The idea for the poem ‘The Skeleton in Armour’ was ‘suggested’ to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-82) whilst out riding on the beach at Newport, Rhode Island. The initial stimulus was the finding of a skeleton wearing a brass breastplate and belt at Fall River, Massachusetts, c.1832. There was much debate as to the provenance of the remains, with protagonists proposing, Native American, Phoenician, Carthaginian or Egyptian origin. Other antiquarians were convinced that it was an early colonist or possibly even an elaborate fraud. Another proposal was that the ‘long-buried exile’ was of Scandinavian descent. It was this latter theory that exercised Longfellow’s imagination. The poet was aware of the debate around the Old Wind-Mill or Round Tower at Newport and the hypothesis that it was of Danish origin. Longfellow was inspired by Carl Christian Rafn (1795-1864) who majored on the Viking colonisation of the Americas. It is hard to know whether the poet believed the theory of the Norse ancestry of the skeleton or whether it was just an apt poetic conceit.
The remains of the ‘Viking’ were destroyed in a major fire in 1843, so no subsequent tests were possible to prove or deny its origins.
The poem ‘The Skeleton in Armour’ was first published in the Knickerbocker Magazine (January 1841) and subsequently in Ballads and other Poems (1841).
The burden of the poem is that the ‘ghost’ of the skeleton appears and begins to tell his story to the passing stranger. [cf. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, a poem known to Longfellow]. The spectre declares that he was a Viking who had fallen in love with the daughter of King Hildebrand. However, the king thwarted his suit. The ‘Viking’, aroused to passion, kidnapped the girl and set sail, with her father and his retinue in pursuit. To avoid a sea battle, which he would have lost, the Viking rammed the king’s ship killing all on board. After a journey of some three weeks they made landfall at Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. The poet imagines that the ‘round tower’ was built for the lady’s bower. Alas, the princess dies and was interred in her tower. The Viking, being distraught arrayed himself in his armour and ‘fell upon his sword.’
Genesis of the Cantata
Rutland Boughton was twenty years old when he put the finishing touches to his symphonic poem for chorus and orchestra, The Skeleton in Armour. Other choral works at this time were the cantatas Sir Galahad (1898) and The Invisible Armada (1901). Orchestral music of this period included the tone poem A Summer Night (1899, rev.1903) and Symphonic Suite: The Chilterns, (1900). This former work had impressed Granville Bantock when it was first heard at a Halfords Concerts Society event in 1902. It has subsequently been recorded on the Dutton Epoch record label (CDLX7262). The Chilterns, symphonic suite, remains a tantalising desideratum. In 1898 Boughton had completed a Piano Concerto in A flat and a tone poem Lucifer. Both works were withdrawn and subsequently destroyed (Hurd, 1993).
The Skeleton in Armour was originally conceived as a ballad for baritone and orchestra and was completed in February 1898. Hurd (1993) states that it was rescored for SATB later that year: the final page of the vocal score is dated ‘Aylesbury, Nov- Dec. 1898’. The work was further revised in 1903. The score was duly published by Novello & Sons in 1909, priced 2/- (10p). Interestingly, this work is contemporary with Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s once ubiquitous Hiawatha’s Wedding Feast.
Premiere and Reviews
The premiere of The Skeleton in Armour was on 16 March 1909 at the Queen’s Hall with the Edward Mason Choir and the New Symphony Orchestra. Mason was born in 1878/9 and had studied at the Royal College of Music. His early career included, teaching at Eton and playing cello in the Grimson Quartet (other members were Frank Bridge (viola) Ernest Tomlinson (violin) and the leader Jessie Grimson (violin). Mason’s choir, with more than a hundred singers, was formed 1907 and gave its first concert the following year. The concerts continued until 1914.
One of the aims of Mason’s choir was to perform little-known works by English composers. Stephen Lloyd in his study of H. Balfour Gardiner, (Cambridge University Press, 1984, 2005) has noted that over thirty British composers were represented over this six year period. Edward Mason was killed in France (9 May 1915) whilst serving as a second-lieutenant in the Northamptonshire Regiment.
The Rutland Boughton Trust possesses a short typed memorandum quoting a number of reviews. The Morning Post (17 March 1909) noted that Boughton’s Skeleton:
‘…is frankly lyrical in character, and it is invariably grateful for the voices. The composer’s methods are clear, straightforward, and tuneful, and there is no doubt that the excellence of the writing for the voices, the sufficiency of contrast, and the generally attractive character of the work will win for it widespread popularity among choral societies whose technical attainments are legitimate.’
There were two calls for the composer to acknowledge the applause. Other works included in this concert were Edgar L. Bainton’s The Blessed Damozel and Arthur Goodhart’s (the memorandum notes the composer was John O’Keefe; in fact, he was the author from whom the libretto was derived) Spanish Armada.
The New Music Review (Volume 8, 1908-9) states that Mr. Boughton:
‘…has the dramatic spirit, and as the poem affords ample opportunity for effective musical treatment he has been successful in composing music which is not only melodious, but eminently graphic in its descriptive power. He is evidently a master of choral effects, and his work may be safely recommended to choral societies as well worthy of performance’.
The Musical Times (April 1909) reported that:
‘[The] novelty was the ' Symphonic poem' for chorus and orchestra, The Skeleton in Armour, by Rutland Boughton…. In his highly descriptive setting of Longfellow's grim poem, Mr. Boughton displays considerable power to write effectively for chorus and orchestra. He indulges in many strange devices, but they always have interest and application to the situation. Some of the climaxes are very dramatic, and prove that he can feel strongly in terms of music. The performance was a fair one, but the lack of balance of choral and orchestral tone was sometimes conspicuous.’
The same edition of this journal further reports on the published score:-
‘The first aim of Mr. Rutland Boughton's choral writing is to provide interest in every part, the occasions being few when the lower voices form merely an accompaniment. The continuous flow of the part-writing disguises the rigid stanza-form of the narrative, and with its frequent modulations eliminates all monotony. The serious mood of the music, rightly excludes a 'tuneful' style, but effective themes or figures often occur in association with various shades of feeling in the poem. They appear chiefly in the orchestral part, while the skilfully woven choral part-writing continues its course simultaneously. Choralists will find that the apparent chromatic difficulties of their parts are smoothed over by the flow and eminently vocal nature of the writing.’
At the time of the premiere there was some doubt as to whether The Skeleton was an early or a late work. The Musical Standard (20 March 1909) wonders if it was brand new or had been rewritten. ‘JHGB’ writes that this work has ‘an interesting and masterly character.’ In fact, he insists that the composer has so far not written ‘anything that runs along so well…so pleasingly, the onward trend of the music and its rhythmic buoyancy.’ The audience were ‘never bored’ and ‘every orchestral and choral effect “came off”’. The choir and orchestra clearly enjoyed performing this work and seemed ‘inspired under Mr. Mason’s direction.’ The music was ‘…unaffectedly or non-artificially British in tone.’
Finally, the composer’s friend George Bernard Shaw once wrote ‘I loathe your music. It isn’t music at all. It is all skeletons in armour, rangle, jangle, bangle, with nothing but old bones inside... For heaven’s sake get a professorship at the RAM. You will get paid for misleading the young and you won’t have any time to compose.’ (Letter, Shaw/Boughton, 2 January, 1912) I think we can take this as ‘friendly banter’ with just a grain of truth.
To be continued...
With thank to the Rutland Boughton Trust where this essay was first published during December 2017