Jack Straw was a fourteenth century English revolutionary, associated with the Peasant’s Revolt. He is a shadowy character who may be an alias of Wat Tyler or possibly identified with fellow insurgent John Rakestraw. In 1381, with an army of 100,000 men, Straw, Tyler, and John Ball marched on London. Much damage was done to the Temple, there were burnings of prisons and the destruction of the Monastery of St John of Jerusalem in Clerkenwell. The Archbishop of Canterbury, in residence at the Tower of London, was executed. Wat Tyler was killed in Smithfield by the Lord Mayor of London, William Walworth.
Reasons for the uprising included
the aftermath of the Black Death, inept government and church, lack of equality
under the law, as well as the “third poll tax” which levied one shilling per
head of population. The aims of the Peasant’s Revolt were manifold, including
the abolition of serfdom and rescinding of the Third Poll Tax.
Jack Straw is remembered today at
the eponymous tavern on Hampstead Heath.
Hoddinott completed his overture during April 1964. It was later published by Lengnick and Co. The Overture was rescored during 1980 for a larger orchestra.
There has been a single recording of the Overture. In 1982 it was included on the Unicorn LP (RHD 401) along with the Sinfonia Fidei (1977) and the Nocturnes and Cadenzas for cello and orchestra (1968). The Philharmonia Orchestra was conducted by Charles Groves. In 2009, the Overture was reissued on CD (Lyrita SRCD.334). This album included several works by Alun Hoddinott, William Mathais, and Daniel Jones.
Rob Barnett (MusicWeb International, 9 July 2009) reviewing the Lyrita CD, considered that “This [Overture] is …thorny [and] replete with gawky impudence, conspiratorial asides, and explosively dissonant expostulations.”
Steven J Haller, writing in the American
Record Guide (May/June 2011, on-line edition) reflected that “Hoddinott is
almost too effusive for his own good, lavishing so many good tunes on a piece
that's over almost before it begins.”
In a brief review of the Lyrita release, The Gramophone (November 2012, p.91) David Threasher revealed that “Alun Hoddinott was allegedly most amused when his overture’s latter-day namesake [the Labour politician, Jack Straw]…rose to the exalted position of Home Secretary... His 1964 overture (revised in 1980, just in time for the Revolt’s 600th anniversary) starts ominously but soon opens out into a winningly jaunty main section full of Hoddinott’s characteristically deft orchestration.”
This is not programme music. There is no suggestion that Hoddinott was trying to create a character sketch akin to Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks, op. 28 or even Walton’s Scapino. The Overture can be listened to with no reference to historical events.
Rob Barnett (op.cit.) has suggested that Jack Straw “hangs together only loosely” and is not completely convincing. Fundamentally, there is nothing wrong with this piece, but a large amount of material seems have been used in what is only a five-minute work. It seems terribly wasteful and can lead to a feeling of unease. If only Hoddinott could have expanded it a wee bit: there are so many promising ideas here that just cry out to be developed.
The Philharmonia Orchestra/Charles Groves recording can be heard on YouTube, here.