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*8 Oct 1953 London
Robert Saxton was born in London in 1953 and started composing at the age of six. Guidance in early years from Benjamin Britten and Elisabeth Lutyens was followed by periods of study at both Cambridge and Oxford Universities with Robin Holloway and Robert Sherlaw Johnson respectively, and also with Luciano Berio. He won the Gaudeamus International Composers prize in Holland at the age of twenty one. In 1986 he was awarded the Fulbright Arts Fellowship to the USA, where he was in residence at Princeton and was assistant to Oliver Knussen at Tanglewood. In 1995 he co-directed the composers' course on Hoy, with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. He has directed the composers' course at Dartington International Music Festival on several occasions and was artistic director of Opera Lab. He has also been a regular member of the BBC TV 4 (digital) Proms broadcasting commentary team and was a member of the South Bank Centre board for nine years.
Robert Saxton has written works for the BBC (TV, Proms and Radio), LSO, LPO, ECO, London Sinfonietta, Nash Ensemble, Chilingirian String Quartet, St Paul Chamber Orchestra (USA), Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival/Opera North, Aldeburgh, Cheltenham, City of London, Three Choirs and Lichfield Festivals, Stephen Darlington and the choir of Christ Church Cathedral Oxford, Susan Milan, Susan Bradshaw and Richard Rodney Bennett, Edward Wickham and The Clerks’ Group, Teresa Cahill, Leon Fleisher, Steven Isserlis, Mstislav Rostropovich, John Wallace and the Raphael Wallfisch and John York duo.
Robert Saxton was Head of Composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (1991-97) and Head of Composition and Contemporary Music at the Royal Academy of Music from 1998-99. He is currently Professor of Composition and Tutorial Fellow in Music at Worcester College at the University of Oxford and is a Trustee of the Mendelssohn/Boise Foundation. He became a DMus at Oxford in 1992. His music from 1972 until 1998 was published by Chester/Music Sales and, since then, by the University of York Music Press and Ricordi. Recordings have appeared on the Sony Classical, Hyperion, Metier, EMI , NMC and Divine Art labels.
Robert Saxton’s "Quartet No. 3" was commissioned by the South Bank Centre, London and premiered by the Arditti Quartet in May 2011. He will write a song cycle for the Oxford Lieder Festival for 2012. His radio opera, "The Wandering Jew", was released on NMC in June 2011.
He is married to the soprano, Teresa Cahill.
Music by Robert Saxton is published by Chester Music, UYMP and Ricordi.
(Biography July 2011)
The Wandering Jew · [2000/10]
Radio Opera in Eight Scenes
Libretto: Robert Saxton
Chor SATB / 3 (Picc). 3 (Eh). 3 (Bkl). 3 (Kfg). / 4. 3. 3. 1. / Pk. Schlzg. Hf. Cel. / Str. / Stage Band: Kl. Vl. Tamb (Tabor).
Eine Bühnenrealisation ist ebenfalls möglich / A staged version is also possible
Uraufführung: 7.7.2010, London (BBC)
Sy. 4103 // *Part. / Kla. Sti.
String Quartet No. 3 · [2009-11]
World premiere: London, 10 May 2011
Duration: 17 min.
Sy. 4181 *Part. / *Sti.
I had always wanted to write an 'epic' /fantasy opera and was initially inspired by the East German (Jewish) author, Stefan Heym's 'The Wandering Jew', which is a political satire on the mediaeval legend about the Jerusalem shoemender who refused rest to Jesus when the latter was on his way to Golgotha. Jesus condemned him to wander until the Second Coming and, once I had read Heym's version, I made my own scenario. The essence of my (radio) opera is a meeting between the Wandering Jew and Jesus in a Nazi death camp during WW2; they become reconciled (as they are both 'condemned' Jews). Jesus blessing the dead camp inmates (who form a chorus of ghosts) and explaining to the Wandering Jew that he is his witness on earth. The opera spans 2,000 years, ranging from the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple by the Romans in 70AD to the Holocaust in the 20th century; the Wandering Jew has many adventures, meeting Faust and Mephistopheles, Kundry (his female counterpart who features prominently in Wagner's 'Parsifal') and Odin [Wotan] who is undergoing his own process of crucifixion and rebirth, as well as taking part in his own life story on a strolling players' cart during the Carnival of Venice. Wagner was fascinated by the legend, and 'The Flying Dutchman' is related to it.
