What links Frederick Delius and James Bond? - Britten Sinfonia

What links Frederick Delius and James Bond?

Hassan was a hit 1923 West End play by James Elroy Flecker with a substantial score by Delius. Despite a very successful first run, it has largely been forgotten in the years since. Reviving and adapting it into a piece for narrator and orchestra a century later has revealed some surprising echoes in 20th-century culture.


Meurig Bowen, Chief Executive & Artistic Director of Britten Sinfonia, shares his thoughts ahead of the upcoming performances of Delius’s Hassan.


A book cover with the text: Penguin Books, Hassan, James Elroy Flecker

One of the things that we have the privilege of being able to do at Britten Sinfonia is to bring back to life lesser known and hardly performed repertoire from the past.

With a concert performance of Delius’s incidental music to Hassan, we are able to un-couple the music from a play whose success was as notable at its premiere a century ago as its subsequent consignment to theatrical oblivion. There are quotes from the play in novels by Anthony Powell, Agatha Christie and Neville Shute. There is an inscription from Hassan on the clocktower at the SAS’s regimental barracks near Hereford, and Teresa Draco (aka Diana Rigg) intones a hymn to dawn from her Alpine mountaintop hideaway in the 1969 Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. But the play itself enjoyed no further performances following successful opening runs in Germany and London in 1923.

Apart from a suitably dreamy Serenade gaining a life of its own – the ‘single from the album’ as it were – the rest of Delius’s score to James Elroy Flecker’s five act play has suffered a parallel neglect. Divorced entirely from its dramatic context, the numerous and sometimes quite brief scene-setting cues might struggle to take hold in a concert setting alone.

old printed concert programmes

In order to address this potential problem, I have written a narrative précis that binds the musical cues together and, through liberal quotations from the play itself, aims to place the listener in the world of Flecker’s initially light-hearted, then far darker and brutal Baghdad-located drama. It is a solution which recognises that Delius’s score will realistically never again be heard in its original context – Flecker’s work has not ‘aged well’, and neither have the surrounding racial/cultural values of that colonial era – but which aims pragmatically to allow this fine music to re-surface.

Just as we presented Holst’s Savitri last year with Pagrav Dance Company – contextualising Edwardian-era music alongside the work of 21st century British-Indian dance – the set-up and context of Delius’s Hassan score seemed equally important here. Having wanted for a while to find an opportunity to work with Joseph Tawadros, this seemed like the perfect fit for his unique charisma and energy: I hope the sound and spirit of his oud – for me the most evocative and archetypal sound of the Middle East – will set the scene well for you.

Likewise, it is a pleasure to be working on this project with conductor Jamie Phillips – such a champion of 20th century British music – and with presenter Zeb Soanes – I think one of the most beautiful and sonorous speaking voices on the planet.

I hope to see you there!

Meurig Bowen, Chief Executive & Artistic Director, Britten Sinfonia

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