Skip to content

John Blow, Gustav Holst

Holst: ‘Sāvitri’ / Blow: ‘Venus and Adonis’

1956. Aldeburgh
Sir Charles Mackerras conducts a double bill of Holst's 'Sāvitri' with Blow's 'Venus and Adonis' from Aldeburgh in 1956
Composers John Blow, Gustav Holst
Conductor Sir Charles Mackerras
Singers Heather Harper, Thomas Hemsley, Peter Pears
Ensemble English Opera Group
Genre Opera

Love and death in Aldeburgh, 1956

John Steane

The English Opera Group comes to town

By 1956 the Aldeburgh Festival was in its ninth year and had secured a firm place
in the musical calendar.That place was not central, as the Proms were, the regular
symphony concerts or the annual Messiah: part of the specialness lay in its being, if
not eccentric (deliberate or self-advertising oddity would have been abhorrent to
its critical spirit), then somewhat to the side. It had not the resources for the
Big Event; but neither, very probably, had it the inclination.The 19th century
earth-shakers, the clamour of opera singers, the emotional assault of massed violins
were uncongenial, even repugnant, to a taste which rather rejoiced in the enforced
limitations of parish church and village hall.These after all were perfectly fit for
recitals and chamber music, choral works and, at a pinch, productions by the
English Opera Group.
This year the company was to present a double-bill.Typically, it would draw upon
unfamiliar repertoire, one work from what was then still regarded as the age of
early music, the other modern. At least, John Blow’s Venus and Adonis (c.1680)
had a claim to be regarded as the earliest known English opera, and Holst’s Sa-vitri,
published in 1916, was not yet as distant in years as Peter Grimes is from us now.
The two pieces were effectively yoked by the name of Holst, for Gustav wrote the
one and his daughter Imogen edited the other. It was this affinity that was most
remarked upon by reviewers at the time.
A stronger connection seems to have gone unnoticed. In both operas, the heroine is
confronted by Death who suddenly and before time takes from her the man she
loves.The difference between them is that Venus laments and Sa-vitri takes action.
She is a woman of strong character and serious commitment.The Venus of Blow’s opera is hardly that; nor, although she is clearly the precursor of Purcell’s Dido,
does her musical character achieve the emotional depth or artistic height of Dido’s
final solo. Blow himself anticipates his great pupil’s work most clearly in the final
chorus,‘Mourn for thy servant’, where the part-writing has a concentrated
intensity worthy of his own Salvator mundi. And Blow is not without dramatic
instinct either – he has prepared for the change of mood in Act 3 with the poignant
harmonies of his Sarabande and the solemnity of the Act’s introductory Tune.
Tragic opera or entertainment?
Even so, Aldeburgh’s double-bill moves into deeper waters with its second opera.
Sa-vitri proposes a different kind of engagement.We recall the description of Venus
and Adonis, taken from one of the early manuscripts and quoted in the 1956
programme, as ‘A Masque for the entertainment of the King’.The Restoration
Court enjoyed its spectacle, the scenic effects, the dancing, and in this instance no
doubt the pretty putti. Charles’ mistress, Moll Davies, sang Venus, and little Lady
MaryTudor, their ten-year-old daughter, was the Cupid.The libretto contained
lines (‘There is a sort of men who delight in heavy chains’ is commonly cited) of
which those ‘in the know’ might make what they would. All of this somewhat
qualifies the other formal description, of ‘Tragic Opera’: more essentially, in its
own time at least, it was an ‘entertainment.

The story of Sāvitri
There is, of course, a danger with Sāvitri that it may not, in the commonly
accepted sense of the term,‘entertain’ at all. Just over half an hour long, it contains
little stage-action; the chorus sing wordlessly off-stage, much of the music moves at
a moderate pace and there are only three characters.The chamber orchestra is
limited to double string quartet, double bass, two flutes and cor anglais. Such
spareness suggests perhaps a kind of operatic Samuel Beckett. And indeed Sāvitri
does haunt the mind in its private quiet after the event, a sure understanding and even retention in detail proving elusive.The story is simple, drawn from Sanskrit
folklore, but its implications, its ‘truths’, are felt to be mystical. Looked at in a
cold, clear light, the fable is not really very satisfactory.The woman bargains with
Death and her dead husband comes back to life. But the bargain is based on a
syllogistic trick. Death promises to give what she desires as long as it is not her
husband’s life. She asks for the gift of life, which Death somewhat wonderingly
grants. She then claims that an essential constituent of this gift is her husband’s life,
for she has no life without him. Death, evidently no logician, cannot find an answer
to this, and the dead man is revived. One might object that anyway this is merely
playing games with the serious matter of the human condition, and that the story,
whatever its impressive origins and mystical pretension, is a piece of indulgent
sentimentality. Fortunately, that does not dispose of the opera.

The music of Sāvitri
For we have been thinking of Sāvitri without its music, and (though much modern
writing on opera might suggest otherwise) that is not a valid possibility.The opera
begins with the spare gravity of unaccompanied voices. Michael Kennedy has noted
an affinity with Britten’s church parables, and an effect of this opening of Sa-vitri is
to suggest something of the timelessness of the parable.The music creates in Sāvitri
herself a woman with the strength of inner calm and (remarkably achieved in so
short a space) a wonderfully complete sensibility, the great depth of her emotions
not precluding the prompt use of an alert intelligence. In retrospect, memory of
the opera is dominated by Sāvitri’s song: ‘I am with thee… making it a thing of joy
beyond all other joys’. As the opera progresses, the initially bare score warms and
blossoms.The first impression may be of a musical and emotional austerity; that
certainly is not the last.

