Malcolm Hill: The Villeins’ Song

Caroline Heaton wrote The Villeins’ Song, together with Afterword to bring “the audience’s attention to the present day issues of justice and liberty (and their opposites) inherent in the first two pieces. I had in mind, too, the charity you have so appropriately chosen.”

The piece opens with a preface from Bracton’s Laws and Customs of England in the 13th Century. Then all of Caroline Heaton’s poem is sung by a soprano soloist, accompanied by a movable string drone on either hurdy-gurdy or viola. Part of the text:

“We are in the margins of your Breviary,

Villeins, we tend our half virgate

at fee from the manor, our labour,

our person, both bound in tenancy –

even our families un-free.

Overlooked in the Great Ones’ Charter

save as source of revenue,

we find our liberty elsewhere,

in nature’s fickle bounty:

but we read the great Book of the Seasons

and are written there, in the hedgerows

marking the fields, in the plough lines

our oxen inscribe, in the rich loam.”

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Malcolm Hill : The Walrus and the Carpenter (2005)

A school-friend of Malcolm Hill was abused by a local clergyman and the church authorities tried to cover up the incident – this led the boy and his very wealthy family to distrust all church authorities – they became active Quakers. In response to this injustice, when in 2005 Malcolm read Sir Shane Leslie’s anti-cleric interpretation of the two Alice books, he was keen to promote this aspect in a series of ‘warped cantatas’. While the chorus in a traditional cantata will tend to sing commentaries on the soloists’ main text, Malcolm Hill gives the story to the choir, and soloists are used as ‘erudite footnotes’. Just as the two Alice books contain numerous quotations, which are frequently slightly amended, so the composition includes many musical references to other compositions.

The main plot of this work is that Tum and Twee are about to fight over a ruined rattle, but are interrupted when a monstrous crow is seen. They then launch into one of their favorite songs, The Walrus and the Carpenter. This is commented on by a Minstrel, then the Dweedles return. Having found that the rattle had not been ruined, they again prepare to do battle. Erudite footnotes frequently and irregularly interrupt the work, which finishes with an improvised, multi-texted ensemble and the sighting of the monstrous crow.

The main text comes from Looking Glass, chapter 4, verses 3-12, 16-18.