By John Harle and David Pountney
The First Dr Dee Opera
‘ANGEL MAGICK’ was the first opera written on the subject of Dr Dee by the composer and saxophonist JOHN HARLE, with a libretto by DAVID POUNTNEY. It was commissioned by the BBC Proms in 1995, and was performed for a season at the Salisbury Festival and at the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall in 1998 in fully-staged versions. The composition took two years in all to complete, of which 11 months was spent preparing the epic musical full score in A1 size. It was written in ink and pencil, with illustrations. The video extracts below follow the original score, kindly lent to us by John Harle.
The Council of the Areopagus (Producers and Webmasters).
“Angel Magick is a moving affirmation of the humanist spirit contained in the English renaissance...transfiguringly good”
The Independent 01/05/98
Production Photographs by kind permission of
Producers - Serious Productions
Director - David Pountney
Choreographer - Ian Spink
Set Designer - Paul Bonomini
Costume Designer - Marie-Jeanne Lecca
Lighting Designer - David Cunningham
Associate Director - Emma Jenkins
Stage Managers - Jocelyn Bundy/Kate Palmer/Richard Haddon
Costume Supervisors - Karen Creighton/Froo Gauger
Wigs and Make-up - Victoria Peters
Dr Dee - Christopher Good (actor)
Edward Kelley - Donald Maxwell (baritone)
Sir Philip Sidney - William Purefoy (counter-tenor)
Edmund Spenser - Jaqueline Miura (mezzo-soprano)
Queen Elizabeth I - Sarah Leonard (soprano)
Giordano Bruno - Andrew Forbes-Lane (tenor)
Jane Dee - Lucy Burge (dancer)
Joan Kelley - Jan Pearson (actress)
Voice of the Planets - Jim Carter (actor)
Conductor - John Harle
Sound Design - Sound Intermedia
The Bauhaus Band
Andrew Crowley/Paul Archibald (trumpets) David Purser (trombone) Richard Edwards (bass trombone)
Gareth Brady/Christian Forshaw/Simon Haram/Tim Lines (saxophones)
Gary Carpenter (keyboards) James Woodrow (electric and acoustic guitars)
Peter Wilson (bass guitar) Helen Tunstall (harp) Paul Clarvis/Gary Kettel/Frank Ricotti/Chris Wells (percussion)
Fretwork (Viol Consort)
Richard Boothby/Richard Campbell/Wendy Gillespie/Julia Hodgson/
William Hunt/Susanna Pell
Music published by Chester Music, London
The stage floor-plan from the 1998 production of Angel Magick
Press and Reviews
LETTER TO THE GUARDIAN - 5TH JULY 2011
Dave Simpson gives a fascinating account of Damon Albarn's opera Dr Dee (G2, 5 July), but he is wrong to describe John Dee as a figure "barely known outside academic circles before this unusual platform". Since the 1970s Dee has been frequently represented in popular and avant-garde art forms. He appears as a character in novels, for example, by Peter Ackroyd, John Crowley, Michael Moorcock, Dorothy Dunnett, Michael Scott Rohan and Phil Rickman, as well as in the graphic novels of Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore. He featured in Shekhar Kapur's Elizabeth: The Golden Age, as well as in one of the episodes of Elizabeth R, and played a particularly important framing role in Derek Jarman's punk film, Jubilee. There are two plays about him, Stephen Lowe's The Alchemical Wedding and Richard Byrne's Burn Your Bookes, and one previous opera, John Harle's Angel Magick. The two aspects of Dee's long career which seem of most interest to modern artists are his attempts to converse with angels and the episode where (following angelic instruction) he agreed to swap wives with his assistant Kelly.
Professor Rowland Wymer Anglia Ruskin University
The composer John Harle and his librettist David Pountney have made an opera of the proper sort, and one which almost breaks the rules of the genre by appearing to work as drama as well as music. Spells are cast, angels are summoned, and the characters exchange views on the music of the spheres and other recondite matters, but as singers and actors in a theatrical space they succeed in holding your attention...Angel Magick proved to be a resounding success. ...the non-singing role of Dr Dee provided a satisfyingly down-to-earth centre for the airy perorations of the other principals to revolve around. The music served the purposes of the drama admirably, and it remained suitably rigorous in its attention to historical detail while never descending into the kind of cod-Elizabethan pastiche that could have been expected.
