The Anvil

An Elegy for Peterloo

for soprano, baritone, chamber choir, youth choir, chorus and orchestra (2019)

Text by Michael Symmons Roberts

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Duration: 40'

Commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and Manchester International Festival

World première: Kate Royal (soprano), Christopher Purves (baritone) and the BBC Philharmonic, BBC Singers, Hallé Choir, Hallé Youth Choir and Hallé Ancoats Community Choir, conducted by Ben Gernon at the Bridgewater Hall, Manchester, on 7th July 2019.

First broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on 16th August 2019, the 200th Anniversary of Peterloo.



"… the bone shaking force of Emily Howard’s climactic musical commission, [The Anvil], written for the full blast of the BBC Philharmonic, two soloists, the BBC Singers and three Hallé choirs. All 325 performers, topped off by the conductor Ben Gernon, handled its 36 minutes extraordinarily well.

Michael Symmons Roberts supplied the texts, some compiled from a word grid extracted from contemporary reports of the massacre, others fused into pungent lines of poetry, conveyed by the soprano Kate Royal with unflinching eloquence and a look of persistent horror.

… [Howard’s] instrumental panache, driven by beavering strings, constantly slashed by hard percussion, received its most powerful showcase in a section simulating the cavalry slaughter (15 killed, more than 600 injured), where the chorus’s words, perhaps by design, became swallowed up in the feverish notes. Elsewhere, Howard simplified textures, allowing hymn cadences into the mix, or spotlighting Christopher Purves’s thrusting baritone. When he sang the word “servitude” you could feel the shackles.

It’s heartwarming to find a youngish British composer such as Howard with the confidence and muscle to carry off a blockbuster like this. …"

★★★★ - The Times

The Anvil received its world premiere last night. It’s an ambitious 45-minute cantata, seeking not only to tell the story but also to convey a "what-would-it-have-been-like-if-you-were-there" impression.

Its construction is intricate, incorporating an idea of literally weaving words that evoke the event and its background (inspired by the fact that so many of those present or injured were described by the role of "weaver"). Michael Symmons Roberts constructed a giant grid of pregnant words that are assembled, dismantled and hurled into the mix, creating the effect of an unpredictable throng, with its slogans and would-be speakers, that must have been part of the reality of the day. As Emily Howard said afterwards: "If you were there you wouldn’t have heard anything most of the time – just snippets."

So that element in the soundworld was intentional. At the same time there is a narrative element, as Symmons Roberts’s seven-paragraph The Stones of Peterloo, picturing the scene, the event and the aftermath, is overlaid on it and interspersed with it.

This brings the more dramatic side of the story to the fore. Howard builds huge vocal-instrumental crashes, roars and surges, ratcheting up the tension as we know the fatal charge is coming, making her singers cry out their demands and the pulse of the music accelerate. There was almost an element of the Jaws film score about it – and with the greatest climax came a sound truly like that of a crowd in fear; and then there was the horrific peace that follows every bloodbath, with just the repeated intoning of the word "Suffrage", like an agonized prayer, still to be heard.

Among the most vivid elements in this soundtrack to the story was the earlier, slow tread of a procession, with hymn-like strains emerging from the choirs, culminating in a full-throated rendering of Tallis’s Canon tune – only itself to be disrupted. This has its roots in the historical evidence, too: the agitators of the day wrote polemical new words to the tunes of hymns everyone knew.

Kate Royal was assigned a role that included much of the narrative part of Symmons Roberts’s poem; Christopher Purves represented the various male protagonists of the event, and more … finally including a cold, Sprechstimme-style description of the injured and their wounds.

The last word – unaccompanied soprano solo – is Symmons Roberts’s last vivid, but unsettling, summary of the heritage of Peterloo: "A piece of grit lodged in a tooth". (The title The Anvil, incidentally, simply refers to the approximate shape of the site’s ground-plan on the map).

The Arts Desk