Monday 4 October 2021

Matthew Jocelyn introduces the texts by Mary, Queen of Scots that he has arranged for Brett Dean's new song cycle to be premiered at the Oxford Lieder Festival

Robert Herdman: the Execution of Mary Queen Of Scots - Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum (Photo Glasgow Museums)
Robert Herdman: the Execution of Mary Queen Of Scots (1867) - Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum (Photo Glasgow Museums)

On 13 October 2021 as part of the Oxford Lieder Festival, mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean (a former Oxford Lieder Young Artist) and the Armida String Quartet (former BBC New Generation Artists) will be giving the premiere of Brett Dean's new song-cycle, Madame ma bonne soeur (a festival co-commission) at the Jacqueline du Pré Music Building at St Hilda's College in Oxford. The text draws on writings by Mary Stuart (Mary, Queen of Scots), adapted by Matthew Jocelyn who was also the librettist for Dean's opera HamletHere Matthew Jocelyn introduces the work and the words:

Madame ma bonne sœur by Brett Dean,  texts arranged by Matthew Jocelyn

Marie Stuart - Mary, Queen of Scots - spent much of her life writing letters.  She was brought up in the French court, far from her mother, Marie de Guise, widow of James V of Scotland, who acted as Regent of the Scottish throne, so relied on epistolary communication from a very young age to express her thoughts or feelings.

Over the course of her 44-year life (1542 -1587) Marie Stuart wrote thousands of letters.  Her correspondents included most of the kings and queens of Europe (many of whom were related to her at various degrees of separation), a succession of popes, as well as numerous suitors, counsellors, members of the Catholic aristocracy and more.  Her final letter, to her brother-in-law, King Henri III of France, was written 6 hours before her head was chopped off, clumsily, in three blows.

In the 1830’s the Russian prince Alexander Ivanovich Labanoff-Rostovsky became obsessed with Marie Stuart, and alongside some 600 portraits of Marie and her entourage which he collected, he was able to locate and copy over 700 letters she wrote, many of which date from her 19 years spent in various English castle prisons at the behest of her cousin Queen Elizabeth I (or rather of Elizabeth’s chief councilor, William Cecil, Lord Burleigh), many of these having been written in various codes or at times invisible ink.

From this extraordinary collection (history owes a great debt to Prince Labanoff’s obsession), we have cherry-picked and structured into song form extracts of letters from Marie to cousin Elizabeth.  The core of this 5-song cycle are 3 letters dating from Marie’s return to Scotland, age 19, to take up her role as queen in 1561, (In This our Realm written 7.10.1561); her plea to Elizabeth, 5 years later, to disregard the fallacious claims of the Scottish rebel forces trying to disempower her, (The Power of Evil, 15.3.1566); and, in 1582, her cry of despair after  more than14 years of imprisonment in England, (Nul autre royaume, 8.11.1582).

To these have been added, at the beginning of this song cycle, a succession of introductory salutations from Marie’s letters to Elizabeth over a 27-year period (Madame ma bonne sœur, 1559-1586) and, at the end, elements from her final will and testament, written in the wee hours preceding her above-mentioned execution (7.2.1587).

Not a life portrait, nor a full depiction of Marie’s complex and oft-changing relationship with Elizabeth I, but a small window onto the words she crafted, at various moments, to give shape to her quests.   Words now begging to be sung.

Matthew Jocelyn       

Full details from the Oxford Lieder Festival website.

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