Roger Marsh Composer

Love on the Rocks 1989


Commissioned by Vocem and The Tibia Flute Quartet (Amsterdam), Love on the Rocks was part of an extraordinary music theatre project called ‘Charon’.

Tibia was an extraordinary quartet (Jos Zwaanenburg, Birgitta Leidelmeijer, Marja Mosk and Matthijs Broers) who played the entire range of flutes from piccolo to bass flute, including ‘open-holed’ alto and bass flutes whose design was initiated by Jos Zwaanenburg in collaboration with flute makers Eva Kingma and Dirk Kuiper. Tibia specialised in contemporary music and had already commissioned a number of new compositions. Similarly Vocem (details herehad pioneered amplified vocal music theatre. They  produced the first staged version of Berio’s A Ronne, and also of my own Not a soul but ourselves. I had collaborated with them on a London performance of Andante Cantabile (Stanton). The combination of these two quartets was a very exciting prospect.

Jos Zwaanenburg and Frances Lynch (Vocem) came up with the idea of asking four composers to write a music theatre piece for four voices and four flutes, taking as their subject one of the four living characters ferried across the river Styx by ‘Charon’, the boatman of the dead. The four included Orpheus and Heracles. I don’t remember the others because I took a different route and wrote a piece about four other characters who visited the underworld and returned –  Odysseus, Aeneas, Dante and Alcestis – and in my piece they meet Charon, but do not travel with him.

Charon, in Love on the Rocks,  is a surly ferryman who hates his job and is uncommonly rude to his potential customers.  His repeated cry, as he plies his pole, is: “Only the buried…..can be ferried……!”  The cry is supported by a chorus of souls singing a repeated traveling refrain on the name ‘Charon’.  In successive sections divided by ferry choruses, Aeneas, Odysseus and Dante quiz the ferryman in their various ways.  Finally Alcestis, sits alone on the river bank waiting to be ferried to the underworld. She is an old woman, not the young woman of Euripides play.  That Alcestis gave herself to Death to save her husband Admetus.  But Heracles went down to Hades with Charon and brought her back.  When she returned she was strangely silent.  In Love on the Rocks we discover why.  It is because when she went to the underworld the first time, she saw Charon and was smitten by him – fiery, strong and everything her husband could never be.  But, frustratingly, she was snatched back from her new-found love by the do-gooder Heracles. Now waiting once more for the ferryman, the aged Alcestis calls to Charon to ‘row me across…to the other side……’.  But Charon recedes, leaving her still alone.


Love on the Rocks was premiered by Vocem electric voice theatre and The Tibia Flute Quartet at the Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary Music in November 1990.  It was a very good production, but beset by a number of staging problems on the night which spoiled the occasion.  The same team gave a couple of further less high profile performances shortly afterwards.  But then in 1993 Jos Zwaanenburg proposed a recording of the work, replacing Vocem with the voices of Midland Music Theatre (Anna Myatt, Brendan Renwick, Alison Murchie and myself).  We recorded in Amsterdam and the CD, including pieces by Zwaanenburg, Bank and Loevendie, was released in 1994 on Erasmus (WVH154).

In 1995 the piece caught the attention of opera producer Philip Parr, who Anna and I had met through ‘The Garden Venture’, an education scheme run by Covent Garden.  He was on the lookout for something challenging to put on in the new Opera House at Spitalfields Market. By the time of our three shows in March 1996 the opera house was not quite finished and had no heating. With freezing snow outside, huge heat blowers had to be brought in to warm the space, which then had to be turned off during the performance because of their noise.  By the end of the show the audience must have felt they had themselves been transported across the river Acheron.  But the production was excellent. Philip’s staging was striking, and the performance was everything I could have asked for, with excellent performances from former York students Pascal Wyse, Emily Sharp and Ben Till together with Anna, myself and the Tibia Quartet.  In the first half we served up three of Aperghis Recitations (Anna) Patrick Lee’s Opera on my Lips Pascal Wyse) and Berio’s A Ronne ( Anna, myself, Emily Sharp, Pacal Wyse and Ben Till). We had good audiences. Alas – again – no recording, video or photographic record exists; I am ashamed that we gave such little thought to documentation. Here is a review from the Independent.

The recording of Love on the Rocks can be heard on this page.