Paganism as subject matter is nothing new. You could almost say that it never died out as a musical topic used by composers. You only have to think of Monteverdi’s Orfeo, Mozart’s Magic Flute, or Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld.
In the twentieth century, this paganist subject matter became a ripe hunting ground for composers trying to give a new slant to the more modernist tendencies of their music, or trying to create an otherworldly soundscape devoid of any Christian overtones; Rutland Boughton’s The Immortal Hour, Arnold Bax’s The Garden of Fand, Joseph Holbrooke’s The Birds of Rhiannon, Claude Debussy’s Syrinx and of course the two great masterpieces, Igor Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe.
There are, of course, numerous other examples throughout musical history to be explored. In the post-war years many composers dealt with the realities of their world or, if they did go into other aspects of life, focussed more on the psychological side of things, leaving pagan subject matters alone. That is, except for the British composer Michael Tippett who, with his first opera The Midsummer Marriage, combined psychological themes with paganism; ritual alongside the essence of nature to be found in the British landscape.
Tippett was born in 1905 and died in 1998. His was a talent that was slow to develop, unlike his precocious friend Benjamin Britten. Tippett’s music was unique and solid whilst being luxuriantly rich with a clarity that few composers have attained in the 20th or 21st centuries. He was gaoled for three months during the Second World War for his pacifist beliefs that remained with him throughout his life. This affected his eyesight due to the sewing of postal bags whilst detained in prison. His most famous works include Child of Our Time, Concerto for Double String Orchestra, The Midsummer Marriage, The Knot Garden, Symphony No.2, Symphony No.4 and Concerto for Orchestra.
Like many composers in Britain during the 1950’s to 60’s, he extracted music from his operas that could be played separately in the concert hall, in sets of dances or interludes such as with Britten’s Four Sea Interludes taken from Peter Grimes. In Tippett’s case he extracted a set of dances that played an integral part in the opera, breaking the time of the incidents into separate sections with connotations that ran along the same lines as the opera, dealing with the passing of the months and seasons; the year in nature. This linked into the pre-Christian pagan theme and overall concept that runs throughout the opera, as well as the psychological ideas of Jung that tap into the concepts of male and female.
The story of The Midsummer Marriage was consciously modelled on Mozart’s The Magic Flute and both trace the pathway to marriage of one ‘royal’ and one ‘common’ couple: Jenifer and Mark correspond to Pamina and Tamino the royals, while the very earthy Jack and Bella correspond to Papageno and Papagena. The character King Fisher stands as the Queen of the Night, and the characters of the Ancients for Sarastro and his priests. With Mozart these are all based on pagan characters found in legend and myth as well as Masonic ideals.
Tippett’s first inspiration for the work was visual. He recalled imagining a pagan image of “a wooded hilltop with a temple, where a warm and soft young man was being rebuffed by a cold and hard young woman to such a degree that the collective, magical archetypes take charge – Jung’s ideas of the Anima and Animus”.
The character of Sosostris is named after Madame Sosostris, the famous clairvoyant in T.S.Eliot’s poem The Waste Land, which itself uses pagan and ritual imagery to convey its diverse concepts and ideas. King Fisher’s name is inspired by the Fisher King character mentioned in the same poem. The opera combines elements of psychology, philosophy, paganism with the concept of earthly and heavenly relationships and the way ideas become abrasive to others as they pass through the characters during the opera.
Of the four Ritual Dances extracted from the opera, three are from Act II and each has a male and female component tying it into the pagan ideas of masculine and feminine earth deities and their interactions within nature. Here, they are represented by the ancient imagery associated with such ideas. Female animals (hound, otter and hawk) are shown hunting male animals (hare, fish and bird), with each respective dance associated with its own element and season: “The Earth in Autumn”; “The Waters in Winter”; and “The Air in Spring”. This once again firmly ties into the concepts of Gaia, or Mother Earth and Nature as a living thing that we pass through; a pre-Christian belief in the world around us. The climactic fourth dance from Act III, “Fire in Summer”, symbolises rebirth and human love, and is performed before the characters of Mark and Jenifer, representing the Masculine and Feminine that have become a united whole allowing the world to continue.
With these strong psychological ideas of masculine and feminine combined with nature, Tippett was not eschewing the modern tendency to belittle these old beliefs but to accept them and re-present them in a vibrant modern way within his own musical and dramatic language. This gives them new life, reinvigorating them for an audience in a modern world of multilayered concepts and emotions which, when combined with our cultural history, resonates with each and every one of us.
This article contains many links to the works and movements mentioned, take some time to fully explore the background to the subject and the diverse range of music and sound worlds created.