Singers then and listeners now
And it is with a grateful sense of musical and emotional warmth that we hear now
this sound recaptured from more than 50 years ago.There will be listeners – and,
let us hope, a healthy number of them – to whom these singers were familiar, their
voices quickly recognisable now, their presences taking substance in the memory.
Some will even have been present on this very occasion. Of the artists who were
young then a number are still with us, and what thoughts they will have if they
listen again to these performances from so long ago!
On the whole, their efforts were well received.The sheer enterprise of the
formulation could hardly fail to have gained applause. Both operas were littleknown,
though Venus and Adonis had recently been recorded (under Anthony Lewis)
and Sāvitri had had occasional revivals over the years since its first public
performance, Arthur Bliss conducting, Dorothy Silk in the name-part, at the Lyric
Hammersmith in 1921. Both works had gained a kind of textbook respectability,
which can be deadly.Their promotion, combining youthful enthusiasm and
freshness with meticulous professionalism, itself deserved praise.
Stage production appears to have been tasteful and effective, though the Cupids in
Venus and Adonis amused some in the audience more than they did most of the
critics (William Mann, writing in Opera, remarked ‘If you have little girls yourself,
you can do without arch capering’). From behind the scenes came reports of
trouble with Thomas Hemsley’s Adonis costume (the costume mistress complained
‘He’s not only pregnant, he’s carrying high’) and after that had been remedied The
Times found him ‘strangely disguised so as to suggest a caricature of Mr Liberace’.
Duncan Grant’s decor, Michael Northen’s lighting, and Clifford Williams’
production of Sa-vitri (‘simply but beautifully conceived’) all won approval.

Of the singers Hemsley was most consistently praised and the two leading women
were the most closely discussed. Listening now to the recording, one may feel that
Heather Harper was somewhat under-appreciated and Arda Mandikian judged
more favourably possibly on account of her presence and her acting.We gather that,
as a result, Harper suffered in Britten’s estimation for several years until saving the
day, and doing so magnificently, when she substituted for Galina Vishnevskaya in the
first performance of the War Requiem. An occasional flutter of vibrant tone affects
the definition of a few notes, but the voice itself is fresh and of lovely quality and
she sings expressively with a just estimate of the appropriate emotional range:
One would think that to attentive ears there was no mistaking the potential.
By contrast, Mann found ‘an aura of glory’ in the Greek soprano’s Sa-vitri, the voice
produced ‘with firmness and flexibility’.The recording supports that
intermittently, and certainly the flashes of defiance are impressive. But there is a
hardness too, and she does not catch the generosity of a full heart in the song as
some other singers of the part have done. Incidentally, I believe that in Athens
Mandikian had a class-mate in those days named Maria Kaloperopoulou – and what
a Sāvitri she could have made!
Her fellow Greek in the company at Aldeburgh, the diminutive Maria Zeri,
scored a great success with the audience. Peter Pears was a distinguished Satyavan,
and the work of the chorus did not go unremarked. And throughout both operas
we feel the invigorating touch of the young Mackerras.The players of the English
Opera Group orchestra never let him down, or (presumably) he them. In this
confined, unsparing acoustic any fluffed note or neglectful phrasing would tell;
and none ever does.

© John Steane, 2009

Gustav Holst (1874–1934)


Tracks 1 – 19 

John Blow (1649-1708)

Venus and Adonis

Tracks 20 – 39

  1.  Introduction by Imogen Holst
  2. Sāvitri! Sāvitri! I am Death
  3. Greeting to thee, my loving Sāvitri
  4. The forest is to me a mirror
  5. Love to the lover
  6. Once I knew Maya
  7. Sāvitri! Sāvitri!
  8. I am with thee
  9. Sāvitri! Sāvitri! I am Death
  10. Welcome, Lord
  11. Thine is the holiness
  12. Then enter, Lord
  13. Give me life
  14. Death, the Just One
  15. Loneliness and pain are ended
  16. Sāvitri! Is it thou?
  17. Unto his kingdom
  18. I am with thee
  19. Announcer
  20. Introduction by Alec Robertson
  21. Overture: Maestoso – Allegro – Tempo primo
  22. Act Tune: Lento
  23. Venus! Adonis!
  24. Hark, hark, the rural music sounds
  25. Come follow, follow, follow
  26. Dance
  27. Act Tune: Allegretto
  28. You place with such delightful care
  29. Choose the formal fool
  30. Dance of Cupids
  31. Call, call the Graces
  32. Dances of The Graces
  33. Act Tune: Sostenuto
  34. Adonis, uncall’d-for sighs
  35. Ah, I could well endure the pointed dart
  36. Ah! Adonis my love
  37. With solemn pomp
  38. Mourn for thy servant
  39. Announcer

This recording was made at performances at the Jubilee Hall, Aldeburgh on June 15 and 18 1956.

Re-mastering by Roger Beardsley.

The recording is from the Harewood Collection in Music Preserved.

  • Savitri
    Arda Mandikian
  • Satyavan
    Peter Pears
  • Death
    Thomas Hemsley
  • Venus
    Heather Harper
  • Adonis
    Thomas Hemsley
  • Cupid
    Maria Zeri
  • The English Opera Group
  • Sir Charles Mackerras

Browse the collection

Music Preserved offers you the choice of listening to many of the rare, historically and artistically interesting recordings in its collection.