The Independent, 21/07/1998
ANGEL MAGICK is.a moving affirmation of the humanist spirit contained in the English renaissance. And it was - perhaps surprisingly, given the complexity of the ideas involved - transfiguringly good. ...the music never upstaged the carefully wrought unity of the performance as a whole. Angel Magik was, in the words of Sir Philip Sidney, a delight from start to finish.
The Independent, 01/05/1998
BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE
Music for Night Owls
The super-celestial dealings of Elizabethan alchemist John Dee could seem an unlikely topic for an opera, considering that its composer John Harle is the musical man behind fast-car commercials for Mazda and Nissan UK. But he has long liked to make connections between music and magic and this latest score continues to free ancient instruments from the shackles of their period, thrusting them in among a melée of modern instruments. Angel Magick employs viol consort Fretwork, harle's own 'hard-hitting, modern-edged' Bauhaus Band, five singers, an actor and dancer as well as a pre- recorded tape complete with disembodied voice.
The libretto for the first half is part original writing by director David Pountney and part 16th- century poetry by Edmund Spenser and Philip Sidney. The second half uses archive material chosen from over 1,000 pages of facsimile from John Dee's diaries. 'They are depictions of some of the most famous magical ceremonies recorded,' explains Harle. 'Dee's intention was to converse with angels about philosophical ideasÉ to broaden his knowledge about creation, about God and the secrets of the universe.' Dee's experiment's shift from turning pyrite into gold at the request of Elizabeth 1 to ones of carnal intrigue of operatic proportion - during the climactic evocation of the last angel, Dee and his assistant Edward Kelley act out the agreed pact of wife-swapping. Far from everything being sung, the lead is taken by an actor. ' I wanted Dee to have a hotline to the audience; I didn't want them to have to work through pitch to get to the language.'
Kate Sherriff, BBC Music Magazine, August 1998
Angels at the Albert Hall
This summer's Proms presents its first operatic commission in the shape of an innovative piece by saxophonist and composer John Harle. To a libretto by David Pountney, and using a flamboyant cast of singers, an actor, dancer and 22-piece orchestra incorporating the viol consort Fretwork, Harle's Angel Magick, subtitled A Scientific Ritual in Seven Parts, explores the strange world of Elizabethan astrologer and alchemist John Dee. It seems that the genesis of Angel Magick has been fermenting in Harle's fertile imagination for some time. "I've always been interested in English history," he says, "and in early music, so a good setting seemed to be the English Renaissance, and a good subject, John Dee, who might be called both the last of the medieval alchemists and possible, one of the last men to claim universal knowledge."
With a libretto drawn from Dee's own writings as well as contemporary literature, Angel Magick follows the magus's attempt, aided by his sidekick, the sinister and Mephistopholean Edward Kelley, to converse with angels. "Angels do, indeed, appear," says Harle, "though some are of the fallen variety. In fact, a major subtext of the piece concerns Dee's attempt to overreach himself as he finds himself dabbling in a territory over which he has nocontrol." In addition to the balck-maagic aspects, a spot of wife-swapping occurs to keep the diabolic dimension merrily bubbling along. Though Harle is adamant that he is not setting out to be sensationalist for its own sake, Angel Magick tires to be a bizarre, exotic, perhaps Gothic musico-dramatic exploration of what actually occurred É or might have occurred".
And do large-scale magical effects happen in the staging? "Difficult to bring those about," muses Harle, "especially in the round. But, yes, there will be something alluring to see on the night. This is a full-scale production, not a concert performance, and we're setting out to grab and hold attention via a multi-media event."
