Arthurian Legend in Music


Ballet cycle in two parts

Music: John McCabe
Choreography: David Bintley
Sets: Peter J. Davison
Costumes: Jasper Conran
Lighting: Peter Mumford

Part 1 sponsored (2000) by BRB Trust's Millennium Club, with additional support from Forward and the Millennium Festival; parts 1 and 2 supported by the John Feeney Charitable Trust; part 2 sponsored (2001) by Powergen UK plc

Part 1 was given its premiere on 25 January 2000.
Part 2: premiere May 2001, Sadler's Wells; re-opens the Birmingham Hippodrome September 2001.

Approximate performance lengths
Part 1: 2 hours 20 minutes (including one interval)
Part 2: 2 hours 20 minutes (including one interval)



   The Roman Empire's rule over central Britain has ended and there is civil war as the British kings vie for supreme power. Meanwhile the country is open to attack from all corners.
   One Briton, Uther Pendragon, proves himself the strongest of his race and assumes the title of High King. This claim is supported by the wizard Merlin who forsees that the Pendragon's dynasty will defeat the invading Saxons. During a feast to celebrate the Britons alliance, the Pendragon is entranced by Igraine, the beautiful wife of Gorlois, Duke of Cornwall. Her husband does not miss the desire in the Pendragon's eyes and he rises to leave. The Pendragon forbids this, but Gorlois defies him and walks out, taking his wife with him.
   Gorlois is forced to defend his act of treason against the High King. He leaves Igraine and his three daughters in Tintagel castle and sets out to fight. But Merlin is on the opposite side and he uses his magic so the Pendragon can enter the castle and seduce Igraine. His powerful spell makes the Pendragon look like Igraine's husband. The price Merlin demands is the child that will be conceived that night.
   Only Igraine's daughter Morgan has the gift to see through the Pendragon's disguise. But by the time she raises the alert it is too late. The doors of the castle crash open and her father's body is carried in. The Pendragon is victorious.
   The Pendragon takes all Gorlois' possessions, including his wife and children, as his own. When Igraine gives birth to their son he is exultant until Merlin reminds him of his promise. The Pendragon tries to resist. Merlin uses his powers to take the child and the Pendragon's sword of office, Excalibur.
   Merlin's magic plunges Excalibur into a giant stone so that only the true king will be able to pull it out. Secretly, he has the child christened Arthur. He places Arthur in the care of Sir Ector where he is raised with Ector's son Kay. Many years later, Arthur accompanies Kay to London for his first tournament. Arthur is acting as Kay's squire. Just before the competition they realise that Kay's sword is still at their lodgings. Arthur sets off to fetch it. On his way he passes the sword set in the stone and, curiously, he pulls it out. When he carries it back to Kay, uproar breaks out. Merlin appears and all acknowledge Arthur as king.

   Arthur has successfully led the Britons in many battles against the Saxons. He is saddened by the waste of life on both sides but knows no other way to ensure the peace he longs for in his kingdom of Camelot.
   On the eve of his coronation Arthur and his knights, among them his great friend, Lancelot, gather to celebrate. Merlin appears with Igraine and reveals Arthur's true parentage. At the end of the feast Arthur's attention is caught by a beautiful unknown woman. They spend the night together but in the morning he discovers she is his half sister, Morgan.
   Five years later, Arthur sends Lancelot to woo the beautiful Guinevere to be his queen. Lancelot's own heart is captured, but his oath of chivalry and his loyalty to his friend and king prevent him from acting on his own feelings. Guinevere has also obviously fallen in love with him, but she too is bound by convention. When Arthur arrives she has no choice but to accept him.
   On the eve of his marriage, Arthur tells Merlin of his night with Morgan and of the child that was born on May Day the following year. Merlin has a vision that this boy will destroy Camelot. He orders Arthur to have his son killed. Arthur prepares for the wedding, torn by guilt about his and Morgan's son. Since Morgan has concealed the child's identity, all boys born on May Day must die.
   Meanwhile, Lancelot keeps vigil in a chapel, confused by love and loyalty. Guinevere breaks down as she is getting ready for her wedding. Lancelot appears at her side and they declare their love.
   As Arthur and Guinevere swear their vows, screams of dying children are heard in the distance.


   Morgan and her son Mordred escape the slaughter. She gives the child to her sister Margause to raise as her own with her three sons Gawain, Agravain and Gareth.
   Years pass. Arthur travels north to visit his sisters. He invites the four young men to join the brotherhood of the Round Table and takes his sisters Margause and Morgan to Camelot.
   Lancelot's and Guinevere's love has become all consuming. It is well known among the court and this knowledge is beginning to damage the brotherhood. But Arthur's deep love for both his wife and his best friend prevents him from acting.
   Merlin discovers that Morgan, far from being the Christian nun she pretends to be, is a follower of the Goddess. Begging Merlin to teach her his arts, she embarks on a seduction of the great magician.
   Guinevere hosts a feast. Morgan has enchanted an apple, intending to poison the queen. Unknowingly, Guinevere offers it to Gareth, Margause's youngest son. He dies in agony. Gawain believes the queen guilty of his brother's murder and demands justice. Lancelot defends Guinevere and defeats Gawain.
   In the meantime, Morgan has learnt all she can from Merlin; she now literally possesses him and he is no longer of any use to her. With Mordred's help she kills him and they hide the body.

   Arthur is troubled by Merlin's disappearance. He is without counsel and friends and the fellowship of the Round Table is breaking apart.
   A hunt has been organised. Agravain and Mordred intend to use this opportunity to prove Guinevere's infidelity.
   Lancelot and Guinevere meet in a garden. They are trapped when the hunt is steered towards them. A fight ensues in which Lancelot kills Agravain. Guinevere is captured but Lancelot escapes.
   Guinevere is tried and found guilty of adultery; shorn of her hair, she is sent to a nunnery. Gawain insists on avenging his brother's death. Arthur and his knights depart for Lancelot's castle, Joyous Garde, leaving Mordred as Regent. Morgan's powerful hold over her son seems to have slackened and she is starting to lose control over the events she has unleashed.
   Joyous Garde is besieged. Lancelot and Gawain fight in single combat. Gawain is defeated, but Lancelot will not kill him. He tears off his armour and renounces his knighthood.
   Arthur and his companions set off for Camelot. Gawain, mortally wounded in his fight with Lancelot, dies during the journey. At Camelot they find that Mordred has usurped the crown and is about to marry Guinevere.
   Arthur manages to rescue Guinevere; with the last handful of loyal knights they flee Camelot, which is now controlled by Mordred and his followers.
   The Last Battle. The flower of knighthood lie slain; only three figures stand among the carnage. In a final confrontation, Arthur kills Mordred, but not before his son also deals him a mortal blow. A penitent Morgan takes her brother's body for burial at Avalon.
   Britain is once again in turmoil. In a field hospital a nun lies dying; she is Guinevere. Lancelot, who has taken holy orders, arrives. Together they recall the glories of Camelot. He begs a last kiss but she dies in his arms before his wish can be granted.