John Middleton - Blog

Ivanhoe Programme


Saturday 9th July 2011 at Loughborough Endowed Schools, School of Music 

Libretto after the novel by Sir Walter Scott

Music and libretto abridged and revised, after the first version of 2000, by John Middleton

The Ivanhoe Festival Singers:

Sopranos – Clare Proctor, Rachel-Louise Stonehouse

Tenors – Lyndon Gardner, Ian Rogerson, Martin Vindelis

Basses – David Henshaw, Stephen Foster, Chris Higgins, John Middleton

The Ivanhoe Festival Orchestra - directed by Kate King:

Violins - John Britten, Rosemary Dobbin

Viola - Heather Marshall; Cello - Jo Eyley

Flute - Jo Bestwick; Oboe - Liz Thomas

Clarinet - Andy Cotton; Bassoon - Alex Preston

Trumpet – Phil Reckless; French Horn - Simon Marshall;

Tuba - Andy Bestwick

Keyboard - Derek Hunter; Percussion - Chris Featonby

Artistic Director – Tony Middleton

Stage manager – Sarah Hammond

Vocal Advisor – Lyndon Gardner

Repetiteur –Kate King

Piano Score Advisor – Kate King

Programme Cover – Lyndon Gardner

The Knights of Nottingham filmed by kind permission

Composer’s statement

Sir Walter Scott’s novel of 1819 has been credited by such as Carlyle, Ruskin and Newman as increasing public interest in Romanticism and Mediaevalism. It mixes myth with historical facts and has also had an influence on the development of the legend of Robin Hood, through the character ‘Locksley’. The name of Cedric appears to be Scott’s unintentional misspelling of the Saxon Cerdic. When I read the book, as boy of seven or eight, I skipped quickly through all the ‘boring’ bits in order to get to the fighting. Sir Arthur Sullivan’s opera, Ivanhoe, is indeed a romantic epic, lasting well over three hours, and including combat scenes which must have been difficult and expensive to stage. However, it ran for 161 performances in 1891. It had been preceded, in 1826, by a pastiche with the same title and a French libretto, written by Rossini, who recycled music from his other operas.

My version of Ivanhoe uses themes which have been cycling round my head for over thirty years. I always thought of them as operatic arias, but my musical training was lacking and I had no idea of a subject to tie them together. This changed in 1997, when I saw the BBC TV six part series, based on the novel. I realised that, aside from the romantic adventure, here was a psychological drama of tragic intensity, centring on a triangle of unrequited love. It also raised issues of belief, morality, gender, prejudice, ethnic conflict, power and corruption. Scott may have been drawing a parallel between the subjugated Saxons and his own nation, whereas I saw it as the foundation for the English class system. These are contemporary issues and not a nostalgic return to the past. In the meantime I had taught myself how to read music.

In order to reduce the complexity of the plot, and to concentrate on the central drama, I decided to dispense with the Robin Hood character along with his merry men, and also with Rowena who is the object of Ivanhoe’s affections. Even so, the original score which I completed in 2000 was getting on for four hours long. Some of my friends from Charnwood Opera put on a performance of a small fragment of this with piano accompaniment in 2006, after which I had to renegotiate the unrealistically high tessitura of the soprano and tenor parts. The production you will hear has been cut to manageable proportions mainly by omitting the long orchestral preludes and interludes, though Bois-Guilbert has been denied the chance to explain at length why he is not such a bad person as we might have thought (he was jilted if you want to know). Finally, I decided to allocate the roles of Prince John and the Grand Master of the Temple to a soprano, rather than a tenor. This gives a better balance of voices and, perhaps, an appropriate satirical note. Both characters are portrayed as ineffective, though they are trying to be real men, which reminds me of Cherubino, the ‘trouser’ role in The Marriage of Figaro.

The music has been described as sounding mediaeval, perhaps because I often use bare-sounding chords which miss out the middle part of the triad, in order to create ambiguity and unease. The first scene was actually influenced by Baroque techniques which, I think, injects a bit of humour. My thirty year old themes never became arias, but they did provide repeated motifs which I used mainly to denote psychological states, like love, fear, derision or wanting revenge. Psychological disharmony is also represented by dissonance in the music. The themes evolve and combine in a Wagnerian way, though I think the resemblance ends there. My other main influence is folk and blues, which shows itself in bass riffs, modes and pentatonic scales.   