There is also no doubt that Harle's vibrant music will be heard to its best possible advantage for he has no qualms whatsoever about employing amplification. "It's a prerequisite. The band is quite an eclectic outfit, with guitars, saxes, brass and percussion - and Fretwork as well. Amplification enables different registers to emerge clearly and distinctly. And it also helps in allowing the words to be heard especially in an arena as vast as the Albert Hall." Already premiered in a preview to considerable acclaim at the Salisbury Festival, Angel Magick seems to be just the right sort of forward-thinking new piece the Proms needs. Yet for the laidback and genial John Harle, a final question about its precise idiom finds him "unsure of what exactly I have come up with, which is perhaps no bad thing. "'Crossover' is a term I don't really like, but I suppose this crosses over a number of musical boundaries. Let's just call it a serious attempt to write a popular new music theatre piece and leave further analysis to the audience."
Duncan Hadfield, The Independent 18 July 1998
MUSIC OF THE SPHERES
The black arts, high drama, philosophy and poetry: John Harle's opera Angel Magik, set in 16th-century England has it all (even Queen Elizabeth I pops in for tea). And it still manages to break the rules.
The domestic arrangements in the Mortlake home of John Dee, Elizabethan magus and neo-Platonist herald of the English renaissance, might not at first sight seem to provide the ideal setting for contemporary opera, even if Good Queen Bess is always popping for tea. What with the poets Sir Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser arguing the toss, and that Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno putting his oar in, there is an awful lot of ideas to contend with.
And there's the odd couple, of crusty Dr Dee and his frankly rather difficult assistant, Edward Kelley, always trying to summon up angels with those spells of theirs. What poor old Mrs Dee makes of it, god knows, and she's not looking too well either, if you ask me.
But out of this late 16th-century soap, the composer John Harle and his librettist David Pountney have made an opera of the proper sort, and one which almost breaks the rules of the genre by appearing to work well as drama as well as music. Spells are cast, angels are summoned, and the characters exchange views on the music of the spheres and other recondite matters, but as singers and actors in a theatrical space they succeed in holding your attention. And although the piece deals with complex ideas in a fairly complex manner, it remains clear and direct almost throughout, even if a little background reading would enhance a greater appreciation of the historical background.
Given a sneak preview as part of the Salisbury Festival in May, Angel Magik proved to be a resounding success, The singing, by Sarah Leonard as Queen Elizabeth, William Purefoy as Sidney, Jacqueline Miura as Spenser, Andrew Forbes-Lane as Bruno, and Donald Maxwell as Kelley, was particularly fine, and Christopher Good in the non- singing role of Dr Dee provided a satisfying down- to-earth centre for the airy perorations of the other principals to evolve around. The music - by the Bauhaus Band and Fretwork, conducted by Harle himself - served the purposes of the drama admirably, and it remained suitably rigorous in its attention to historical detail while never descending into the kind of cod-Elizabethan pastiche that could have been expected. Only the taped voice that was used to declaim the equivalent of chapter headings at the beginning of each movement (which follow an astrological sequence of planets) jarred a little, sounding perhaps a little too close to Mastermind for comfort.
On the morning of the first of the two performances as Salisbury, John Harle could be heard as the guest on Desert Island Discs, and his incredibly wide-ranging selections perhaps provide a clue to Angel Magik's musical influences. As a schoolboy at the Royal Grammar School in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne (he traces his love of history to being taught there by William Feaver, now The Observer's art critic), in the late Sixties, Harle fell under the spell of Pentangle, the pop-folk group whose guitarist, John Renbourn, used to play a number of transcriptions from both Elizabethan and Jacobean sources.
The Desert Island selection also included a tune by the Beatles, testifying to Harle's abiding belief in melody; a piece by Duke Ellington, whose alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges' limpidly beautiful tone was one of the reasons Harle took up the saxophone (still considered a rather vulgar arriviste in the classical world) as well as the clarinet; and an excerpt from one of Harrison Birtwistle's most confrontational works, the mini- opera Punch and Judy, whose proud dissonances must have led to pre-Sunday lunch panic attacks in the kitchens of the nation.
