I read two novels, one Italian, the other Sicilian: The Bread and the Wine by Silone, and I Malavoglia by Verga, both of which, in exact and concentrated language, present the sweat and tears of peasant life up against authority, on the one hand Fascismo, on the other rieh landowners. Both books impressed me deeply; the Verga in its pity and intensity reduced me to tears.
For some time I had wanted to create a work especially for the soprano Linda Hirst, and in search of a story I mentioned the two novels to my friend and colleague, David Hirst. He in turn put before me L’operaio conosce 300 parole il padrone 1000 per questo lui e il padrone [The worker knows 300 words, the boss knows 1000 – that’s why he’s the boss], a play written in 1969 by Dario Fo, and very much a product of its time. However, one episode struck us, both by the fact that it is essentially a monologue, and by the remarkable story it has to tell. If I did not know it was a true story, I would have said that Fo had taken an episode from The Bread and the Wine and simply transposed it to Sicily.
This is not the case.
The monologue in the play is that of the mother of Michele Lu Lanzone; this became a performance vehicle in its own right for Franca Rame, Fo’s wife. A Sicilian woman relives her son’s death at the hands of the Mafia after he discovers a spring in a region stricken by drought; people from the village find his dead body plugging up the spring. The story is told through many voices, speech and song; to be performed in epic style, it is never naturalistic.
My aim has not been to set the text. Fo’s text contains its own rhythmic intensity – it is maintained by my translator, David Hirst, for performance in English. The music runs as a stream parallel to the text and maintains its own intensity in response to the story. Composed in 1989, the work is scored for singer with flute/alto flute, clarinet/bass clarinet, two percussion, piano, harp, viola and cello. The premiere was given by Linda Hirst with Lontano at the Lilian Baylis Theatre, London on 1 February 1990.
… dramatic shape has always been one of Hoyland’s strengths, in his instrumental as much as his theatre pieces, and La Madre moves in a beautifully proportioned curve; the switches between the vocal modes are finely calculated and the textures full of his spiky rhythms and edgy, potent sonorities. (Andrew Clements, Financial Times)
It is finely wrought, glinting, sparingly written music, emotional without being effusive, and with an aptly Italianate flavour. There are memorably striking passages, such as the very opening, which has the sudden energy of an uncoiled spring; and the protagonist’s quiet sung interludes are touching. (Paul Driver, The Sunday Times)
Linda Hirst keeps up a torrential flow of English and Italian both sung and spoken, centres the performance on vocal and facial expression – as a primarily music feat of virtuosity it needs only the minimal of staging to make its impact. (Robert Maycock, The Independent)
It is a virtuoso vehicle, which Hirst performed with total commitment … the sounds were piercingly well imagined, sharp-edged and rugged as in the best of Hoyland’s music. (
Nicholas Kenyon, The Observer)