Semi-staging the opera enables the singers to have the score available, which has helped them to realise this brand new work amidst their many other commitments. I think it may also help the drama, as fake-looking armour and stage sets might be distracting. We do not have an orchestra pit, which is challenging for the singers standing on the same level as the instruments. Our sound engineer will be able to compensate, on the recording, for different levels through the microphones, but there is no amplification of the voices in the auditorium. We will do our best to make the words audible, but I recommend that you study the synopsis of each scene carefully, in order to keep in touch with what is happening. If the recording is a success, the libretto will be made available at the same time as the CDs.



In 1194, Richard 1 Coeur de Lion was supposed to have been imprisoned in Bohemia, on his way back from the Crusade. However, there was a rumour that he had been freed and had even arrived back secretly in England.

During his brother’s absence, Prince John had been bolstering his position with the barons and even with influential Saxons. To this end he held a tournament at Ashby de la Zouch, followed by a banquet at Ashby castle.

All the Norman knights were unexpectedly defeated at the jousting by a stranger, whose shield displayed an uprooted tree, meaning ‘disinherited’. Later, during the mock battle, one of the Normans took revenge by wounding the disinherited knight with an illegally sharpened lance. He was saved from further harm by the intervention of another knight, in plain black armour, who made off into the forest before he could be identified.

Nevertheless, the disinherited knight was awarded the victor’s crown for the whole tournament, a trophy which he proceeded to deposit at the feet of the Saxon Princess Rowena, after which he collapsed from his wound. The marshals having removed his helmet, the knight was identified as Wilfred of Ivanhoe, son of Cedric the Saxon Thane.

Cedric had disinherited his son for two reasons, both connected with his refusal to accept the legitimacy of the Norman rulers: firstly because Wilfred had effectively become a Norman knight and a protégé of Coeur de Lion; secondly because he aspired to marry Rowena, who was his father’s ward, and Cedric had other plans for her.

The possibility of a disputed throne or even civil war was an opportunity, in Cedric’s eyes, to restore Saxon rule.  His candidate for king, and also husband for Rowena, was Athelstane, an amiable but not very clever Saxon prince.

More than a century after the battle of Hastings, there was little sign of integration of the Normans and Saxons, the former being very much overlords, who looked down on the very different customs and behaviour of the people they had conquered. Thus the mixture of Prince John’s entourage with Saxon dignitaries, at the banquet was an uneasy one.  

SCENE ONE: The Great Hall, Ashby Castle

Philip de Malvoisin: Knight Preceptor of the Temple – John Middleton

Maurice de Bracey: a mercenary knight – Ian Rogerson

Waldemar Fitzurse: a knight, advisor to Prince John – Martin Vindelis

Brian de Bois-Guilbert: Knight Preceptor of the Temple – David Henshaw

Athelstane: a Saxon Prince descended from Alfred the Great – Stephen Foster

Cedric: a Saxon Thane, father of Ivanhoe – Chris Higgins

Prince John: Rachel-Louise Stonehouse

[NB. Karum Pie contains exotic small birds; one of the ingredients, Beccafico, is the Ortolan Bunting – a variety of finch rarely seen in this country; Nidering is an old English word meaning ‘despicable’, in the context used by Cedric.]

Prince John’s banquet is in full swing. The Saxons are in long mantles, considered unfashionable by the Normans in their short cloaks. Athelstane happily devours whatever is put in front of him, whilst Cedric is alert and suspicious. The Normans are finding it hard not to laugh out loud.

The Normans make fun of Athelstane, by asking him to identify the ingredients of the exotic bird pie (nightingales and beccaficoes), which he fails to do. Cedric becomes angry, when he realises that Athelstane is being humiliated, but Fitzurse tries to calm the situation by changing the topic of conversation to the recent tournament.

