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Wat Tyler (John Noble)

Wat Tyler (John Noble) and John Ball (Richard Angas)

John Ball (Richard Angas) and Wat Tyler (John Noble)

Wat Tyler (John Noble)

Wat Tyler (John Noble) and his wife Margaret (Valerie Masterson)

Wat Tyler (John Noble)

Archbishop Sudbury (Martin Lawrence), The Queen Mother (Laura Sarti) and King Richard II (Joseph Ward)

Wat Tyler (John Noble) and King Richard II (Joseph Ward)

King Richard II (Joseph Ward)

A scene from Wat Tyler

A scene from Wat Tyler

A scene from Wat Tyler

A scene from Wat Tyler

Background to the Opera - 'Wat Tyler'

Wat Tyler is Alan Bush's first full-length opera, with a libretto by his wife, Nancy Bush. It is an English opera with an English theme; it presents the story of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381, led by Wat Tyler and the priest John Ball. This was a rising against serfdom with the aim of replacing it by wage labour and freedom for every man to rent his own acre.

The libretto keeps closely to actual historical events and makes use of early sources such as contemporary songs and Froissart's Chronicles. The music is of the 20th century, but at the same time has it roots in English medieval melody and harmony. Much of the action of the opera is expressed in great choral scenes, but also the main protagonists are shown in dramatic conflict.

The opera won a prize in the Arts Council Festival of Britain Competition of 1951, and was given a private concert performance later that year in London with the composer at the piano. In April 1952, the East Berlin Radio gave a broadcast of it in German translation, which led to the first of many stage productions in Germany and elsewhere. Its premiere was on 6th September 1953, in Leipzig, where it is on record that it was applauded for 25 minutes. The first British production took place at Sadler's Wells Theatre on 19th June 1974, also to very great acclaim.


Wat Tyler Baritone
John Ball Bass
Herdsman Bass
Escaped Serf Tenor
Elderly Peasant Tenor
King Richard II Tenor
Sir Thomas Bampton Bass-Baritone
Archbishop Sudbury Bass
Walworth, Lord Mayor of London Bass-Baritone
Earl of Salisbury Baritone
Minstrel Tenor
Herald Tenor
Retainer Tenor
Clerk Tenor
Margaret, wife of Wat Tyler Lyric Soprano
Jennet, daughter of Wat Tyler Soprano
Fishwife Mezzo-Soprano
Eleanor, Queen Mother Mezzo-Soprano
Peasants, Townsfolk, Nobles



A forest in Kent, at the end of May, 1381. Serfs are returning from work and one of them, meaning to escape, hides until the others have gone. A Herdsman tries to dissuade the fugitive, hinting that "great things are stirring" that may bring the end of serfdom. Peasants enter for a secret meeting of the "Great Society", singing a traditional song of the time.

Act 1

Scene 1
Maidstone Market Place, June 1381. Townspeople and peasants have been summoned to be listed for the Poll Tax. One of them, Wat Tyler, has their support when he urges them to refuse to pay a second time. The crowd resist Sir Thomas Bampton, the Royal Commissioner, when he arrives. Brutal treatment of the re-captured serf of the Prologue rouses them further. Threatened by Sir Thomas Bampton, they finally chase him and his followers out of the town.

Wat Tyler and Margaret

Scene 2
A room in Wat Tyler's cottage near Maidstone, the same evening. Wat Tyler returns home to his wife and daughter with news of the taxing. He rouses his wife's enthusiasm for the coming struggle to end serfdom. They are interrupted by Sir Thomas Bampton and his clerk, who have lost their way and ask for shelter. Sir Thomas Bampton becomes drunk and insults Jennet, Wat Tyler's young daughter. Defending her, Wat Tyler strikes him to the ground. Bampton staggers out, followed by his clerk. Tyler meditates on the coming uprising and goes out to rouse the men of Kent.

Scene 3
Maidstone Market Place, a week later. The Peasant army march into the square, acclaim Wat Tyler as their leader and declare they will seek their freedom from King Richard alone. They set free John Ball, a priest famous for his sermons against serfdom, by storming Maidstone prison. He preaches from the Market Cross and together with Wat Tyler leads them on the road to London.

Act 2

Scene 1
A room in the Tower of London, a few days later. The young King, Richard II, sits listening to a minstrel. Members of his Council stand apart. The Queen Mother enters, having been turned back from her pilgrimage to Canterbury by peasants on the march. She upbraids the King and nobles for inaction. After discussion among the Council, Archbishop Sudbury suggests a meeting between the King and the rebels, at which Richard will agree to the peasants' demands.

Scene 2
An open field at Smithfield, three days later. The King and nobles await the people's Petition. The peasants are drawn out of sight. Entering with the Herdsman, Wat Tyler addresses the King; his request for freedom is granted and Charters promising this are carried to the waiting crowd. As he turns to go, Wat Tyler is insulted by Sir Thomas Bampton, he draws his dagger and is surrounded by the nobles. Walworth stabs him to death. The King declares himself leader of the people and goes out to them. John Ball and a group of peasants sing a dirge over Wat Tyler.