Apart from reconciliation and forgiveness, the opera examines the nature of Time and Reality; the legendary aspects of the drama are psychologically more 'real' and eternal and enduring than the historical elements.
I am Jewish (with one Christian grandparent) and am married to a Roman Catholic; I also sense strongly my 'mixed heritage': Polish/Russian/Lithuanian/Dutch Jewish ancestry combined with a profound love of the uniqueness of British democracy, basic tolerance and the inspiring English visionary tradition from late Shakespeare, the Metaphysical poets, via Blake and Turner to Vaughan Williams, Tippett, my own teacher Elisabeth Lutyens and Stanley Spencer.
I began to sketch ideas in 1984 and continued writing the opera intermittently. Nicholas Kenyon, as Controller of Radio 3 (before he went to the Proms) commissioned it for the BBC in the 1990s. I accepted the commission for radio because, as Nicholas Kenyon indicated, radio is the perfect medium for flexibility of location, changing sound worlds (in terms of presentation) and is ideal for the imaginary faculties of the listener.
The Wandering Jew took so long to write (over 10 years) because not only did I change teaching jobs three times during the composition of it (two of these involving heading conservatoire departments prior to my current post at Oxford University), but also because I was revising/re-thinking many aspects of my compositional technique and grammar, and this took a long time, involving writing various 'satellite' pieces along the way.
"Drawing on a wide range of influences from his Jewish roots to the relationship between mathematical and music principles... his considerable technique and imagination make for writing of compelling melody (though not always in the conventional sense) and of richly organic background texture." The Observer
[English translation is currently not available]
Scene 1(a): A death camp during WW2; prisoners sing the psalm ‘By the waters of Babylon we wept’, The WJ, as (undying) observer speaks to the audience, explaining that he cannot help/save them.
Scene 1(b): flashback to 70AD; Jerusalem; rebellion against Roman rule. The WJ is asked by a Roman soldier which rebel group he is with. The WJ now becomes part of the ‘real-time’ action, and is ‘killed’ by the soldier. The chorus sing s lament/chorale over his ‘dead’ body. When all is quiet, and the Temple burns, the WJ rises and leaves destroyed Jerusalem behind.
Scene 2: The desert; it is night. The WJ, alone, communes with the Angels of Conscience, who persuade him to continue his journey (in good spirits).
Scene 3: Cordoba, Spain, 11th century: The WJ comes upon a Passover (‘mirroring’ Easter in Scene 6) service in the synagogue. As always, he is ‘greeted’ as a stranger. One elderly congregant invites him to his house for the Passover meal (a tradition which survives to this day). The WJ accepts, and after dinner, sings the two grandchildren of the old man a ballad; the latter is the story of the WJ (to date, 1,000 year old). The young widowed mother and the WJ go outside into the olive grove, and sing a love duet. She asks the WJ why he must leave; he (enigmatically) explains that he does not want to witness those he loves die (as he must, inevitably, in his ‘eternal’ state). The young mother accuses him of having drunk too much Passover wine, and she falls asleep under an olive tree. The WJ leaves…
Scene 4: Auerbach’s Cellar, Leipzig, early 16th century: The WJ meets Faust and Mephistopheles, who enter the cellar for a drink. They all ‘know’ one another and reflect upon their respective fate(s). Suddenly, Kundry (the female counterpart to the WJ) appears, and dances wildly, eventually fainting. After Faust and the WJ have ‘compared notes’ further, Kundry is revived by them, and the four ( in Goethe, of course, only 2 characters) fly out of the cellar on a barrel.