The Normans refer to the victories of the Saxon knight, his wounding, and the intervention of the Black Knight. They recall everyone’s surprise to discover the true identity of the former: Wilfred of Ivanhoe, Cedric’s son. Reference is made to Ivanhoe’s previous victory over Bois-Guilbert, at a tournament in Palestine. Bois-Guilbert swears to have revenge at a third meeting.

Prince John proposes a toast to Ivanhoe, but Cedric refuses to acknowledge him as a son, because of what he terms ‘disobedience’. Prince John attempts to save face by making fun of the Saxons’ clothes, after which the mockery extends to eating and drinking habits, and finally to their defeat at the battle of Hastings in 1066.  Cedric, now beside himself with rage, points out that a Saxon’s code of honour would not allow guests to be insulted at his table, also that the Norman knights have all recently been defeated, at the tournament, by a Saxon. The Normans respond with further jibes and Fitzurse tries to restore order by appealing to Prince John to say that no insult was intended. The latter agrees, and proposes a toast to Cedric, followed by another to Athelstane. He then suggests to Cedric that he might toast one of the Normans, and the knights attempt to induce him to name Prince John. After acknowledging that he is in a difficult position, as a member of a subject race, Cedric duly proposes a toast to Richard the Lionheart. Prince John is thunderstruck and takes it as a supreme insult, though Cedric is perfectly correct to express loyalty to the legitimate sovereign. The Saxons leave with their dignity intact and Prince John blames his advisor for the humiliation.

SCENE TWO: A room in the Ashby house of Isaac of York

Wilfred of Ivanhoe – Lyndon Gardner

Rebecca: daughter of Isaac of York – Clare Proctor

Isaac is a wealthy Jew who has been lending money to Prince John, and who has previously been defended against robbers by Ivanhoe. His daughter, Rebecca, a skilled herbalist, has taken charge of the seriously wounded knight who has been drifting in and out of consciousness. He wakes up on a couch, not knowing where he is, nor who has been caring for him. Ivanhoe finds that he is being tended by a beautiful woman, though his attitude changes when she reveals that she is a Jewess. Rebecca explains that she is Isaac’s daughter, and that her father is beholden to him for what he has done. Ivanhoe asks why he could not have been taken to a Saxon establishment and Rebecca explains that he needs her special skills to heal his wound.

He is anxious to know how soon he will be able to bear armour again, because he is aware of the unstable situation in England. She tells him ‘eight days’. He offers to pay money, if she can keep her word, but she says that no reward is necessary. All she wants is for him to accept that Jews are capable of doing kindness to Christians, since they worship the same God.

Rebecca advises him that Prince John and his party have left for York, and that he is rumoured to be on the point of seizing the crown. Ivanhoe pledges his willingness to fight against this eventuality, but Rebecca reminds him that he must follow her instructions, and not get upset, to have any chance of a swift recovery. In answer to his questions about Cedric and his household, she tells him that they have set out for Cedric’s estate, and that Rowena has gone with them. Rebecca begins to betray her feelings for Ivanhoe, at the mention of this name. Ivanhoe is also embarrassed to have shown excessive interest in his father’s ward. Rebecca changes the subject by talking about Gurth, Ivanhoe’s squire, who is now in trouble with Cedric, and to whom she gave some money after Ivanhoe had helped Isaac. Ivanhoe now considers it a point of honour that the money should be repaid, but she insists that the discussion should be postponed till he is fit.

Ivanhoe now bemoans his own misfortune and his perception that the same will afflict anyone with whom he associates. Rebecca replies that this is illness talking, and that he should have faith in God and his own destiny in relation to the country’s hour of need. He pulls himself together and she informs him that he must gather his strength for a journey (to Doncaster, with Isaac’s household) the next day.


Cedric’s party set off from Ashby towards his estate at Rotherwood. During their journey through the forest, they came upon Isaac and his people, who had been traveling in the direction of Doncaster, but who had been let down by hired men, who had stolen their horses. The Saxons agreed to help by harnessing their own horses to the cart carrying a sick man.

In the heart of the forest, the travelers were ambushed and overpowered by Norman knights, disguised as outlaws. They were taken to the castle belonging to Reginald Front de Boeuf, where the knights planned to press their attentions on Rowena and Rebecca.

