‘The Hounds of Spring’

Muriel Elliot’s setting of Swinburne’s ‘When the Hounds of Spring’ from his Greek tragedy Atalanta in Calydon (1865), must have been hugely dramatic in performance, and not least at its premiere in the extraordinary venue of the Crystal Palace in 1906.

The beat hammers out the rhythm of Swinburne’s words with huge energy. The producer, Elise Fogerty (1865-1945), had long nurtured a desire to ‘recover what I should call the Dionysiac spirit of Greek Drama’, to ‘release a wild ecstasy’ and to give new life to the ‘glory that was Greece’. Combining this desire with her love of Swinburne (she had been in William Poël’s 1899 production of Swinburne’s Locrine) Fogerty researched ancient Greek choric dance and chant ‘from historical evidence’, and with her drama students, tried to perfect a ‘poetry of movement with poetry of sound’.[1]

The ‘wild ecstasy’ had to be focused of course, and her chorus of 15 women were drilled over many months: ‘The students spoke and shouted and reiterated the lines till the rhythms took fire and seemed to make a music of their own; and gradually Muriel composed the themes that expressed their meaning.’[2]

What is interesting about this quote is that the composition of Elliot’s music was an organic process. It was born out of the repetition of Swinburne’s words. The chorus, the actors in the named parts, and the composer worked together. They aimed at a unity of performance, it seems, where all the elements grew out from and were part of a whole.

There were two performances at the Crystal Palace in 1906 and two more at the Scala Theatre – now demolished, but sited behind Tottenham Court Road, near the British Museum. Fogerty had researched Greek movement at the museum, in an effort to bring ‘to life the still, carved beauty of Attic vase and frieze’.[3]

The production was revived in 1911 at the Lyceum Theatre, this time as a fund-raiser for the Women’s Local Government Association (WLGA). The minutes of the meetings for these performances – which are much concerned with the serving of tea and coffee – and their publicity materials survive at the London Metropolitan Archives. Kit Anstruther-Thomson (artist, sculptor, and former partner of the writer Vernon Lee) appears as one of the members for the WLGA.  The association, also called ‘The Society for Promoting Women as County Councillors’, was a network of liberals, suffragettes and others who wanted women to play a greater part in political life. It is interesting that Swinburne should be used in the aid of a feminist cause, but given the strong women in Atalanta – both Althaea and Atalanta herself – it seems entirely appropriate. The 1906 productions were fundraisers for The Waifs and Strays’ Society and the Bedford College Endowment Fund, which was a college dedicated to the education of women.[4]

The performances were well received. The Times on 8 June, 1906, said, ‘We look for poetry, and we find it; words that soar, that rush, that sting, that burn, a sustained eagle-flight in the eye of the sun, the perfect impassioned “form” that makes the search for “matter” mere pedantry. In seeing Atalanta in Calydon acted, we ask that beautiful figures shall give outline and solidity to our own imaginations of these people, and that beautiful voices shall make audible music of these magic words’.

The section of music presented here is from the beginning of Swinburne’s play, formed from four verses of the Chorus’s first chant, lines 65-96. The next section of music – I presume that the intervening words were spoken, though Fogerty reports that she had to cut text – starts on the Chorus’s line ‘Before the beginning of years’, at line 314.

It is not known what Swinburne thought of this production. Fogerty received a letter from his sister Isabel, which highlights that his deafness would have made it impossible for him to have enjoyed it fully, but that she was ‘so greatly moved by your most beautiful rendering of my dear brother’s poem’.[5]

In the 1906 production, Fogerty played Althaea, Elsie Thompson, Atalanta, Lewis Casson the Chief Huntsman, and Gerald Ames, Meleager. Elliot’s equally energetic overture to the play can be found here.

[1] Marion Cole, Fogie: The Life of Elsie Fogerty, CBE, (London: Peter Davies, 1967), pp. 34-35

[2] Fogie, p. 40

[3] Fogie, p. 34

[4] The Times, 27 February, 1906

[5] Fogie, p. 41

About Verseandmusic.com

Michael Craske researches transgressive poetics, music, aesthetics, and perhaps transgressive anything at Queen Mary, University of London (but mainly Swinburne, Wagner, and T. S. Eliot). He was once involved in diplomacy, of a Middle Eastern kind...
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One Response to ‘The Hounds of Spring’

  1. Pingback: Sounding Victorian: Swinburne, Tennyson, salons and the musical play of childhood - All Things SED

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