Wise after the Event
Predominantly comic music theatre piece for soprano and baritone soloists, 2 trumpeters (doubling as occasional chorus/spoken parts) and pianist/speaker.duration: 34'00"
published by: Composer
Commissioned for London City Churches Week, October 1987, and first performed by the composer (pianist/speaker) with members of the Wren Consort. The piece tells the cautionary tale of Michael Wise, composer and sometime Organist of Salisbury Cathedral, having originally marked the tercentenary of his death. For information regarding the score of this work please visit the Contact page of this site. ‘Wise after the Event’.
In the small hours between the 24th and 25th of August, 1687, a furious altercation occurred between one Michael Wise, Organist at the Cathedral Church in the Diocese of Sarum, and Mrs Wise, his spouse. Master Wise’s bibulous career had, it appears, already earned him a reputation for what an Episcopal Visitation in 1683 identified with lapidary disapproval as ‘profanity, drunkenness and other excesses in his life and conversation’. On this later occasion, such mildly deplorable propensities were to conjure his undoing. Much the worse for a lengthy sojourn in a local alehouse, Wise ended the disagreement with his wife by rushing away down the street, declaring loudly that he would there assault and slay the first person whom he might encounter. This proved unfortunate, inasmuch as the prospective victim thus presented for his homicidal attentions proved to be an Officer of the Watch, armed with an exceedingly solid billhook. In the words of the celebrated contemporaneous scholar, Anthony Wood, the murderous composer was himself ‘knocked on the head and killed downright by the Night Watch at Salisbury for giving stubborn and refractory language to them’. His place of burial, like that of a rather more celebrated Austrian composer just over a century later, remains unknown. When, in 1987, Martin Elliott (Artistic Director of the Wren Consort) approached me with a commission to write a piece for London City Churches Week, I was cheerfully informed that An Organist Of Repute had been asked to suggest a composer likely to become inspired by the theme of Drink. The said organist had barely hesitated, -so would I do it? Armed thus with a grievance against the organ-playing world at large and at one of its number in particular (now fixed in my mind as the O.O.R.), I began to seek out a suitable subject… When all else had failed and I was beginning to be worried, the cautionary tale of Michael Wise presented itself after my mother had asked whether 1987 offered any propitious centenaries. Not only did it rise admirably to the challenge of ‘getting one back’ at the mysterious O.O.R; it also threw to the surface several felicitous touches. Wise expired in the early hours of the 25th of August, -my own birthday. …Reincarnation??? The thought was distinctly uncomfortable. Then a rummage in the British Museum exhumed a once-famous song or round by Wise entitled Old Chiron, the words of which take on a curiously prophetic resonance in relation to its composer’s fate: Chiron, tutor to the young Achilles, foretells his pupil’s death beneath the hostile walls of Troy, but bids him therefore drink to his heart’s content, since what the gods have ordained can be neither averted, on the one hand, nor hastened, on the other. Such a philosophy very probably appealed to Master Wise, who could hardly know that, having drunk his fill for many years, one day he himself would lie slain beneath the rather homelier walls of Old Sarum (one may be forgiven for indulging the fancy in a less than strictly accurate parallel). Finally, there is a pleasing near-consonance between Chiron and the proprietor of the ‘Stygian ferry’ invoked at the end of Wise’s song, who answered to the name Charon. It began to seem that Wise after the Event had in some sense been predestined. For the sake of an acceptable story I have indulged in a little make-believe, whereby, when Wise meets his Nemesis, he is interrupted in the process of composing some new and wondrous air. In the absence of any such material or circumstance, I have enlisted Old Chiron, which makes a number of fragmented appearances in the course of the piece. The ‘argument’, then, is as follows: 1. After a slow ‘symphony’ (in the old, Purcellian sense) which scarcely deviates from the general style of the English late 17th century, a Vivace leads us straight into a vocal duet introducing Wise and commenting unflatteringly upon the formidable personage to whom he finds himself conjoined in largely unholy matrimony. The style has by now begun to fluctuate deliberately between the sounds of Wise’s day and something noticeably more contemporary. The singers digress to introduce a modern confrère of Wise’s, discovered at his piano and attempting to respond to a dubious commission which has come his way from a sinister organisation calling itself The Wren Consortium. 2. The modern composer is stuck. In his tortured imagination arise dreams of the avant-garde masterpiece which he had hoped to create; but these run amok, tormenting him and compelling him to banish them from his mind. A fragment of a tune in an older style keeps returning to him unbidden; this is, of course, our first encounter with Old Chiron. Wondering aloud what manner of thing it can be and whence it has come, our composer begins to accompany it on the piano. The shade of Wise now materialises, genie-like, from behind the instrument. The modern composer’s abode was once that of the Wise ménage, he announces to his astounded counterpart, and he has been summoned by the strains of his own unfinished work; until it is complete, his immortal rest must be denied. Wise proceeds to tell his sorry tale, rudely ordering the affronted modern composer to accompany him as he does so. 3. We are taken to an inn where Wise is attempting with some determination to achieve blessed forgetfulness of his appalling trouble-and-strife. After an increasingly brainless drinking song (fairly randomly enhanced by vocal and other contributions from all the performers), Wise falls insensible upon the ground, but through the mists of oblivion his guardian Muse somehow manages to breathe sweet strains upon his musicianly inner ear. Upon waking, he is possessed by the desire to write down what he remembers, and sets off hastily for home. 4. Arriving at his front door and finding it locked, Wise disturbs his lady wife, who has long since retired to her (single) bed. She appears upon the balcony above, berates him for his drunkenness, refuses to admit him and eventually inverts a loaded chamber pot above the hapless miscreant. In a delirium of fury, Wise storms off into the darkness for his fatal assignation with the trusty billhook… 5. Wise lies slain in the first light of a Wiltshire dawn. The Muse laments over him before departing in sorrow back to Parnassus. Now the wondrous song may never be heard, …unless the modern composer will consent to take it down and implement it within his own unfinished piece? Wise threatens that, unless he submit to this proposal, the modern composer may expect to find himself haunted throughout eternity, saecula saeculorum, Amen, by the shade of Mrs Wise. Knowing a good deal when he hears one, the modern composer responds with the comment that, seeing he was stuck anyway, he might as well write whatever wretched tune he can get his hands on. The bargain is struck. Hands are shaken across the centuries (an image once happily coined by Gerald Finzi about the setting of 17th century poets). Wise at last wins his heart’s desire and, with it, hisquietus. There follows… 6. A finale in which tedious moralising about the evils of the demon drink fade into a reasonably complete apotheosis of Old Chiron and the respective styles of the two composers are more or less fused into one acceptable language. After a final and, perhaps, inevitable reminder that ’tis folly to be Wise, the piece ends riotously in general rejoicing. For its text (a bizarre gallimaufry of debased pentameters, hopeless puns and sundry rantings) this modernday composer bears entire responsibility, except in the case of a few redeeming lines from Chiron.