At The Court of the Poisoned Rose Op. 20

Composed: 1994
Duration: 6 minutes
First Performance: June 1996, at Cappleside House, Settle, performed by the counter-tenor James Huw-Jeffries and the pianist Sarah Wilkinson.

At the Court of the Poisoned Rose was written as the result of a commission from the English counter-tenor, James Huw-Jeffries. It is based upon a poem by the Scottish poetess Marion Angus (1866-1946). Published as the long prose poem ‘Alas poor Queen’, it is effectively a narration of the story of the tragic life of Mary, Queen of Scots, who was manipulated by the political ambitions of those around her.

The music opens mysteriously, setting a nostalgic atmosphere. Whereas this section expresses her sense of resignation, the section which follows mirrors her sense of caprice and is quicker in tempo. These two ideas are subsequently developed and reshaped. At the words ‘she rode through Liddlesdale with a song’ Ian Venables adapts an ayre by the Elizabethan composer Philip Rosseter, interpolating material from previous sections.

One of the most poignant moments in the work is the setting of the words ‘Queens should be cold and wise’, which can be seen as the emotional climax of the work. In spite of this, we are left with the memory of a more capricious Queen who ‘loved little things and red-headed partridges, and the golden fishes of the Duc de Guise’.

The work received its American premiere as a song for mezzo soprano in Philadelphia, in January 1996, performed by Nora Sirbaugh and Timothy Harrell.

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