Sloane 2593

17th Century physician Sir Hans Sloane, with income from his marriage to a plantation heiress collected a large library of important manuscripts. The library was purchased from his estate in 1753 by an Act of Parliament which also established the British Museum, in which the collection was housed. It is now one of the three foundational collections at the British Library. 

Amongst these manuscripts, Sloane 2593 is a 14-15th century collection of seventy songs and carols  written in Middle English and Latin and in Gothic cursive. Among the more famous carols in this collection are Adam lay i-bownden, I have a gentil cook, lullay myn lyking and Wolcom ȝol. The collection is thought to have been compiled at Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk.

Sloane MS 2593 f. 11 Text page with two songs, “Adam lay I-bownden” and “I have a young sister”

I first came across Sloane 2593 while hunting for the manuscript of Adam lay i-bownden, well known through Boris Ord’s setting, and this was found in a web archive copy of Thomas Wright’s 1856 Transcription of a large portion of the manuscript.

Amongst the texts are a dazzling array of different songs and carols including some wonderful macaronic Latin-English texts, drinking songs and carols. Among the more prevalent themes in the text are that of domesday, hymns devoted to the Marian sect of christianity, and the martyrdom of Thomas Beckett. All are written in a rich and poetic style, with frequent clever allusions to psalms and christian dogma.

Since finding this resource and spending some time analysing it, I have been inspired to set many of the texts and this is slowly turning into a project to present the manuscript in a concert. Below are settings I’ve finished so far from this manuscript, and there are more on the way.

Jankyn at the Angnus from the Christmas Music by Candlelight livestream, performed by Ex Cathedra

Jankyn at the Angnus was performed in Ex Cathedra‘s Christmas By Candlelight series, December 2019 and subsequently filmed and released on Sky Arts. In the coming months I will be workshopping some of the other settings with students at the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire.

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Tobermory

Words by Kendra Preston Leonard

Music by Edward Caine

I have found a method of teaching animals to talk. To converse on any topic that they know

Saki, Tobermory

Tobermory is a one-act comedic opera based on the story of the same name by Saki (H. H. Munro). Scene 1 opens on a dreary day at an English country house party, c. 1905, hosted by Sir Wilfrid and Lady Blemley. With little to do but flirt and play bridge, the bored guests ask a newcomer to their group, Cornelius Appin, to describe the research he does with animal intelligence. He announces that he has, as part of his experimentation, taught the Blemleys’ housecat Tobermory to talk. At first, everyone thinks this to be a hoax, but soon enough Tobermory joins the group and proves that he does indeed speak perfect English. But as the guests and hosts try to converse with Tober, it becomes clear that he is full of information about all of them, and proceeds to calmly reveal secrets, quote private conversations, and threatens to make indiscretions public knowledge. His comments throw the party into panic, and everyone agrees that he must be silenced before he teaches other animals to talk or tells talks to anyone else. Tobermory appears to settle in for a nap and the guests debate the best method of killing him. At some point, he slips out of the room, unseen.

In Scene 2, the party is assembled for dinner, but it’s a morose scene: everyone is anxious to locate Tobermory. Odo Finsberry sings to try to lighten the atmosphere, but makes it worse instead. Appin pleads with the Blemleys to let him take Tobermory away, unharmed, to help further his research, but they refuse. From outside, there are the sounds of a cat fight: Tobermory is fighting the large tom from the rectory, and after several minutes, Sir Wilfrid enters with the news that the tom has killed Tobermory. Lady Blemley begins a strong letter of disapproval to the rectory, and despite their murderous intentions of Scene 1, the guests and Blemleys now eulogize Tobermory and sing his praises. When Appin notes this hypocritical turn, he is ejected from the party. 

Scene 3 takes place the following morning. Sir Wilfrid has gone through Appin’s belongings and found newspaper clippings and telegrams. As the guests begin to read, it becomes clear that Appin’s work teaching animals to talk was for the British government, which plans to place speaking cats as spies in important households around the world. Once again the mood changes, and the guests celebrate Tobermory’s ‘sacrifice’ for the good of the nation. 

Tobermory is a project in progress and is looking for collaborative help from performers, directors and opera companies. If you feel that you can help this project, please get in touch.