Bow Down is based on the ballad The Two Sisters, which appears and re-appears in folklore all over
northern Europe and in North America (where it
turns up, in at least one manifestation, as a bluegrass number).
Each version has its own idiosyncratic details,
depending on the local culture and geography. However, the basic outline of the
story remains the same:
A suitor comes to woo the
fairer of two sisters. The other
(dark) sister is consumed with jealousy and takes the fair one for a walk by
the waterside in order to push her in. The fairer sister drowns and her body is
swept away, leaving the dark one free to pursue the suitor. Meanwhile, the body
is washed up on a nearby shore, where it is found by a rapacious miller who plunders
it. Later it is rediscovered by a blind musician who fashions an instrument
from it, using the bones for the frame and the hair for the strings.
The musician goes on his way, carrying his new
instrument, until he comes to a wedding feast which is celebrating the marriage
of the suitor and the dark sister. He is invited to play for the couple but,
before he can lay his hands on the strings, the instrument itself sings the
story of the murder. Enraged, the wedding guests turn on the dark sister and
put her to death – burying her alive in the ground as her sister was buried
alive in the water.
Bow Down is a story of enormously powerful
images – horrific in its details of sibling rivalry, mutilation, torture and
murder and yet also transcendent in the way that music is perceived as being
capable of overcoming death in order to reveal the truth.
Clearly, as with all good legends or fairy
stories, the myth is capable of any number of interpretations – Marxist,
Freudian and Feminist among them. But Bow
Down does not set out to make that sort of intervention. It rather presents
us with a collage of different versions, sometimes overlapping, sometimes contradicting
each other. The focus keeps changing, as does the diction (the show includes
Scottish, Northumbrian and Danish versions, amongst others) and the detail. By
constantly shifting the angle of vision, Harrison Birtwistle has created a
piece that is, in a way, cubist. And yet, it’s also a rattling good story.
In fact, Bow
Down sits squarely in the story-telling-tradition. It is not a play where the
music has the role of providing atmosphere or 'numbers'. Nor is it an opera, in
which dramatic personae appear on stage while the music comes from a separate
'pit' band. It can only really be classified as music-theatre, a term
appropriated by a very diverse range of material but which can perhaps best be
defined as 'work whose dramatic content is purposeless without the music and
whose music is meaningless without the dramatic content.'
It is therefore a highly collaborative piece,
originally created through a workshop process at the National Theatre in 1977. Composer,
poet, director, actors and musicians worked together to devise a piece based on
the original ballad texts. The final 'script' or 'score' was not put together until
after the event.