07 November 2020

Elgar, Binyon, Martin-Harvey and 'Arthur'

Title-page of Elgar's full score.
Courtesy of the British Library.




With what names should I inscribe this play but with yours? Yet what right have I to dedicate to you what is already so much your own? Memory goes back to the June day, now long ago, when first I undertook to write for you a play out of Malory's pages on a theme long pondered by you both. And many days come back to me, in London or by the sunny Channel, when time was forgotten in ardent work and interchange of ideas; in rejecting and recasting; in the search for essential structure. How much the play owes to you, both in framework and in detail, none knows so well as I. Give me leave, therefore, to write these words in grateful acknowledgement of that initial trust, of much fruitful suggestion and inspiriting counsel, and of all I have learnt from you of the playwright's patient craft.


With these words, the playwright Laurence Binyon introduced his play Arthur: a tragedy. The dedication is to my ancestor, Sir John Martin-Harvey and his wife who acted as 'Miss N. da Silva', and the music for the first production was written by Sir Edward Elgar.

In February 1998, Anthony Payne's elaboration of the sketches which Elgar made for his Third Symphony received its first public performance in London's Royal Festival Hall.

For the first time, people who had not been familiar with the sketches either as they were published in The Listener or W.H. Reed's Elgar as I Knew Him (1936) became aware that the symphony seemingly drew on Elgar's music for Binyon's play Arthur.

I want to present here some paragraphs taken from The Autobiography of Sir John Martin-Harvey (Sampson Low, Marston and Co, 1933), which explain the background to Binyon's play in some detail. Then I want to discuss briefly Elgar's music for the play, and how it relates to the Third Symphony sketches.

Martin-Harvey's account of the genesis of the play

After the production of Oedipus Rex at Covent Garden in 1912-13, a new ambition had taken possession of me. In my mind arose again the loved stories of my youth - those of Malory's Morte d'Arthur. What would be more glorious than to produce a play on the great British theme of Arthur, written by a British poet, in settings by a British artist, in the foremost British Theatre?

Laurence Binyon for the poet, my old friend Professor Robert Anning Bell for the designer, and Covent Garden Opera House for the production!

Binyon had entered enthusiastically into the project and many an hour had we spent with my wife over the construction of the play in her cottage at Bonchurch, to which he refers so charmingly in his dedication of the printed copy.

Our original idea was that Lancelot [Binyon used the spelling 'Launcelot', but Martin-Harvey does not follow this] should be the leading character; but, when I read the play aloud, my wife much preferred my expression of the King, and, with Binyon's concurrence, it was decided that I should play Arthur. This necessitated some changes in the latter part of the play which Binyon willingly made. In the meantime, consultations with Anning Bell over the costumes had been frequent and a large staff of workpeople had been carrying them out at Covent Garden Opera house.

Then came a disappointment. I had approached Robert Loraine to play 'Lancelot' and he had agreed, though at that time he was not in fit condition to undertake any work. He was war-weary and his doctor insisted upon a long sea voyage to re-build his health. The production of the play was postponed and, as I now had the tenancy of Covent Garden on my hands, I decided to revive Hamlet there for four weeks, with the same production which had been received with such favour at the Shakespeare Tercentenary performances at His Majesty's Theatre in 1916.

The postponement of Arthur was a great disappointment to us all, and conditions have changed so greatly since the War that I have not yet found it possible to produce the play. The fact is that the traditions in which I had been brought up were, before the War, still a powerful influence in my imaginative conception of poetical drama and were moulded on the old Lyceum lines - long casts, vast scenes, great crowds, elaborate and subtle lighting effects, large orchestras and all the rest of it. These things are no longer possible. The glories of that long line of Irving productions, in these days of Trade Union tyranny and mass discipline, can never return.

Perhaps the drama will be none the worse; for these are not essentials - "the Play's the thing" - and the acting. It is partly characteristic of the changed point of view in the matters that, whereas I had spent sixteen hundred pounds on costumes for Arthur, the 'old Vic', where the play was ultimately produced, has staged it complete for fifteen pounds, ten shillings!

