The Visions of Elizabeth Barton: a feminist view of a forgotten anti-Reformation mystic.

By Benjamin Graves (Darwin College PhD candidate and CUMS Composer-in-Residence 2019-20)

The Visions of Elizabeth Barton was commissioned by the Park Lane Group. Its first performance was given by the Hermes Experiment (Héloïse Werner, soprano; Oliver Pashley, clarinet; Anne Denholm, harp; and Marianne Schofield, contrabass) on 16th January 2019 in the Purcell Room, Southbank Centre, London.

I included in the score a quote from Alan Neame’s book The Holy Maid of Kent, which perfectly sets the scene for The Visions of Elizabeth Barton:

“In January and February [1526] Kentish days are dark and the nights are long. As the candles gutter and the logs throw up their sparks, the Rector observes the Maid, and through his eyes the eyes of the Archbishop of Canterbury survey Goldwell from afar. And over all that passes at the dinner-table gazes down the all-seeing eye of Almighty God. Outside the winds moan, the ice forms, the snows fall. And inside, the Maid falls into trances and convulsions, begging men to renew their loyalty to God’s Church.”

It took a long time for me to devise a suitable text that did justice to the life of Elizabeth Barton but this paragraph suggested a solution. The “scena” is set on a cold winter’s night, at the dinner table of Thomas Cobb, to whom Barton was servant and gave her first premonitions.

Warning: the following paragraph contains mention of violent sexual acts. 

I first came across The Holy Maid of Kent in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which paints a picture of a defiant voice in opposition to Henry VIII’s Protestant Reformation. The more I researched Barton the more I realised her fate mirrored that of many women who stood up to patriarchal control.  I was reminded of Mary Beard’s London Review of Books Winter Lecture in 2014 entitled The Public Voice of Women in which she outlines the various punishments meted out to women who dared enter public debate, from Penelope silenced by her own son at the very beginning of Western literature (“‘Mother’, he says, ‘go back up to your quarters…speech will be the business of men,’”), to Beard’s own Twitter trolls today. More specifically, she discusses the nature of this silencing, from Philomela in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Lavinia in Titus Andronicus having their tongues removed by their respective rapists, to threats by those trolls such as “I’m going to cut off your head and rape it” and “you should have your tongue ripped out.” These punishments and threats mirror Barton’s own fate of being hanged and her corpse being decapitated. The aim of the piece, therefore, was to give Barton her voice back by setting her prophecies to music.

Continue from here having avoided potential triggers.

Beard further describes the act of public speaking in antiquity as being viewed as an exclusively male preserve: ‘as one ancient scientific treatise explicitly put it, a low-pitched voice indicated manly courage, a high-pitched voice female cowardice.’ So, Barton – as indeed were all notable medieval and renaissance mystics – was required to ‘man-up’ her voice to be heard. God was speaking, not Barton.

The soprano’s music, therefore, aims to allow Barton her own voice. Her vocal lines are signified “dolce”, modal in character and mellifluous, with extended melisma and ornamentation.

Opening line of Vision I from The Visions of Elizabeth Barton
Opening line of Vision II from The Visions of Elizabeth Barton

It is the ensemble’s music which expresses the turmoil of her visions and is best described by Thomas Cranmer:

“[God’s] voice, when it told any thing of the joys of Heaven, it spake so sweetly and so heavenly that every man was ravished with the hearing thereof; and contrary, when it told any thing of Hell, it spake so horribly and terribly that it put the hearers in great fear.”

Vision I speaks “sweetly and so heavenly” with combinations of clarinet multiphonics, contrabass natural harmonics high up in its range and a flowing harp accompaniment culminating in harmonics. The clash in quartertones only enhances the colour of the passage.

Bars 15 and 16 (Vision I) of The Visions of Elizabeth Barton

To suggest a feeling of the divine, the clarinet and contrabass in Vision I play an augmented chorale, the harmony evoking a cadence onto a major triad.

Chorale harmony from bars 10 to 20 (Vision I) of The Visions of Elizabeth Barton

Vision II speaks “horribly and terribly”, employing the clattering sounds of clarinet slap tongues and staccato tonguing on false fingerings, harp heavily prepared with thick layers of blu-tac on its strings, plucking using a thumb-pick and its pedals set in clusters, and contrabass ricochet. The ensemble sound is muddied by close double stops and glissandos in the contrabass’ lowest range.

Bars 53 and 54 (Vision II) of The Visions of Elizabeth Barton

This vision concerns itself less with harmony than with gesture and the rise and fall of waves of sounds.

Wave gestures from bars 47 and 52 (Vision II) of The Visions of Elizabeth Barton

The notes chosen are loosely based on the resulting interval of the clarinet’s downward glissandos. The top line of the example 27 is the extent of the glissando, the first being a major second. The second line is the harp, which expands this interval, in the first instance by one step, to a minor third and adds a seventh. The contrabass on the bottom line expands this still further, to a major third and adds to this, two sevenths. Any deviation from this pattern is a result of the harp’s pedal settings, so the nearest note was chosen.

I hope with this piece I have produced a suitable account of a highly important and interesting, but unfortunately silenced figure in British Tudor history.

The University of Cambridge New Music Group performs The Visions of Elizabeth Barton, along with works by Grisey, Kaija Saariaho, John Luther Adams, Darren Bloom and students of the University of Cambridge. 31 January 2020 at 730pm; in the Museum of Zoology, Downing Street. Click here for tickets.


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Cambridge University Musical Society
West Road Concert Hall
11 West Road, Cambridge CB3 9DP
Principal Guest Conductor
Sir Roger Norrington CBE
Artistic Advisor
Sian Edwards
Director, Cambridge University Symphony Chorus
Richard Wilberforce
Director, Cambridge University Chamber Choir
Martin Ennis
Associate Directors, Cambridge University Chamber Choir
David Lowe, Nicholas Mulroy