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.