THE RETURN OF SILENCE

Oratorio for chorus, soloists, string orchestra and percussion (2006, revised 2009)


The Return of Silence is an adaptation of a portion of the thirteenth century Roman de Silence by Heldris of Cornwall. The original romance follows a complicated plot that evolves over many years, but the oratorio focuses on a single episode in the story: Silence, the protagonist, returns to her parents, the Count and Countess of Cornwall after running away to become a minstrel only to find that all minstrels have been banished on pain of death.


The prologue explains the background of Silence’s predicament. King Evan has disinherited all the women of England and Silence has been raised as a boy so that she can inherit her father’s land. However, she decides to run away in order to train as a musician. In the first scene, Silence arrives at an inn only to have the innkeeper announce that since he is a minstrel he must turn him over to the court tomorrow so that he can avoid being executed for harboring her. To pay for her nights stay she entertains the crowd by playing her viele. In the second scene, Silence faces the court and tries to convince her father that killing her would be futile. Merlin, disguised as an old man, comes to her defense and announces that she is the Count’s long lost son, but this only infuriates the distraught count. In the third scene, Merlin once again tries to placate the Count. This time Merlin tells the Count that, while the minstrel is not his son, he does know him. The Count then invites Silence to his chambers where she explains that she is indeed his daughter and shows him the birthmark on her shoulder. In the final scene, Silence asks her father to lift the ban on minstrels and he consents. The town celebrates the return of both Silence and music.


One of the most interesting aspects of the Romance de Silence is its instance on using both the masculine and feminine pronouns for the protagonist in order to illustrate the perception of her gender by others and by herself. This aspect is preserved in the libretto. The tune that Silence plays for the crowd on her viele at the end of scene one is a variation on the only trobaritz (female troubadour) tune which survives with notation; “A chantar” by the Comtesse de Dia.


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