Scene 5: Wild terrain. The barrel deposits Kundry, Faust, Mephistopheles and the WJ in a barren landscape. Hanging from the World Ash Tree (Yggdrasil) by his hair, is the god Odin [Wotan], who is enacting his essential resurrection/re-birth ritual, with a spear in his side. (The point made is that he is a [mortal] god, not the Creator.). Faust and Kundry ask him a series of questions, to which Odin answers. Eventually, Odin gives three (electro-acoustic) cries, separated by exchanges from the Faust, Kundry and Mephistopheles (the WJ is an observer until the close of the scene). After the 3rd cry, Odin’s rite is complete. The WJ, Faust and Kundry sing of their roles as legends, in that they are more real in their (corporeal) unreality than what appears to be real/true.
Scene 6: Early 18th century, Carnival of Venice. Revellers, on-stage band. The WJ sees a beggar who is cold and hungry. He helps him to a church porch, and goes (symbolically) to find bread and wine. (This is retrospectively important as a vital element in Jewish ritual, particularly at Passover [Scene 3], and as the Eucharist, the Last Supper having been a Passover meal). The choir in the church are singing Agnus Dei, but due to the carnival, the church doors are locked, so the beggar (Jesus in disguise) cannot enter.
The WJ returns with the bread and wine for the ‘beggar’, and goes to watch the night revellers. He meets a fortune-teller, and she reads his palm, being amazed by the length of his life-line! He is intrigued by a performance which is about to begin on a cart, its title being The Legend of the Wandering Jew. The showman announces that the actor/mime playing the role is indisposed and, seeing the WJ in the crowd, says he looks right for the part(!) and invites him to come up ‘on stage’. The WJ tries to refuse, but is pushed forward. The performance starts; when Jesus, carrying the cross, asks for rest in the doorway of the WJ’s shop, the latter offers him rest and sustenance. The showman is furious, shouting that this is not the story, and the crowd jeer…the noise increases as the WJ runs for his life…
Scene 7: As Scene 1(a)—the WW2 death camp. All inmates are dead, and form a chorus of ghosts, In front of them is the beggar from over two centuries before. There is a sustained note (sine-wave). The WJ realises that this is Jesus. He asks him if he really is who he thinks he is; Jesus, as at his trial, begins by answering enigmatically, then explains that he had to condemn the WJ, as he needed, and needs, an earthly witness to man’s inhumanity, and that this is not the Second Coming---merely an appearance to his ‘brother’. They sing a duet of reconciliation, before the ‘ghost’ chorus sings: ‘How goodly are thy tents, O Jacob, thy tabernacles, O Israel’. After this, the scene changes to:
Scene 8 (an ‘extra’ scene, going beyond the number ‘7’): The WJ is again in the desert (as in Scene 2), but now it is day. He sees the land of milk and honey before him, and sets off on his eternal wanderings, but at peace with himself. The music fades to the initial ‘note of wandering’ (a syncopated a natural), as though the journey was about to begin again…(this scene represents Sukkot, the Jewish festival of Tabernacles).
Liz Webb Management
3 Morley Close LEWES BN7 1NQ
tel: 01273 470068
Commissioned by the British Broadcasting Corporation for broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 7th July 2010
Duration: 2 hours
Media: Musico-dramatic myth for radio – staging possible
Scoring: Stage band comprising violin, clarinet in Bb,tabor/tambourine, 3/picc.3/Eb & bcl.3/cor a.3/contra. – 4/Wagner tubas.3.3.1, Hp.perc.celesta.timp., 22.214.171.124
Artists: BBC Symphony Orchestra
André de Ridder, conductor
Teresa Cahill (sop), Mother in Cordoba
Hilary Summers (mz), Fortune Teller
Roderick Williams (bar), Wandering Jew
BBC Singers (chorus), camp inmates, revellers, soldiers etc.
Other roles include Jesus / Beggar, Showman, Kundry, Faust, Mephistopheles, Old Man – casting by Gavin Bates and Ann McKay
Producer: BBC Radio 3 – Ann McKay
Sound: Atem Vassiliev (RAM) and Anthony Pitts
Broadcast date: Wednesday 7 July 2010 in Radio 3’s ‘Performance on 3’