Scene 3
Outside Westminster Abbey, at the end of June. A deputation of peasants wait for the King. The Charters have not been honoured and they wish to appeal to him in person. As they wait, Margaret mourns for Wat Tyler's death. The King and nobles enter for a thanksgiving service. The King pauses to read the Charter, tears it in pieces and declares that serfdom will continue forever. To the sounds of a Te Deum the Abbey doors close behind the triumphal royal procession. The peasants are at first desolated; then turning away from the Abbey break into a chorus of hope for future freedom.

Alan Bush: 'Notes on characterisation in opera roles in Wat Tyler'

In August 1968, Alan Bush wrote about composing for opera.

"My method of developing the characterisation through intonation in the individual operas is very well exemplified in the role of Wat Tyler, especially in the recitative and aria at the end of Act I, Scene 2. I always pay great attention to the first speech sung by any particular character. At Wat Tyler's entry in Act I, Scene 2, he is singing the peasant song 'When Adam delved and Eve span', and his conversation thereafter is derived from this and also from the motif, DBAD, which is associated with Wat Tyler throughout. After the narration, his speeches derive from the other main motifs of the aria, until his love for Margaret is expressed in a smoother melodic line. His final dying speech is derived straight from the aria, but with the tones altered mostly to semi-tones. The melodic material of the orchestral accompaniment is an extended development of these same motifs. In the role of King Richard II, you need to compare the melodic material in his opening arioso, his response to the Minstrel's song, to his later speeches towards the end of the opera. The characterisation of the various roles is also intensified negatively by the fact that the main motifs of each role are completely absent from the other voice parts."

Opinions and Commentary on 'Wat Tyler'

John Ball and Wat Tyler

Professor Edward Dent, musicologist and music critic, writing on 'Wat Tyler' in 1950,states: "The last few years have seen a remarkable development of public interesting opera in this country but the popular repertory is still limited mainly to…foreign work…If opera, and of course opera in English, is to become a really national institution in this country, it is urgently necessary for us to build up a stock of modern operas composed to English words by own composers…'Wat Tyler' ought to be a notable addition to our all too small supply…The libretto, by Nancy Bush, is extremely well written and combines dramatic force with very impressive dignity in its more serious moments. The opera, in its general conception, bears some resemblance to Mussorgsky's 'Boris Godonov'; it tells the story not so much of a single hero as of a whole people. The main burden of the drama falls on the chorus…Bush treats the chorus with great breadth and daring simplicity…The second act provides more opportunities for the solo singers, and another contrast is contrived in the scene of the court of Richard II. In the later scenes Wat Tyler's wife has great dramatic opportunities, and the end provides occasion for effective pageantry and scenic grandeur" (Reprinted from 'Tribute to Alan Bush on his Fiftieth Birthday, WMA, 1950).

W.L.W, The Guardian, 10 December 1956 writes: "There is nothing in this score to alarm or bewilder anyone who has heard with any pleasure, say, the Vaughan Williams of the Second and Fifth Symphonies; in fact, there are many easily remembered ballad-like tunes, in which Bush uses a folky idiom almost as naturally as Vaughan Williams does himself. But far from being a ballad opera, or anything like it, this work is musically and, on the whole, dramatically coherent and urgent. Most of the longer themes grow impressively from a few short figures sturdily braced by rising fourths and fifths, which appear early in Wat's music. These leitmotivs of rebellion are wonderfully transmuted in the second act, movingly in Margaret's lament for her husband and …ironically in King Richard's repudiation of his promises. The peasants also have two splendid marching songs using similar material - one related in rhythm and mood to the Agincourt Song…The second act opens in the different world of the King's court, and Bush makes the contrast with some of the loveliest music in the whole work; two elaborate quasi-modal songs for the Minstrel, and Richard's languid, melismatic idyll on the fair country of Aquitaine…"

Desmond Shawe-Taylor, The Sunday Times, 23 June 1974, on the Sadler's Wells production, writes: "Perhaps it is only our unfamiliarity with Bush's extensive output that prevents us from recognising his distinctive voice…In middle life, he deliberately shed certain austerities and obscurities, and adopted a simpler and more directly English manner…Naturally with such a subject, the chorus plays a major role…the general conception can truly be called Mussorgskian. As in Mussorgsky, the individual characters are not ciphers…Minor roles are sometimes established with fine economy-as can be seen, for example, at the incursions of the Queen Mother and of the Archbishop in the mainly lyrical and wholly non-choral scene at the court of Richard II. Some of the best music in the score comes in the two episodes for the priest, John Ball. More conventional roles are devised for Tyler's wife and daughter, but even these are effective enough in an accepted idiom. Tyler himself, the bold peasant leader, is a forceful, sometimes lyrical high baritone; the King a light tenor, whose rather colourless music might be excused as the natural artistic consequence of his youth and weakness…I should like to see what the Welsh National Opera could make of such a work; it seems a natural choice for them…"

© Rachel O'Higgins, Alan Bush Music Trust, 2001