Beckford Alfresco

Notes on the event, performers and schedule. Bookings 01747 870070, & email

William Beckford is principally known for writing the first horror novel Vathek, which has never been out of print, and of course his recently restored Tower in Bath. He is also notorious for his fabulous wealth (derived from slavery) – which he used to build the extraordinary gothick folly Fonthill Abbey with a tower the height of Salisbury Cathedral. Far less famous but equally intriguing is Beckford’s considerable output as a composer. It is impossible to know its full extent, but the most substantial surviving work is his charming semi-opera Arcadian Pastoral, written for children within 3 weeks of his bloodthirsty gothick debut novel. Other than a couple of private performances in 1782 it has only ever been revived once – for a broadcast on the BBC Third Programme in the 1960s – as the dramatic dialog has been lost.

His music is accomplished and tuneful, the equal of any other song composer of the time. Beckford’s idiom remained firmly in the Mozartian era. At the age of five Beckford received a ‘lesson’ from the seven year old Mozart on his first visit to London. Michael Maxwell Steer edited and published all Beckford’s music 15 years ago, shortly after moving to Tisbury, after finding it in the Bodleian Library. .

Steer also plays some of Beckford’s keyboard music on the harpsichord – and has arranged several of the Modinhas Brazileiras, almost the earliest examples of this style of Portuguese popular song transcribed for Beckford in 1787, during the year he spent on the Monserrate estate in Cintra – which has also recently been restored and opened to the public.  Beckford described the Modhinas as: ‘an original sort of music different from any I ever heard, the most seducing, the most voluptuous imaginable, the best calculated… to inspire profane deliriums. I was in high spirits and danced with a parcel of tits till two in the morning.’

A food & wine bar is available, but people are more than welcome to bring their own picnic and listen to performances directed from the harpsichord by the well-known local musician Michael Maxwell Steer and the Cherubim Singers and Orchestra, together with speakers, Mario Reading, Dan Evans and Sidney Blackmore.

The Cherubim Singers are three local vocalists: soprano Nicky Ogborn, alto Philippa Forrest, and baritone Brian Watts. The Cherubim Orchestra is largely comprised of student string and woodwind players who have been loaned professional calibre instruments by Cherubim Music Trust.

Michael Maxwell Steer is a professional musician /composer based in Tisbury. He was formerly a BBCr3 producer, London Director of Music for the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Head of 20thC Studies at the Junior Royal College of Music. In 1998 he appeared with Prof Timothy Mowl (author of ‘Beckford: Composing for Mozart’) on BBCr3 Nightwaves and In Tune, where he was interviewed in Beckford Tower Bath.

12:00     Visit by Tisbus to site of Fonthill Abbey, returning via Fonthill Arch and site of Fonthill Splendens.
Visit to Fonthill Grottoes on foot. Wellingtons advised.
13:00      Visits repeated.
14:00     Reading of Vathek & other writings by Mario Reading.
15:00      First Concert of Beckford’s music featuring Arcadian Pastoral
16:00     Colloquium. Open discussion on Beckford chaired by Sidney Blackmore of the Beckford Society.
17:00      Hallowed Ground. A memoir of the visit by Admiral Lord Nelson & Emma Hamilton to William Beckford by Elizabeth Coyle-Camp, performed by Dan Evans.
17:30      Second concert featuring Modinhas Brazileiras.
18:15      Ends

 Videos of highlights can be accessed below:

Arcadian Pastoral Overture – Wm. Beckford (1781)


Arcadian Pastoral #1, How merrily turns my light wheel

Arcadian Pastoral #4, My dear mistress

Arcadian Pastoral #6, Duetto

Arcadian Pastoral #7, For years I loved

Arcadian Pastoral #13, Serenade

Arcadian Pastoral #14, Ballo

Arcadian Pastoral #15, Descent of Belinda

Sogno ma fè (Stroffa 3)

Cinto il crin

Aria for August Wynne

O Astra, O Cœlum

Modinhas Brazileiras 1 & 2