SCENE ONE: A room in the top of one of the turrets

Rebecca: daughter of Isaac of York – Clare Proctor

Brian de Bois-Guilbert: Knight Preceptor of the Temple – David Henshaw

Heavy steps are heard, coming up the staircase. These are followed by ferocious knocking on the door, which opens to admit a tall stranger with a mantle covering his face. Rebecca shrinks back in alarm. Confined by herself in the room, she is frightened by the entrance of Bois-Guilbert in disguise. She offers him jewellery in exchange for mercy to her father and herself, but the knight makes it clear that he wants another kind of reward.

She guesses that he is really a Norman knight, not an outlaw, and she points out that Christians and Jews are not allowed to be married. He replies that the Knights Templar are not allowed to marry anyone, but they are permitted to have concubines. She protests that this is against Christian teaching and that he is being hypocritical, but he insists that the privilege is justified by the example of Solomon, who founded the Temple.

In the face of her scorn, Bois-Guilbert changes his approach and gives notice that he intends to take her by force. She reacts by stepping onto the parapet, and offering to throw herself from the height, rather than submit to his will. The Templar realises that he is defeated and takes back his threat; he also promises to protect her father. After he swears this on his honour, Rebecca steps down. Bois-Guilbert begins to explain that she has seen him in a misleadingly bad light, but is interrupted by a trumpet call to arms. He leaves hurriedly, but promises to renew the conversation later.

SCENE TWO: A room, with an outside window, in the castle wall

Wilfred of Ivanhoe – Lyndon Gardner

Rebecca: daughter of Isaac of York – Clare Proctor

Brian de Bois-Guilbert: Knight Preceptor of the Temple – David Henshaw

The Black Knight: Stephen Foster

The castle is found to be besieged by a band of outlaws, most of whom are archers, led by Locksley and the Black Knight. The Normans have scarcely enough men to man the walls, let alone guard their prisoners. 

Rebecca has been returned to the room containing the sick man, so that she can continue to be a nurse. Ivanhoe wakes up on his litter, as she enters. He thanks Rebecca for her attentions, but makes it clear that he is more concerned with the welfare of Cedric and Rowena, and with anxiety to know what is happening in the battle. She offers to watch from the window and report events to him. He expresses concern for her safety, but Rebecca, reflecting bitterly on her hopeless love, fancies that she would welcome death. However, she agrees to shelter behind a large shield.

The besiegers appear to be led by the Black Knight. They advance under the cover of a hail of arrows and break down wooden barriers at the barbican. Soon the castle is burning. Ivanhoe advises Rebecca to escape, but she refuses to leave him. Suddenly she remembers her father, Isaac. At this point, Bois-Guilbert bursts in and offers her safe passage, under his protection. She refuses and asks him to save the sick knight and her father. He makes a scornful reply and carries her off by force, despite Ivanhoe’s loud protests. Finally, the Black Knight arrives and helps Ivanhoe to escape.


All the prisoners at Torquilstone Castle, were rescued unharmed, with the exception of Rebecca, who was borne away to the headquarters of the Knights Templar, where Bois-Guilbert kept her confined in secret. Soon, however, she was discovered by the authorities and accused of using witchcraft to ensnare one of the senior members of the order.

SCENE ONE: The Great Hall

Lucas de Beaumanoir: Grand Master of the Temple – Rachel-Louise Stonehouse

Herman of Goodalricke: Knight Preceptor of the Temple – Stephen Foster

Philip de Malvoisin: Knight Preceptor of the Temple – John Middleton

Brian de Bois-Guilbert: Knight Preceptor of the Temple – David Henshaw

Rebecca: daughter of Isaac of York – Clare Proctor

Higg, son of Snell: a peasant – Martin Vindelis

A soldier: Chris Higgins

Lucas de Beaumanoir, Grand Master of the Temple, occupies the central position, surrounded by his officers, and holding the mystic staff or batoon which bears the symbol of the order. He reads the charges against Rebecca and Bois-Guilbert, suggesting that the latter’s actions are due to having been bewitched. He asks him to respond, but gets no answer. Eventually Bois-Guilbert retorts that he has fought for Christendom, and is prepared to defend his honour with his sword.

