Look and Bow Down (2002-3)

Duration: 27 minutes

Tenor and Mezzo-Soprano soloists, SATB chorus, chamber orchestra (2232.2210.perc.(3), pno, hp, strings)

fp: Eleanor Meynell, John Bowley, Christ’s Hospital School Orchestra/Bruce Grindlay, 25.3.03, Barbican

Selected as one of Classical Music Magazine’s ‘Premieres of the Year’, December 2003

Listen to extracts of Look and Bow Down by Alan Charlton performed by Eleanor Meynell, John Bowley, Christ’s Hospital School Orchestra conducted by Bruce Grindlay:

Elizabeth: the Doubt of Future Foes (20-31)

Choir: Regiomontanus’s Prediction (47-55)

Choir: Bayeux Tapestry 1 (64-82)

Choir: Bayeux Tapestry 2 (90-98)

Choir/Eliz.: Look and Bow Down (101-end)


Look and Bow Down was commissioned by Christ’s Hospital to celebrate the 450th anniversary of the school in 2003. The work is based around a piece of the same name by William Byrd to celebrate the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. This earlier work, to words by Elizabeth I was first sung by the choristers of Christ’s Hospital outside St Paul’s Cathedral in 1588. Only three fragments from the original work survive, the instrumental introductions to each of the three verses, and brief snatches of the beginnings of the vocal line in these verses. Most of the material used in the commissioned work is derived from the Byrd fragments work, and the quotation of the Byrd fragments in full forms the climax of the work.

The structure of Look and Bow Down follows, through their writings, the development of two characters, in whose lives war played a defining role. Elizabeth I is the first of these characters, of whose writings two other texts besides Look and Bow Down are also set: The Doubt of Future Foes, written in c.1571 against the backdrop of a possible plot to install Mary Queen of Scots, and the Speech to the Troops at Tilbury, delivered by the queen herself to the troops about to face the Spanish Armada, which, through its inspirational effect is often credited as unifying the army and bringing about the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

Running parallel to the development of Elizabeth is the story of a second character, Keith Douglas, who was a pupil at Christ’s Hopsital and posthumously became one of the leading Second World War poets, who was killed three days after the Normandy Landings in 1944 at the age of 24. Three early poems written while the poet was still at school are set: Youth, On Leaving School and Dejection, as well as a poem written during the build up to the Normandy invasion, Actors Waiting in the wings of Europe. 

The early poetry of both characters seems to predict a great challenge to be faced ahead and to bring substance to this sense of destiny, the chorus acts as a sort of harbinger of fate, representing in general terms the course of events which change the lives of the protagonists forever: a foreboding of great catastrophe, in the shape of a prediction of calamity for the year 1588 by the mathematician Regiomontanus; text from the Bayeux Tapestry which describes the build up to the battle of Hastings, culminating in the battle itself; and the outcome of the war, with words from Elizabeth’s Look and Bow Down

The work is scored for tenor and mezzo-soprano soloists, representing the characters of Keith Douglas and Elizabeth respectively, SATB chorus and a slightly expanded chamber orchestra that includes three clarinets, trombone, harp, piano and three percussionists. There are prominent roles for first clarinet, first bassoon, solo violin, piano, trombone and percussion.