The Fire Worshippers (published 1892), a dramatic cantata for solo voices chorus and orchestra, is written ambitiously by the hand of then student-composer Granville Bantock. As a piece that is derived from Thomas Moore’s oriental romance Lalla Rookh (1817), Bantock modernises the musical response to the story and establishes a great force into the music.
Bantock is a prolific composer who constantly changes his musical language in an unrecognisable manner. However, the Wagnerian compositional style remains as the main influence in Bantock which can be identified in The Fire Worshippers. Compared with songs based on Lalla Rookh that came out within a few years of Moore’s 1817 poem (for example, “‘Twas his own voice” by Sir John Stevenson), Bantock’s work shares little or no similarities. The piece is more elaborate and is written in a concert style. It is not difficult to observe the gestures from all voices; Bantock clearly drew on the strength of each character in the vocal parts. Like most late romantic pieces, The Fire Worshippers is richly orchestrated and involves notably wide-ranging melodic lines.
It is interesting to see how the musical response to Lalla Rookh develops. Composers are working with the same story-line, but it encourages different interpretations as the nineteenth century progresses. What used to be a soothing type of storytelling now becomes dramatic. Having a huge orchestra boosts every dramatic moment more effectively. To name an example, in Scene Five, when Hinda (an Arab princess in war-torn Persia, depicted by a soprano) cries ‘No rest for me, while danger’s nigh,’ the music suddenly becomes very loud with a more urgent tempo marking ‘Molto Andante’ (from the preceding ‘Largo’). The percussion offers a forceful sound on top of the thick texture achieved by strings, woodwinds and brass.
The demand in this piece is very high — as a multi-movement cantata for chorus, vocal soloists and orchestra, it is quite lengthy and substantial as compared with the short songs written for piano and voice that Moore’s poem inspired in the 1810s and ’20s. The first review of the Overture to The Fire Worshippers as performed at the Royal Academy of Music, London, simply praised Bantock’s modern interpretation of the story for being “bold, and the orchestration picturesque” The Fire Worshippers by Bantock displays vivid images through his compositional technique and orchestration. He offers a good representation of Moore’s story, entering into its ambience and variety, perhaps in a more convincing manner than Moore’s immediate contemporaries managed to do.
Bantock, Granville, The Fire Worshippers, Novello’s original octavo edition, London: Novello & Company Limited, 1892 (Score accessed 10th April 2017).
“Royal Academy of Music.” The Musical Times and Singing Class Circular 32.575 (1 January 1891): 23.
Editor’s note: in May 2017, as part of the lunch series in Music at Queen’s University Belfast, Daniel performed a recitative as Fadladeen from the 1877 cantata Lalla Rookh (W.G. Wills, text, and Frederic Clay, music).
Lalla Rookh, Fadladeen, and Feramors as depicted by Richard Westall and Charles Heath (Longmans, 1817). Image courtesy of Special Collections, McClay Library, Queen’s University Belfast.
Performing a character is always a very subjective affair. The same character may be interpreted and portrayed variously by different people based upon how they perceive the character’s intentions, actions and overall importance to the plot. The presence of effective characterisation, like many things, often goes unnoticed until it isn’t there at all. With the ability to completely alter the way in which an audience perceives and experiences a story-line, effective characterisation is one of the most important aspects of performance in theatre, musical theatre and opera.
The character of Fadladeen is a very complex one. Portraying the ‘Great Nazir or Chamberlain of the Haram’ may at first appear simple as you need only be pompous and commanding in character, but if a fully rounded and three-dimensional character is desired then this simply cannot be the case.
“You must learn to be three people at once: writer, character, and reader.”
Nancy Kress tells us that in order to become the character, the performer must also become the writer and audience. I believe this means that in the portrayal of a character the performer must consider the writer’s intentions for the character, the character’s own possible intentions based upon the interpreted personality and the audience’s expectations of the character. Doing so allows the performer to tailor their portrayal to be complementary to the writer’s concept, believable to the character (as written) and pleasing to the audience.
A good place to begin dissecting the character of Fadladeen would be to consider Moore’s description of him.
‘Fadladeen was the judge of every thing, – from the penciling of a Circassian’s eyelids to the deepest questions of science and literature; from the mixture of a conserve of rose-leaves to the composition of an epic poem … His political conduct and opinions were founded upon that line of Sadi, -“Should the Prince at noon- day say, it is night, declare that you behold the moon and stars.”’
This description provided by Moore doesn’t do much to alter the preconceived idea of how Fadladeen should appear or act but rather reinforces the idea of a commanding figure, a man of high stature that commands the stage when he takes to it. Moore does, however, suggest him to be a fiercely loyal character, an aspect which helps to add more depth and possibly context to him and his thought processes.
If we take Fadladeen’s first solo recitative from the Frederic Clay (music) and W. G. Wills (text) adaption of Lalla Rookh as an example, we can see that Moore’s idea of character comes through in the rhythmic structuring of the music: a lot of emphasis on the strong beats of the music creates a very commanding feel. This style and ‘feel’ commands the audience’s attention. A frequent use of dotted rhythms in the vocal line helps the performer to understand which syllables should be emphasised as this kind of rhythm naturally creates a more accentuated down beat as seen in fig 1.
Frederic Clay’s recitative for Fadladeen, with dotted rhythms creating a strong musical character
The second task to portraying Fadladeen is to consider how he as a character may think and how this effects and helps shape the decisions he makes throughout. We know from Moore’s description that he is a very commanding and loyal figure, but if we study how he speaks and interacts with Lalla Rookh, it isn’t hard to notice that he is also very protective of her–whether this be through fierce loyalty to her father or through compassion towards her, this new dynamic to his character can be vital in the effective realisation of it. Considering his recitative in the Clay adaption once again, when Fadladeen says “Be it my care to wile away thy pain” (to Lalla Rookh), this suggests that he is not simply the commanding figure originally outlined by Moore.
The final task is to consider the expectation of the audience with a figure such as Fadladeen. While Fadladeen has been recognised as a rare English portrayal of a figure who faithfully reflects Persian society (Trench, 1934), it has also been pointed out that he adds a touch of humour to the story (Rao, unknown). It can be found that characters such as Fadladeen usually require even a small bit of humour to keep them from becoming too monotonous. This humour I believe is best found in the small musical ironies within his part in the Clay adaption. As seen in fig 2. Fadladeen sings the word ‘elevate’ as the vocal line drops an octave, an irony that would not go unnoticed by a character, with a capacity to pay such immense attention to detail, such as Fadladeen.
Clay’s use of musical irony in Fadladeen’s recitative
With all these factors considered it is then up to the performer to absorb the information and work out what these different traits mean to them and how that will effect their physical and musical portrayal of the Great Nazir or Chamberlain of the Haram, Fadladeen.