When Harle performed Birwistle's Panic - one of 16 concerti written specially for him - at the Proms in 1995, he experienced the perils of the avant-garde at first hand. Famously, the performance was booed by a noisy coterie of fogies. Harle first met Birtwistle as an actor-musician at the National Theatre in the late seventies (where the composer was the NT's music director), following an unusual background where he served as a bandsman with the Coldstream Guards before entering the Royal College of Music (he is now a professor of saxophone at the Guildhall). But despite his long established working relationship with Birtwistle, Harle retains an almost evangelical faith in tonality, and it is from this - as much as anything else - that Angel Magik stems. "At the heart of my music is a belief in tonality, and what was originally thought of as the science of music," Harle says. "It's the Pythagorean concept that there is a tonality in each of us; a belief in music as it appears in nature."
This regard for music as, well, music, is reflected in Harle's interest in popular forms, including jazz. He writes soundtracks for film and television (including Silent Witness) and performs with the jazz saxophonist Andy Sheppard in Twentieth Century Saxophones. His last major recording, Terror and Magnificence, included a collaboration with Elvis Costello. On Desert Island Discs, Harle also owned up to dark feelings about English culture. "English folk traditions have always interested me," he says. "Early pagan animal rituals; the theme of Arcadia in England, the Green Man, and the more secretive side of Englishness, such as the elements of Egyptology brought in by the Freemasons and the Victorians. In secret societies magic and alchemy were subversive forces, and I'm really fascinated by alchemy, the idea of making something out of nothing.
The definitions of music and magic - and once music was magic - aren't far from each other. It's not just basic academic stuff that interests me in Angel Magik, but the idea of creating a fantasy about these people."
For Harle, the models for his opera (which is the first) are more Brecht and Weill than Shakespeare and Dowland. "There are elements of Elizabethan music, but it's as if they are seen through a veil. What I can't bear in opera is the stagnant drama of it, so my music plays right up to the action." In Angel Magik, which could be subtitled "Dr Flee's Casebook", the mundane and the metaphysical are mixed "very effectively". The old gent tries to summon up an angel, while in the material world of Mortlake everything around him is falling apart. And whoops, there goes the doorbell. It must be Good Queen Bess.
Phil Johnson - The Independent
THE RADIO TIMES
It has to be Magick
John Harle is internationally renowned as the leading classical saxophonist of his generation, but he is also a prolific composer whose diverse works include the theme tune to BBC1's Silent Witness and Terror and Magnificence for Elvis Costello. He assisted Paul McCartney with his monumental Standing Stone "for four years I advised, encouraged and helped Paul with the orchestration" - and is soon to write a piece for Lesley Garrett. Three years ago, Harle saxed up a Proms storm with Birtwistle's Last Night Panic and he's back this year, conducting the London premiere of his own first opera, Angel Magick, on 21 July. Magic and Mystery are one of the themes of this year's Proms, and the opera assesses the Elizabethan alchemist John Dee, who indulged in some angel-directed wife- swapping in pursuit of universal knowledge. "He was the Queen's astrologer," says Harle, "but he was accused of sorcery and disgraced."
Radio Times, 18-24 July 1998
A little night magick
'Covent Garden should be subsidised by the Ministry of Defence, regarded as something like Trident. It's so far removed from most people's experience we should just acknowledge it's a national figurehead and concentrate real interest in ENO.'
Fighting words, all the more significant since they come, half seriously, from an opera composer. A new one, admittedly; but John Harle's 'Angel Magick', directed by David Pountney, gets the Proms seal of approval on Tuesday.
The late-night slot is appropriate to the eerie libretto featuring John Dee, real- life mathematician, alchemist and reputed wizard, and such historical figures as poets Sidney and Spenser (here unhistorically attracted to one another), and the Virgin Queen herself. There may also be angels good or bad materialising in the Albert HallÉ The mysterious doctor's actual 'Angelic Diaries' have been resorted to. 'In the second half we use the exact words of the ceremonies that brought down the angels - allegedly É' says Harle.
Almost symbolising the Proms, 'Angel Magick' combines old and new sounds, an electronic score and live musicians, the players comprising both a modern combo, Bauhaus (including saxophones, brass, percussion, electric guitar), and Fretwork, the period consort of viols - 'the wiry quality of their strings cuts through this ensemble better than regular stringed instruments would.'
