The Story of Eilmer in Music

The first performance took place in Malmesbury Abbey on Saturday March 31st 2001 of Eilmer! by Mike Scanlon and John Hughes. The performance was given by Malmesbury Singers and Malmesbury Abbey Choir, conducted by John Hughes, with Janet Barton playing the organ and Julia Poynton on the flute. The principle parts were sung by Andrew Oxley (Eilmer as a young boy), Dick Jowitt (Eilmer), Iain Duffin (Abbot of Malmesbury) and Jane Henderson (Abbess of Bath). Megan Mills and Tony Royle sang an amusing interlude as a couple of drunks. There was even a chorus for the audience, split into four parts, that was rehearsed by John Hughes before the performance proper started.

All that is known about Eilmer is derived from the writings of William of Malmesbury. Mike Scanlon used the bare details to devise a story that was plausible, very witty and at the same time had a serious message.

At the start Eilmer as a boy introduces us to the story, telling how he contemplated human flight. Then after a dance for flute and piano, the monks and nuns sing of their dedication to God, and how an obedient life will lead to rewards in Heaven. Then we hear the Abbot remonstrating with Eilmer about how sinful his plans to fly are, that man is meant to stay with his feet firmly planted on earth. Eilmer nevertheless sings how man is destined to fly one day, and he believes he can be the first.

The Abbess of Bath then arrives and outlines the "discoveries" her community have made, such as turning metal to gold, and announces that she is off to Rome to present her findings to the Pope. When faced with these claims, all the Abbot can do is tell her about their own pioneer, the monk who is preparing to fly, much to the Abbess's scorn.

So Eilmer is granted permission, and in the centrepiece of the work he gives instructions as to how to prepare his wings, and looks ahead to possible success or failure. With a surreal touch, the Abbot now becomes commentator and describes the build-up through a megaphone. However before Eilmer launches himself, there is a dream sequence in which he, and then the chorus of monks and nuns, imagine themselves on a magic carpet.

We are then brought back to reality with the commentary of the actual flight itself and its sudden end after a journey of a furlong. This is accompanied by appropriate sound effects, some of them quite anachronistic such as a police siren. There then follows a song by a couple of drunks who are resolved to give up the bottle after looking up to see a monk soaring above them. In contrast three nuns sing in praise of a brave man, and the chorus of townspeople gather to give honour to their Flying Monk.

There is a moving finale when Eilmer as an old man comes back on supported by crutches and looks back on how he had accomplished his seemingly impossible dream through faith, expertise and courage.

The performance was generously applauded by a full Abbey who appreciated the imagination of the writer and composer and the hard work that had gone into producing the performance.

On December 9th 2006 Malmesbury Singers gave the first performance of a new piece entitled "Hannah & the tyger" based on the story of Hannah Twynnoy - also composed and co-written by John Hughes and Mike Scanlon.

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