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Joby Talbot on depicting jealousy through music in his score for The Winter's Tale

The composer on his score for Christopher Wheeldon's new ballet and how you depict drastically different settings in one cohesive score.

By Nigel Bates (Music Administrator, The Royal Ballet)

27 March 2014 at 10.50am | Comment on this article

It’s clear that both you and Christopher Wheeldon don't shy away from challenges when choosing works to transform into ballets.
Yes, we seem to have alighted on the two wordiest writers in the English language when it comes to our selection of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and The Winter’s Tale! Like a lot of people, I only knew the famous ‘exit pursued by a bear’ direction in the Shakespeare. Chris and I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company production in New York – I felt it was important that we saw it, and afterwards we went out and had a chat about our thoughts.

Was composing The Winter's Tale more of a challenge than Alice?
Yes, definitely. With Alice I unexpectedly found that establishing the magical and mechanical clockwork world would became my baseline, and I could go off in lots of crazy directions – but keep coming back to that as a linking device. There's not really an equivalent in The Winter’s Tale. It’s pretty much a linear narrative that takes you on a journey with a character [Leontes] who descends into irrational jealousy, madness, ruin, remorse and is finally redeemed. There’s no chance to draw breath before heading off on another part of the adventure.

The story of The Winter’s Tale takes us in and out of different places and eras, which would suggest you could use contrasting tone colours and styles for the various scenes.
Oh yes, completely. The material in Sicilia (our Act I) and the material in Bohemia (our Act II) are like black and white, or even monochrome and colour; if the first act is King Lear then the second is A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s supposed to be as different as possible. These colouristic shifts are meat and drink to ballet. You want to be able to go from high drama to low comedy to romance to reflection to whatever.

So it’s rather like a triple bill crammed into one?
Yes, you want as much variety as you can get. We were very clear that Bohemia was going to be a very different place from Sicilia. And it is. The first act is mostly inside this cold, draughty, rather inhuman Sicilian palace, all rather buttoned-up and staid. Bohemia is the exact opposite – it’s out in the open, it’s summertime, it’s full of beautiful fun-loving people having a great old time.

The music for the Sicilian scenes which sandwich the Bohemian one is then presumably much darker.
Very much so. The story of The Winter’s Tale is predicated on the idea that everything is ruined by one man’s jealousy. This is actually something that Shakespeare comes back to again and again in his works. And one can see why. Anyone who has suffered from that kind of irrational jealousy knows that it is one of the worst feelings in the world. It goes nowhere, it’s like a big black hole. You can ‘use’ anger, somehow, but you can’t ‘use’ jealousy constructively – it is such a pointless emotion!Having established that this is the driving force behind everything, the challenge was how to depict that in music. I had this image of jealousy appearing as a black feeling in the bottom of your stomach, which then envelops and poisons. So the moment in Act I when Leontes stops fighting his jealousy and gives way to completely irrational thinking, the orchestra is eaten by these great big bass drum and gong notes. I’ve also used strangulated low brass and muted trumpets and shrieking E flat clarinets. I thought about how to depict this jealousy more than anything.

Read Nigel Bates's full interview with Joby Talbot in The Winter’s Tale red programme book.
The Winter's Tale runs from 10 April–8 May 2014. Tickets are still available.

Generously supported by the Monument Trust. With additional philanthropic support from Mrs Susan A Olde OBE, Celia Blakey, Sarah and Lloyd Dorfman, Simon & Virginia Robertson, The Taylor Family Foundation, Lady Ashcroft, Mr and Mrs Edward Atkin CBE,  the Metherell Family, Richard and Delia Baker, Kenneth and Susan Green,  D W Hancock, Randa Khoury, Lindsay and Sarah Tomlinson, Doug and Ceri King, Gail and Gerald Ronson through The Gerald Ronson Foundation, Victoria Sharp, John and Susan Burns, The Winter’s Tale Production Syndicate and an anonymous donor.

By Nigel Bates (Music Administrator, The Royal Ballet)

27 March 2014 at 10.50am

This article has been categorised Ballet, Music and tagged by Christopher Wheeldon, Christopher Wheeldon, jealousy, Joby Talbot, Leontes, Music, Production, Royal Ballet, score, shakespeare, The Winter's Tale

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