Edward II, born in 1284, is the youngest of fourteen or more children of Edward I and his queen, Eleanor of Castile. Edward develops a close relationship with Piers Gaveston, which so troubles his father that Gaveston is sent into exile. When Edward ascends the throne in 1307 on the death of his father, one of his first acts is to recall Gaveston from exile, to the consternation of his young bride Isabella. It is here that the tragedy begins which is to culminate in Edward’s cruel and appalling death at the hands of Isabella and her lover, Mortimer.
Edward II was conceived by the choreographer David Bintley. It was given its premiere (1995) by the adventurous Stuttgart Ballet Company (which had staged Die Fenster in 1980). Like Mary, Queen of Scots, Edward II is in two large acts (each lasting just under an hour) and is based on a historical subject, though in this case derived from Christopher Marlowe's great play, c1590-2, but well known in Germany through Bertolt Brecht's celebrated reworking of it. Each act of the ballet comprises five scenes, held together with a degree of symphonic cohesion unusual in a dance piece. McCabe's mature idiom is powerfully tonal (he originally composed in
a serial style, which he has largely eschewed since the mid-1970s), his often-interrelated themes developed by organic musical processes that help bind the whole score together. Robert Simpson, when justifying his exclusion of Stravinsky from the Pelican symposium, The Symphony (Harmondsworth, 1967), drew a sharp distinction between the symphonic and the balletic. In the former 'the internal activity is fluid, organic', the music growing 'by the interpenetrative activity of all its constituent elements', whereas music for the ballet is 'episodic, sectional. When rhythm and melody are dominant, tonality marks time; when tonality changes, rhythm and melody wait'. One of the most compelling achievements of McCabe's score for Edward II is that it succeeds in both of these seemingly irreconcilable spheres equally well: on the one hand, it is eminently danceable, very rhythmic, full of soaring melody; on the other, its course evolves entirely satisfactorily through purely musical as well as dramatic reasoning.
Notwithstanding the 'interpenetrative activity' of the 'constituent elements', there are still some tremendous set-pieces: the burlesque entertainment in Act I scene 3 devised by Fauvel for the king and his lover, Piers Gaveston; the terrifying dance of the scythe-wielding figure of Death stalking civil-war-torn England in Act 1 scene 4; the surreally colourful court in Act II scene 1 with its very un-Britten-like courtly dances; and Edward's murder in the penultimate scene, portrayed vividly both on stage and in the orchestra. Yet much of the impact of these moments is cumulative, deriving from the place of each one, either as a climax or point of contrast, in the overall scheme of the whole work. It is because the score works as absolute music as well as accompanying the dramatic action, that the climactic point of the entire ballet - Edward's death - is so cathartic, and in turn prepares the swift downfall of Isabella and Mortimer and the new king's deadly retribution.
The heart of this ballet, though, lies in its various solos - such as that expressing the king's heart-rending grief, then fury, at the death of Gaveston at the close of Act I - and particularly the duos, which choreographer and composer have focussed on to carry the essence of the drama. They encapsulate the central relationships: Edward and Gaveston, with perhaps the most sheerly beautiful music in the ballet; Edward and his estranged queen, Isabella, who dance together with exquisite frigidity; Isabella and the rebel leader, Mortimer, who woos and seduces her in three pas de deux of accelerating passions and evil (Act I scene 3, Act II scenes 2 and 4); Edward and his new favourite (following Gaveston's death hunted down by the barons), Hugh Despenser, whose arrival spurs Isabella to revolt; and Edward and Fauvel, the clown who becomes the now deposed king's gaoler and executioner, Lightborn. This last pairing helps parallel the symphonic unity of the score with a veiled recapitulation - as a kind of torment - of the love duet between Edward and Gaveston in Act I.
A notable feature of the music is the persistent resonance of the medieval period. McCabe did carry out research into music of pre-Renaissance times, but of all the various ancient-sounding melodies, like the plainchant dirge that accompanies the funeral of Edward I at the opening and which is reprised for that of Edward II at the close, all but two are of McCabe's own devising (including the opening dirge). The orchestration of the ballet is rich and diverse, calling for a standard symphonic orchestra with triple woodwind (including cor anglais, bass clarinet and double bassoon) and a large array of percussion, plus piano, celesta, harp and electric guitar. Much of the character of the music derives from its telling instrumentation, whether a solo viola to mimic a viol, or the use of brass and drums for the martial elements, or the surreal timbre of the electric guitar to underpin moments of stress and tension. As befits a score set in times of civil unrest, the music abounds in alarums and fanfares, clarion calls and marches, yet there are plenty of delicate effects as well, and some crucial solos for the cello, oboe, cor anglais and trumpet amongst others. Such an ensemble is too large for some theatre orchestra pits, so McCabe has prepared a reduced orchestration for smaller houses, using double woodwind, three rather than four timpani, and incorporating the celesta part into that of that piano.
John McCabe's score is terrific and very well played by the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. ...it must be very rewarding to dance to and is certainly a treat for the ears.
Charlotte Kasner, Ballet Magazine, 15/10/2007
From the outset, it's clear that everything – steps, staging and score – is knitting perfectly. [...] John McCabe's strident but sophisticated score and Jasper Conran's Soho-meets-Agincourt costumes make it feel both medieval and very modern.
Mark Monahan, The Telegraph, 28/09/2007
(Choreographer David) Bintley has a rare gift for bringing characters imaginatively to life on stage and compelling us not only to be fascinated by what they do, but to believe in them as fully rounded people… John McCabe's score for the ballet is not only a superbly dramatic piece of music in its own right, but helps dance and narrative at every point.
Nicholas Dromgoole, The Sunday Telegraph, 01/10/1997
McCabe’s score is strong theatre music, reinforcing the dramatic moods. The Stuttgart audience gave this evening of sex and violence and tremendous dancing a 15-minute ovation on opening night.
John Percival, The Times, 01/04/1995