Tyndale, A Lyric Drama

Tyndale, a lyric drama with libretto by John Stuart Anderson and music by Francis Jackson was first performed on 4 June 1967 in Wymondham Abbey.

Christopher Dexter
June 1967.

Tyndale is an unusual work – in effect a one-act opera in which the main role is allotted to an actor who does not sing. The rest of the characters are enclosed in the chorus, from which they emerge from time to time to take on their solo roles. (This special use of the chorus is not surprising, since the work was commissioned specifically for the Broadland Singers.) The subject is the life and death of William Tyndale (1494?-1536), with particular relevance to his life’s work of translating the New Testament and Pentateuch into English. This act automatically stamped him as a heretic, for which he was strangled and burnt at the stake at Vilvorde by the order of the Emperor Charles V. The story is amazingly complicated, and has required considerable adaptation. For dramatic purposes, all that can be attempted is an impression of one man’s ceaseless struggle to gain a certain end for the good of all his countrymen. Viewed in this light, the story of Tyndale becomes heroic, poignant, and at times amusing – characteristics which have been captured to the full by Francis Jackson’s moving score.

The main theme (Ex 1) begins the work, but, apart from occasional references, lies dormant until the great intensifying of the drama in Scene 10. It is here used for the Bishop of London’s declaration that he will track down Tyndale, now living in hiding in Flanders, and make him ‘a star at the stake’. Sung by masses in unison, it becomes a grotesque portrayal of an opinionated prelate, and makes use of the dotted rhythm and the juxtaposed leaps.

In the first scene, in Cambridge, Tyndale as a student witnesses the burning of Luther’s books. The organ (the composer is at work upon an orchestral version, for about 13 instruments) conveys the bustle and the crackling of the fire; the chorus - ‘He stands now at night in the great square of Cambridge’ – tells the story. Tyndale denounces this ‘murder of minds in the burgeoning reign of Henry the Eighth’, and his determination to leave the university and examine his true vocation is underlined by a bleak soprano recitative.

On the road to Gloucestershire, to take up an appointment as tutor to the children of Sir John Walsh, Tyndale encounters for the first time the elusive voice of the Tempter. The atmosphere is a pastoral E minor. Sopranos and altos call ‘Tyndale…Tyndale’ (Ex 2) and this phrase occurs later, in Scene 7, when the Tempter is heard as a solo tenor.

At Dover Tyndale goes aboard ‘The ship that takes the wind for France’ – a stout, rollicking shanty sung by the full chorus. The great chorus describing the river Rhine, up which Tyndale is presently to travel, is peaceful and gently rippling (Ex 3). After a scene of great conviviality in which Tyndale and the Printer describe, with interjections by the chorus, the publication of the illicit New Testament in English, Tyndale decides to move on to Hamburg, there to learn Hebrew as preparation to an attempt on the fi ve books of Moses. On board, the Tempter reappears to foretell the storm that will destroy the ship. The storm music makes use of a dotted 9/8 rhythm suggesting the hurling of the ship by the waves. At the climax, the words ‘The skies are falling, the trumpet has sounded’ are declaimed summa voce by the Actor over the full volume of the organ. The chorus repeat the single phrase ‘Father, save’ progressively less and less audibly as the ship disappears beneath the waves.

A calm scene ensues while Tyndale, his Pentateuch accomplished, recalls how he was cast up on the bleak shore of Holland. Basses, then tenors, answer him in an unaccompanied monody which later becomes a harmonized recitative for the whole chorus. Tyndale broods on the changes taking place across the sea – the King’s divorce, etc. Thomas Cromwell is ushered on by a commonplace jingle on the words ‘Wolsey’s down, with a ding-dong bell’. In a jerky, pentatonic solo Cromwell announces his determination to be first in attracting the King’s attention (Ex 4). The means he has in mind is the recapture of the recalcitrant priest Tyndale.

As the net closes round Tyndale the harmonic texture becomes sparser, and melody disappears. The Betrayal Narrative, a direct quotation from Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, is carried forward in a form of polyplainsong in chords, or discords, of three notes. Tyndale’s prosecutor (unison tenors) uses a bold recitative over a held pedal note. The words are also chanted, but in organum of two notes, a diminished fi fth apart. Finally the entire chorus whisper, in unison, ‘Tyndale, you are nothing now’ (Ex 5). The Judge (bass) then pronounces sentence on a high C sharp.

Suddenly the bustle of the opening scene is heard again on the organ. The torch is prepared shout the Chorus, There`s rain on the wind. One last chance. Recant! Silence. Then bind his eyes with the black band of death.! Tyndale, at the stake, cries out ‘Into ash My fl esh shall fall: Unto God My soul shall call: Lord, open thou the King of England’s eyes’.

Chorus and organ then declaim, tutta forza, Ex 2. Tyndale dies. The music subsides, and in the distance from beyond death Tyndale hears this earthly declamation. The final scene is all solace and peace, and Tyndale expresses wonder at his new experience. Finally, in a rich E major eight-part texture, the Chorus sings:

The plough who follows His team down the furrow, Shall sing as he goes The psalms of King David: Shall know in his heart The word of salvation, The word of beginning.

It is impossible in a short introduction to convey more than a hint of the richness and variety of this score, which is intensely dramatic and yet seems to have caught something of the fl avour of the great English choral tradition. To those who know Francis Jackson’s compositions – not only those for organ, but his St Cecilia anthem Sound the trumpet in Sion, and his monodrama Daniel in Babylon – it will come as no surprise that he has at last written his fi rst lyric drama. It will surely not be the last.

Editor’s Note
I am grateful to Andrew Youdell of the British Film Institute for bringing to my attention this article by Christopher Dexter which fi rst appeared in the ‘Musical Times’ of June 1967. The first commercial recording of this work entitled ‘A Time of Fire’ was made in Leeds Parish Church in 1999. The St Peters Singers were directed by Simon Lindley, the organist was Francis Jackson, the work’s musical composer, and the speaker was John Stuart Anderson, the work’s librettist. The CD can be ordered directly from Amphion Recordings, Norton Lodge, 109 Beverley Road, Norton, Malton, N.Yorks YO17 9PH, England.

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