This is a musical setting of episodes from Milton’s masque ‘Comus’. The opening music presents the Attendant Spirit, descending from his ‘regions milde of calme and serene air’ to introduce the poem. The Lady (soprano) who is journeying alone through the ‘wilde wood’ then appears and sings:
Sweet Echo, sweetest Nymph that liv’st unseen
Within thy airy shell
By slow Meander’s margent green
And in the violent imbroider’d vale
Where the love-lorn Nightingale
Nightly to thee her sad Song mourneth well.
Canst thou not tell me of a gentler Pair
That likest thy Narcissus are?
O if thou have
Hid then in some flowry Cave,
Tell me but where
Sweet Queen of Parly, Daughter of the Sphear,
So maist thou be translated tot he skies,
and give resounding grace
To all Heav’ns Harmonies
Comus (tenor) is an enchanter, the son of Bacchus and Circe. He has been observing the Lady during her song, and its passionate climax reflects his newly found longings for her: a transitional section mingles with these the Lady’s sudden feelings of terror and loneliness. An ensuing slow movement is broken into the distant sounds of the fanfares of Comus’s rout, which gradually advance into the foreground until he himself disappears:
The Star that bids the Shepherd fold,
Now the top of Heav’n doth hold,
And the gilded Car of the Day,
His glowing Axle doth allay
In the steep Atlantick stream,
And the slope Sun his upward beam
Shoots against the dusky Pole,
Pacing toward the other gole
Of his Chamber in the East,
Mean while welcom Joy and East,
Midnight shout, and revelry,
Tipsie dance, and Jollity.
Rigor now is gon to bed
And Advice with scrupulous head,
Strict Age, and sowre Severity,
With their grave Saws in slumber ly.
What hath night to do with sleep?
Night hath better sweets to prove,
Venus now wakes, and wak’ns Love.
Hail Goddesse of Nocturnal sport
Dark vali’d Cotytto, t’whom the secret flame
Of mid-night Torches burns; mysterious Dame
That ne’re art call’d, but when the Dragon woom
Of Stygian darkness spets her thickest gloom,
And makes one blot of all the ayr,
Stay thy cloudy Ebon chair,
… and befriend
Us thy vow’d Priests, …
Ere the blabbing Eastern scout,
The nice Morn on th’ Indian steep
From her cabin’d loop-hole peep, And to tell-tale Sun discry
Our conceal’c’ Solemnity.
We that are of purer fire
Imitate the Starry Quire,
Who in their nightly watchfull Sphears,
Lead in swift round the Months and Years.
Com, knitbhands, and beat the gorund,
In a light fantastick round.
The last words lead straight into a prolonged orchestra section, the dances of Comus and his followers. At the height of the dances the Lady herself is glimpsed in their midst: she appears to be enjoying herself. The dances then build up towards a final climax, at which the whole fantastic scene collapses and vanishes as if it were a dream.
In the ensuing silence we hear the singers – not now in their former roles, but jointly as the Attendant Spirit – in duet.
Listen where thou art sitting
Under the glassie, cool, translucent wave,
In twisted braidsd of Lillies knitting
The loose train of thy amber-dropping hair,
Listen foe dear honours sake,
Goddess of the silver lake,
Listen and save.
- and then as the water-nymph Sabrina herself (soprano solo, later duet).
By the rushy-fringed bank,
Where grows the Willow and the Osier dank,
MY sliding Chariot stayes,
Thickest with agat, and the azurn sheen
Of Turkis blew, and Emriauld green
That in the channell strayes,
Whilst from off the waters fleet
Thus I set my printless feet
O’re the Cowslips Velvet head,
That bends not as I tread,
Gentle swain at thy request I am here.
The Attendant Spirit withdraws to his celestialm regions as the piece eds.
Scenes form Comus was written between 1 September 1962 and 25 June 1965, and is dedicated to the late Tony Wright, who during those three years gave the composer many hours of patient helkp and encouragement. The work was commissioned by the BBC and was fist performed at a Promenade Concert on 2 Sugust 1965. The original solists were Jeanette Sinclair and Kenneth Bowen , and the BBC Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Noramn Del Mar.
…a marvellously dramatic piece of British music written nearly 40 years ago: Hugh Wood's Scenes from Comus cheekily turns Milton's allegory upside-down, so that the virginal heroine - rather than primly defending her honour against the beastly Comus - rather seems to revel in whatever it is that happens in the 'wilde woode'. Certainly the best bit of the work … is the terrific orgiastic dance that explodes at its heart.
Richard Morrison, The Times, 23/03/2002
Hugh Wood’s ‘Scenes from Comus’ was one of the most impressive of the new British works fostered by the Block Prom era of the 1960s. Probably his best is to come. And certainly the imaginative richness and technical assurance of Comus predicts a superlative best when it does materialize. What gives this music its lasting freshness … is the natural grave and eloquence with which it speaks a language once thought heavy and inarticulate.
, Financial Times, 13/04/1967