the theatre. Some of the best passages are contained in the set of four dances which are now issued arranged for pianoforte solo. The most effective in this guise is the dance of Fire and Water; the dances of the Mist-maids, the Stars and the Hours have many attractive points of melody and harmony that bear the stamp of originality.’

The music is available on British Composers Conducts & other rarities Dutton CDBP9766

1 comment:

Katherine Jessel said...

This is a good description of the Blue Bird music by Norman O'Neill. However it would be untrue to say that his music as a whole is "lost in the mists of time" Only this year 2011 performances of his work have been heard at the English Music Festival and live on BBC Radio 3 Festival of Light Music. O'Neill's music for J.M.Barrie's Mary Rose is available on Dutton Records 2006 and his entire output in scores and parts is available for hire from the Royal College of Music Library (complete catalogue on-line from their web site.)
Katherine Jessel