Witnesses are then called: the first is a peasant who claims to have been cured of lameness by an ointment supplied by Rebecca; the container is found to bear an enigmatic message in Hebrew. The second is a soldier who swears that he saw her extract an arrow from a wounded man, without touching it; he also claims to have seen the accused change shape and fly round the castle.

Rebecca now calls on Bois-Guilbert to state that the charges are false. His only reply is to draw attention to a scroll which he has thrust into her hand. She looks quickly, before hiding it. The Grand Master concludes that this is further evidence of witchcraft. Rebecca now makes her plea for trial by combat, as the she has been advised in the scroll, by Bois-Guilbert..

SCENE TWO: A dungeon

Rebecca: daughter of Isaac of York – Clare Proctor

Brian de Bois-Guilbert: Knight Preceptor of the Temple – David Henshaw

Rebecca’s plea for trial by combat has been accepted and the Grand Master has appointed Bois-Guilbert, against his wishes, as the champion of the Temple. Full of misgivings, she finds no alternative but to send a message about her situation to Ivanhoe. Rebecca is alone in her cell, lost in thought. She is disturbed by Bois-Guilbert’s knocking on the door. He describes the horrors of being burnt at the stake, and denies that he is responsible for this outcome; his intention was to have appeared in disguise as her champion, on the assumption that one of the younger knights would have been appointed on behalf of the Temple.

He insists that he can still save her, if he gives up his position as a senior knight of the Temple, but he will demand conditions. If he is forced to appear in combat, his honour will not allow him to avoid it. However, if she will agree to go with him, they can escape together to another country.

Rebecca will not agree under any circumstances and Bois-Guilbert sees this. Finally he asks for her forgiveness. She replies that, though he is a flawed character, he is not all bad, and she does forgive him.

SCENE THREE: The tilt-yard

Philip de Malvoisin: Knight Preceptor of the Temple – John Middleton

Lucas de Beaumanoir: Grand Master of the Temple – Rachel-Louise Stonehouse

Rebecca: daughter of Isaac of York – Clare Proctor

Brian de Bois-Guilbert: Knight Preceptor of the Temple – David Henshaw

Wilfred of Ivanhoe – Lyndon Gardner

The Black Knight: Stephen Foster

Henry de Bohun: Lord High Constable – Ian Rogerson

Isaac of York – Chris Higgins

Rebecca is tied to a stake at one end of the space, opposite to the Grand Master and his entourage, with Bois-Guilbert in full armour. He stands ready as the champion of the Temple, but no challenger has appeared to defend Rebecca’s cause. The Grand Master agrees that her execution should be delayed until sunset. Bois-Guilbert makes a final offer to carry her away on his horse, but she refuses.

Eventually, a knight appears in the lists, but he appears to be exhausted. He is none other than Wilfred of Ivanhoe. Bois-Guilbert, bound by his code of honour, refuses to fight him until he is in a fit state. However, consumed with rage and guilt, he is forced to do battle when Ivanhoe calls him a coward. Rebecca accepts Ivanhoe as her champion, despite her fears for his safety, in view of his recent wound and fatigue. During the encounter, Bois-Guilbert falls and is found to have died suddenly, without being wounded. The Grand Master has no choice but to accept this as an act of God, and proof of Rebecca’s innocence.

The Black Knight arrives, with his men, and orders the arrest of Malvoisin, who is one of Prince John’s co-conspirators. The former reveals his identity: Richard Coeur de Lion. Rebecca is reunited with her father, Isaac, who advises her to approach Ivanhoe to express her gratitude. She is unwilling to do this, because she knows that he loves Rowena, and does not want to reveal her own feelings. She distracts her father’s attention by pointing out the King’s presence. He interprets this as meaning a business opportunity, i.e. to lend money to the sovereign.

Postscript: In due course, Ivanhoe marries Rowena and they have a long and happy life together. Rebecca leaves England and devotes her life to works of charity. Prince John does not have to wait much longer to succeed to the throne.  Malvoisin, on the other hand, is executed for treason.

CD recording of the performance:

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