Yes; an opportunity had presented itself for its production there, and after Binyon's disappointment I could not say 'No' to the opportunity; besides, I very much wanted to see the play brought to life. It is only then that one can finally judge of its form. Alas! the play was staged at a time when I was travelling and I could not see it, but I had a later chance.

The dramatic section of the London County Council Literary Institute in Drury Lane prayed for permission to give the play, and it was performed there by girls on an occasion when my wife and I were in Town, and very well too. The representation renewed my admiration for Binyon's noble work and confirmed my intention to produce the play whenever the favourable moment can be seized. There is so insignificant a public for such plays in London that it would be courting bankruptcy to stage it there, but that it will be welcomed and supported by an audience in the country I am convinced.

In the midst of these hectic movements I received news of our King's gracious bestowal of the dignity of Knighthood upon me, an honour which he himself had chosen as one which would be equally shared with my wife, in recognition of her long and arduous services during the War.

Elgar's music for the play

Sir Edward Elgar and Laurence Binyon first collaborated in the three-part choral work The Spirit of England. Binyon quickly became a friend and in 1923 asked the composer to write incidental music for the production of Arthur.

In a letter to Binyon the composer wrote in January 1923:
I want to do it but since my dear wife's death [in 1920] I have done nothing & fear my music has vanished ... my wife loved your things & it may be that I can furnish (quite inadequately) music for Arthur.  Can you give me three days more to “try’?
Elgar's score amounted to nearly 90 pages ranging from a few bars to one piece of nearly five minutes. He scored the work for flute (doubling piccolo), clarinet, 2 cornets, trombone, drums, percussion, harp, strings and piano. Elgar drew much of his music from his old sketchbooks. 

The scenes of the play, and Elgar's contributions, are:

Scene 1: Sir Bernard's castle at Astolat

  • Introduction to Scene 1
  • Now you have told me
  • End of Scene 1
End of Scene 1.
Courtesy of the British Library.

Scene 2: A room in the Palace in London: the King and Sir Bedivere

  • Introduction to Scene 2
Introduction to Scene 2.
Courtesy of the British Library.

Scene 3: Sir Bernard's castle at Astolat: Elaine asleep

  • Introduction to Scene 3
  • Put me on the barge
  • Link to Scene 4

Scene 4: The Banqueting Hall at Westminster

  • Introduction to Scene 4
  • Curtain rises
  • And both dangerous
  • It may be
  • The Queen
  • King Arthur’s Fellowship
  • As the King wills
  • The radiant rose
  • Our Queen!
  • Ah false
  • Reading letter

Scene 5: The Queen's Tower at night

  • Introduction to Scene 5
  • No tree was there

Scene 6: The King's Tower, the same night

Scene 7: The King's camp before Joyous Gard and Battle Scene

  • Introduction to Scene 7
  • Go, Lucan, to meet her
  • Thy sword, my life, are yours
  • End of Scene 7

Scene 8: Arthur's passage to Avalon

  • Introduction to Scene 8

In a letter to Binyon after the performances Elgar wrote:
...for theatrical purposes I sh. have like Arthur & all his train to march mistily past, seen through a window on the stage R.
A sentiment with which Martin-Harvey might well have sympathised.

Elgar's Third Symphony

What was the significance to Elgar of the themes which he first used in Arthur and then re-used in his Third Symphony?
  • Elgar's second movement is a scherzo and uses for its main opening section the central section of the introduction to Scene 4 (The Banqueting Hall at Westminster).
  • For the second subject of the final movement of the symphony, Elgar used the theme which appears (in the Hurst recording) at 1' 20" in the introduction to Scene Two (The King and Bedivere). The theme is based on an arpeggio figure and is strongly reminiscent (to me) of the "chivalric" themes of Elgar's old Froissart overture.

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