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Lord Byron

opera in three acts and an epilogue

Music by Virgil Thomson
Libretto by Jack Larson
About Lord Byron

Thomson's third and final opera, Lord Byron, is to a more traditional libretto than the ones Gertrude Stein wrote for him. After the premiere, Thomson made dozens of small cuts while preparing the vocal score; where they affect the plot, the synopsis below follows the full text of the original production. Lord Byron was commissioned by the Ford Foundation and the Koussevitzky Foundation; originally intended to premiere at the Met, its production there was never scheduled.

Cast of Characters
Lord Byron, t Thomas Moore, bar
John Hobhouse, Byron's very good friend, b-bar John Murray, Byron's publisher, t
Count Gamba, bar John Ireland, Dean of Westminster Abbey, b
Two English Noblemen, bar Gray, t
Thomson, t Spenser, bar
Dryden, bar Milton, b
Johnson, b Shelley, bar
The Hon. Mrs. Leigh, Byron's sister, s Lady Byron, née Annabella Milbank, ms
Contessa Guiccioli, Byron's last mistress, s Lady Melbourne, s
Lady Charlotte, s Lady Jane, ms
A young lady, c
Sailors, the Abbey Choir, People of London


The citizens of London and the poets buried in Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey mourn the death of Lord Byron. Murray, Byron's publisher, Hobhouse and Moore, two of his friends, his wife, his sister, and his last mistress are gathered in Westminster Abbey; they agree to stand behind Byron, whatever differences they may have had with him in life, to convince the Dean to allow him to be buried in the Abbey. Several of the friends remember the last words Byron said or wrote to them.

Moore and Murray reveal that Byron left behind a memoir, to be published posthumously. One of Murray's editors has read it and declared that the scandal, if it were published, would ruin Byron. As they argue over whether it should be published or destroyed, a statue of Byron is brought on; Hobhouse has arranged to have it donated to the Abbey. Each of Byron's friends expects something different from it in order to remind them of Byron. As the statue is revealed, the friends freeze, and Byron walks on with a mandolin and sings an ode to London.


As they examine the statue, Lady Byron is sorry that she could not save Byron from himself, while Augusta Leigh mourns the loss of his beauty. Lady Byron and Hobhouse implore Moore to destroy the memoir, but Moore refuses to destroy it unread; he sings about what he expects to find in the memoir as he begins to unwrap it.

We see, in flashback, episodes of Byron's life. First, at a party given by Lady Melbourne, Byron is first courted by several young women, then taunted for his lameness. He is introduced to Lady Melbourne's niece, Miss Milbank, the young bluestocking who will become Lady Byron. She wants to reform Byron, but, jaded by his experience as a fashionable young man, he tells her she is too late.

At another party, Byron is accosted by Lady Melbourne; Byron's sister, Augusta Leigh, is noticeably pregnant, and the scandal, fueled by their strong affection for each other, is growing. Lady Melbourne urges him to marry, and he leaves with Miss Milibanks.

The night before Byron and Lady Byron's wedding, Lady Byron tells her aunt and Byron's sister of her plan to morally reform the poet; Byron and his friends are drinking and holding a mock wedding for Byron and Hobhouse. Byron, drunk, reveals his distaste for the idea of marrying Miss Milbank.


Some years later, Lord and Lady Byron are visiting his sister; when the pregnant Lady Byron goes early to bed, Byron and his sister become more intimate, and Lady Byron walks in on them kissing. Though Byron ridicules her, she still tries to save him from his own desires. Byron tries to convince Augusta Leigh to run away to Europe with her, but she is convinced by her sister-in-law's arguments; they leave him, and Byron, dispirited, leaves them both behind him.

Back in the Abbey, the friends agree on a transaction that will make the memoir the property of Augusta Leigh; after some consideration and a last-minute plea by the Contessa, she agrees it should be burned; Hobhouse burns it in a brazier. Dean Ireland, entering, notices the burning of the memoir; suspecting some moral outrage, he denies the poet an Abbey burial. The Italians wonder at Byron's reception in his native country; the people of London wonder why his burial was refused. In Poets Corner, the other poets welcome the shade of Byron to their gathering and the opera ends with their madrigal.

Performance History
World premiere production
The Julliard Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, New York
April 20, 1972
Byron: Grayson Hirst
Moore: Lenus Carlson
Hobhouse: Walter Hook
Murray: Frederick Schoepflin
Gamba: Frederick Burchinal
Ireland: David Wilder
First Nobleman: Donald Barnum
Second Nobleman: Jerome Mann
Gray: Jonathan Rigg
Thomson: Neil Schicoff
Spenser: Donald Slonim
Dryden: Norman Phillips
Milton: Peter Elkus
Johnson: Michael Li-Paz
Shelley: John Seabury
Mrs. Leigh: Carolyn Val-Schmidt
Lady Byron: Lynne Wickenden
Contessa: Hari Katz
Lady Melbourne: Barrie Smith
Lady Charlotte: Barbara Hendricks
Lady Jane: Jean Fuerstenau
A young lady: Ann Farr
Festival premiere
Monadonck Music Festival, Pine Hill Waldorf Auditorium, Wilton, New Hampshire
Byron: Matthew Lord
Lady Byron: D'Anna Fortunato
Mrs. Leigh: Jeanne Ommerle
Moore: Richard Zeller
Discography Search for recordings of Lord Byron at Amazon.com

Virgil Thomson

Lord Byron

Monadonck Music/Bolle

2 CD / Koch International Classics 3-7124-2Y6x2 (1992)

Excerpts from Lord Byron


Virgil Thomson

Orchestral Works

Martyn Hill, Budapest Symphony Orch./Bolle

CD / Albany 17 (1994)

Last update: January 1, 2009