Duke Special – The Stage, A Book and The Silver Screen

mother courage track listing
1. Prelude,2. Mother Courage,3. Eilif (Song about the soldier and his wife),4. Yvette (Song of fraternization),5. Song of the Hours,6. The Great Capitulation,7. Soldiers Song,8. Mother Courage (and the threat of peace)9. Cooks Song,10. Farmhouse Song,11. Lullaby,12. Mother Courage Finale
Duke Special’s The Stage, A Book & The Silver Screen is nothing if not ambitious.Released as a box set, the three albums showcase the fruits of three different but equally intriguing artistic projects.

The Silent World of Hector Mann is based on The Book of Illusions by Paul Auster and features contributions by Neil Hannon amongst others.

The second album, Huckleberry Finn, sees him performing five songs from Kurt Weills unfinished musical. Both of these albums are fascinating in their own right and stand up handsomely on their own, but it’s the third album that is of chief interest to theatre-goers as it features the music from the National Theatres 2009 production of Brechts Mother Courage and her Children, arguably the greatest anti-war play of all time.
Critics were divided as to how successful Duke Specials songs (which he sang himself on stage during every performance) were in the context of Deborah Warner’s production, but I felt they worked well. Brecht never intended his plays to stand still, so it was entirely appropriate for Mother Courage to be updated in this way.

Duke Special’s songs also provided a mirror to the on-stage drama, being highly charged for the most part, whilst still possessing a myriad of textures and being full of emotional resonance.

For the same reason, the songs stand up well on their own. The opening Prelude disturbs listeners with its sliding notes, and generates a keen sense of drama via some languid passages and playful interludes, as if all the emotions of the play are being captured in this three minute composition.

The second track, Mother Courage, is a crashing tour de force describing the horrors of war and demonstrating how anyone with courage can exploit them. This song is reprised twice, and its unrelenting nature ensures that by the time the album has finished the listener is feeling emotionally drained.

Within the overarching nightmare, however, the mood is frequently (and necessarily) varied by pieces like Eilif, a song that could almost stand as a story in its own right; the sad ‘ballad’ of Yvette; the philosophising Song of the Hours; the extravaganza that is The Great Capitulation; and the playful Soldiers Song.

The original production exceeded the three hour mark but the recording includes only the music – as a result the listener is whisked through the entire affair in thirty-seven minutes. This sometimes means that, while there is a lot going on, there’s not always sufficient time to make sense of it all. For this reason, although I thoroughly enjoyed this album, I couldnt unequivocally recommend it to those who havent seen the National Theatres production. Some prior understanding of what is being alluded to may be required to fully appreciate all that’s being done here and those who saw the play and saw how this music worked in context will probably find this the most rewarding.

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