Harle's best known as a saxophonist though his composing embraces film and television scores besides concert pieces. Inevitably, he's exasperated at attempted pigeon-holing, especially at the implications of the term 'crossover' - which can mean everything from Rostropovich plays Peters and Lee to Turnage's "Blood on the Floor" or Kiri sings Cole Porter É Record companies often underestimate audiences. None of the great surprise successes of the past five years have been fake products: Gorecki, Garbarek and the Hilliards - all accidents. Now record companies chase their tails trying to recreate those accidents. All the producer did with "Officium" was trust the artists.'
Conversely, he's aware of the 'Stalinised-post-Boulez' correctness laid down by such BBC pundits as William Glock and Hans Keller. 'They were true radicals of their day: but a lot of the composers they sanctioned are happy with out-of-date conservatism. Much of that music is eating itself. I think the new category I've tried to define has as much of a claim to be regarded as the avant-garde.'
And how would he define this category? To begin with, 'serious music which requires trust from the audience'. Preferably a younger audience to be created 'not in terms of musicological education, but increasing their belief in their own aesthetic judgement and taking more music at face value. After all, audiences of millions listen to contemporary music in film scores every day. It's a shorter step than we realise, presenting contemporary music in the right context.'
Large, jovial, spending as much time as possible in Cornwall with his family, not to mention a loved collection of '60s films - from Terry-Thomas and Leslie Phillips to 'Smashing Time' and 'Taste of Honey' - Harle's patently no ivory- tower theorist recoiling from popular taste. 'In the first half of the opera there are four or five sequences which bring the audience along with us to where the music jumps off a cliff. I hope the audience jumps off the cliff with us.'
The subject's in keeping with his particular cultural consciousness. 'A lot of our music has abandoned its English roots. That's why I do special English subjects, like Shakespeare songs with Elvis Costello. The Englishness of my John Dee piece is more to do with music theatre than opera. I also believe strongly in the English choral tradition, at school and cathedral level. I don't know a good musician who can't manage a decent stab at singing. With the Ministry of Defence funding Covent Garden, the money displaced could be put into the resurgence of English choral music and music scholarships.' Problems of elitism, education and defence - who could withstand a cathedral choir at full blast in Stanford or Parry? - solved at a stroke.
Martin Hoyle, Time Out, 15 July 1998
THE FULL SCORE
The alchemy of sax
From the pre-renaissance to the post-modern, from the recondite to the popular, and of course from classics to jazz, saxophonist and composer John Harle quite happily balances his many enthusiasms, in a way almost unique in contemporary British music. Last year's Terror and Magnificence (recorded for Argo as well as toured) brought together Elvis Costello, Shakespeare, texts by Guillaume de Machaut and Perotin, the Balanescu Quartet, Sarah Leonard and William Purefoy. Next year's follow-up promises to be an even richer amalgam of ancient and modern: the opera - Angel Magick, which Harle is currently writing, revolves around the fascinating figure of Dr John Dee, magus of the first Elizabethan era, sage of Mortlake and Renaissance magician. The work, to be fully staged, calls for five singers, an actor and a dancer. Harle has already cast Sarah Leonard as Queen Elizabeth, but deciding on a suitable Dr Dee is going to have to wait: the part calls for an actor/singer and, says Harle, 'Anyone who's any good may not commit themselves now, in the hope that a movie role will turn up later: so we'll leave it dangerously late to get the best Dee we possibly can.'
Not surprisingly, Angel Magick will be a densely allusive piece. The libretto's sources include the poets Philip Sidney and Edmund Spenser, and the action takes place in Dr Dee's library, where a meeting of the group of poets known as the Areopagus is interrupted by the arrival of Queen Elizabeth, who demands that Dee perform masques and then turn lead into gold. The resulting magic ritual (based on historically authentic spells) promises to be a considerable coup de theatre.
Phil Johnson, The Full Score, Autumn 1997