Maria Marten – trapped in music

It’s a funny business being a theatre producer right now. One moment I’m feeling positive and upbeat, the next I’m focusing on the futility of it all. I’m reaching out to colleagues across the industry with words about art and creativity and a new future, whilst they are battling for survival, trying to keep people’s jobs alive and much-loved organisations open. As one wrote to me today ‘we will absorb when we come up for air’ . This is not a happy time.

I say all this as I’ve been pulling together a fresh tour for The Ballad of Maria Marten, Eastern Angles and Stephen Joseph Theatre’s critically acclaimed show written by Beth Flintoff which I produced in February 2020. A show we hope – Covid willing – to retour in Autumn 2021. Seeds have to be sown!

As I’ve worked I’ve taken the opportunity to revisit a wee spotify play list I made when I originally worked on the show (listen here). Music has this remarkable ability to keep focus going, and energies up – and so it has been today! Listening again to these interpretations reminded me of the post I wrote for the EA blog about how Maria’s history (but not necessarily herstory) has been preserved in song. It remains one of the most popular murder ballads in the English tradition.

Picture Credit Tony Bartholmew

She first appeared on a broadside ballad as early as 1828 (a year after her murder) published by James Catnach a Berwick on Tweed born printer and publisher of the early 19th century.  Whilst it sold more than 1m copies, it was not alone – Tom Pettitt’s The Murdered Sweetheart: Child of Print and Panic?  noted that Maria’s murder, and her stepmothers dream a year later ‘prompted at least five different ballads: “A Copy of Verses, on the Execution of Wm. Corder, for the Murder of Maria Marten, in the Red Barn, Polstead”; “The Murder of Maria Marten”; “The Suffolk Tragedy”, or the “Red Barn Murder”; “The Red Barn Tragedy”; “William Corder”.

There must have been at least one more, since while all these continue the story to the trial in August 1828, it was reported that ballads on the case were already being sold at a fair in the neighbourhood a month earlier’

Picture Credit Tony Bartholmew

From those early beginnings, the sad story took on a life of its own, Maria’s story was quite literally becoming trapped in song.  The ballad has no fewer than 75 entries in the Vaughan Williams (more of him later)  Memorial Library( at EFDSS), and the Mainly Norfolk site has this detailed history.

To this day the classic recording is from the unique voice of Shirley Collins, with her version with the Albion Band from 1971

The traditional tune of the Ballad is based on “Dives and Lazarus”.  Here is the afore mentioned Vaughan Williams’ beautiful orchestral variations on that theme:

(Vaughan Williams would go on to quote the tune in his opera Hugh the Drover).

Singers Laura Smythe and Ted Kemp took their own journey into the Vaughan Williams archives and found this version of the ballad, to a tune collected in Essex (and in this podcast they discuss the song, the story behind it and their search through the archives for a fresh interpretation – well worth a listen).

There has been plenty of modern versions too. I rather like this recent interpretation from Lisa Knapp

From her EP The Summer Draws Near, or look out the version by Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman. And by way of contrast here is Tom Waits haunting, gritty Murder in the Red Barn

The song even appeared (all be it briefly) in the BBC miniseries The Little Drummer Girl sung by Charlie (played by Florence Pugh) causing much speculation as to what it might mean…..

It’s fair to say that most of the music associated with Maria and her story doesn’t focus on her at all, instead, the spotlight falls on her lover and murderer William, his confession and demise at the scaffold in Bury St Edmunds.

Our production of The Ballad of Maria Marten, with its all-female cast, focuses instead on Maria’s story.  William becomes a postscript, a shadowy presence in his top hat and gloves. Yes a story of a brutal 19thC country murder, a true-crime drama but also one of the joys of female friendship.  So for our Ballad of Maria Marten a new chapter, or verse, seemed appropriate. A new ballad was required. Step forward composer Luke Potter ….

The Ballad of Maria Marten WILL retour in Autumn 2021

Leave a comment