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The singing detective

When The Wreckers opens Festival 2022 next May with a fully restored French score there will be a huge collective sigh of relief – as its journey to the stage has been a tricky one.

Summer, 2021. In an office at the British Library a locked trolley is slowly wheeled in. Inside is a manuscript of huge significance to 20th century British music.

A score that Martyn Bennett, Glyndebourne’s head of music library and resources, has spent over a year and a half searching for, and which has been unheard by anyone for over 100 years. This is the story of restoring The Wreckers…

The Wreckers?’ you may be thinking, ‘but I’ve heard that!’. And it’s true that there has been a scattering of performances of the opera in recent years. But what you may have seen and heard in the past is not the opera as it was originally intended.

Ethel Smyth wrote The Wreckers in French under the title Les Naufrageurs. Given that Smyth was English, and the opera is set in Cornwall you’ll be forgiven for asking ‘why French?’. Smyth had lived and studied in France, and the libretto was by the American-born writer Henry Brewster, who was raised in France and felt most at home writing in French. The pair intended for it to be performed at a francophone opera house, but despite their best efforts, it was not to be.

Ethel Smyth wrote The Wreckers in French under the title Les Naufrageurs.

The opera was eventually premiered in Leipzig in 1906, but Smyth was very unhappy with the severe cuts to the opera imposed by conductor Richard Hagel. In 1909 the piece had its first staging in England, championed by conductor and impresario Thomas Beecham. It is the score from these performances that became the published English/German version of the opera which is available today, and that has been performed on rare occasions since then.

When it came to staging The Wreckers at Glyndebourne, artistic director Stephen Langridge and music director Robin Ticciati decided that they wanted to present the opera in a version as close as possible to Smyth’s original intentions. ‘I had a look at a vocal score in tatters and bits’ says Robin, ‘I thought that if we really excavate and we go right back to the beginning and we see what this composer really wanted, then this could be an extraordinary venture’. That meant trying to find the French score, and music librarian Martyn Bennett turned detective to see what he could uncover in libraries and archives around the country.

The search began at the Royal College of Music, which was bequeathed the score and orchestral parts by Smyth’s family after the copyright had expired. This score and parts were the handwritten English/German version – a good starting point.

The next port of call was the Royal Academy of Music, ‘they had a longer version of the piano score, in French, but with 17 pages missing’ explains Martyn. By carefully comparing the incomplete French version to the English/ German one Martyn surmised that it was around 20 minutes longer, and there were many differences and deviations between the two. But where to find the missing moments?

The trail led to the British Library, which holds many of Smyth’s papers, particularly those relevant to her association with the suffragette movement. Among those documents a French score of The Wreckers was listed. Could this be the smoking gun Martyn was looking for? The score was not among the publicly accessible material in the main collection of the library – it was held by the musical manuscripts department, which can only be viewed by special arrangement. But before Martyn could get his hands on it, the Covid-19 pandemic struck and the library was closed to visitors.

After months of waiting, this summer Martyn was finally able to study the British Library’s score. What he found was indeed the original French version, but full of annotations and markings by Smyth and Beecham as they reworked it into the English/German version. Many sections had been crossed out or reworked, but the original notation was still legible in most parts.

Despite having found the score, the journey was far from over.

Many sections of the score had been crossed out or reworked.

You can’t just photocopy an early 20th century hand-written score and send it out to singers and orchestra players. In order to get a workable score, Martyn would have to reconstruct it from scratch, writing everything out in modern manuscript notation software.

Martyn began the painstaking process of transcribing the score from the various sources, always deferring to the original French. This also meant correcting the many errors made by the original copyists when they wrote the score by hand. Martyn started the vocal score back in March this year and it was completed in early October. The orchestral score is still to be completed, ‘we’re currently on page 418 of 568’ he says.

Another problem is that the British Library’s manuscript is still not entirely complete. Although most of the missing parts are still visible through the crossings out, some of the pages had been excised, physically cut from the score. This meant that some of the parts present in the piano score were missing their orchestration. ‘The director Melly Still and Robin Ticciati felt that these excised moments were important, that they added depth to the characters, and had to be included’ explains Martyn. Therefore we have commissioned arranger Tom Poster to fill in the missing orchestration as seamlessly as possible.

The Wreckers opens Festival 2022 running from 21 May to 24 June 2022.

This article was written by Andrew Batty (Glyndebourne’s digital content editor). It first appeared in Recit – the Glyndebourne Member magazine.

Image credits: Illustration © Katie Ponder

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