The Once and Future King is a suite of three movements; each movement was inspired by an Arthurian legend. The first movement, ‘Tintagel’, concerns the famous Cornish promontory said to be the birthplace of King Arthur. In Arthur’s time, Tintagel was part of the court of King Mark of Cornwall and the music imagines a visit by the King of the Britons to his Cornish neighbour and the place of his birth, reflecting the ceremony and drama of such an occasion; the music is strongly antiphonal, contrasting the more strident fanfares of the cornets and trombones with the warmth of the saxhorns and tubas.
The second movement, ‘Lyonesse’, takes its inspiration from the mythical land which once joined Cornwall to the Isles of Scilly. One legend claims that after the disastrous battle of Camlan where Arthur and Mordred were both killed, the remnants of Arthur’s army were pursued across Lyonesse to Scilly, whereupon Merlin cast a spell to sink Lyonesse behind them and drown the pursuers. Some say the bells of the 140 churches inundated that day can still be heard ringing. All the material in this movement derives from two short motifs heard in counterpoint at the very beginning, which are intentionally dissonant and bitonal in character.
The final movement, ‘Badon Hill’, takes its title from the legendary site of Arthur’s last battle with the Saxons and is a lively toccata based on the medieval secular song L’Homme Armée (‘The Armed Man’). The music uses a number of medieval devices including “hocketing” (passing melody from one voice to another). The actual site of Badon Hill is unknown but it has been associated with Badbury Rings in Dorset and a lot of evidence now points towards the town of Bath. Arthur’s victory at Badon Hill was the last great victory for Celtic Britain over the Saxon invaders, but in the end only set the conquest back by a few decades. Arthur himself was dead by then, betrayed and defeated by his nephew Mordred, but it is said that Arthur only sleeps and will return in a time of dire need – hence the legend that Arthur’s dying words were: Bury me in Britain, for I am the Once and Future King.