A despairing young Scottish girl commits suicide but is brought back to life by a Christ-like mysterious stranger. In spite of this miracle, the stranger’s very powers strike terror into some of the inhabitants and he is murdered by a gang of thugs.
The Ballet 'Miracle in the Gorbals' was written in 1943, and first produced by the Sadlers Wells Ballet at the Prince's Theatre, London on October 26, 1944 - conducted by Constant Lambert. The scene is laid in a sordid slum (of that time) near the Glasgow docks - an area now completely transformed. It is late afternoon and people are returning from work. Through the bustle of the crowded street pass first an official and then a prostitute, and as darkness begins to fall a young girl, lonely and pathetic, moves fatefully towards the river. In the half light two young lovers embrace before being roughly separated.
Later, the body of the young girl is brought in and the official comes forward and tries in vain to revive her. At the back of the stage a stranger quietly enters, and stands looking at the scene. He comes down through the crowd, which unconsciously gives way to him. He stretches out his hand to the girl. Slowly life comes back to her and he begins to dance, expressing her renewed faith and courage. The crowd slowly disperses, night falls, and quiet descends on the street.
But the official is jealous of this stranger's power over the people; he persuades a gang of young men of the street to attack him. The stranger offers no resistance, and in a savage scene they murder him. As his body lies there, dawn breaks and signs of life again stir in the street, which itself is the real source of all the evil that has happened.
The choreography of the ballet was by Robert Helpmann who himself took the leading role of the Stranger. The eight numbers from the Ballet that form the Suite are: -
II. The Street
III. The Girl Suicide
IV. The Young Lovers
V. The Stranger
VI. Dance of Deliverance
VIII. Finale - The Killing of the Stranger
From his return from America in June 1941 until he resigned his post as BBC Director of Music in the spring of 1944, Bliss had composed virtually nothing. The theme which Robert Helpmann, seeking a new work for the Sadler's Wells Ballet, then at the Prince's Theatre, brought to him was of immediate appeal. The Ballet was given its first performance on 26 October 1944 with décor by Edward Burra and choreography by Helpmann.
On the stage a sordid and savage story set in a once infamous slum area of Glasgow is unfolded, a story of suicide, resurrection of the suicide through the healing faith of an unknown Stranger, and the murder of that Stranger as a result of the incitement of the mob by a jealous and malignant Official.
The music is of a grandeur and poignancy which raises the whole conception out of the ordinary into the transcendental, as all who experienced the Ballet will remember.
For the Concert Suite the composer selected seven contrasting movements from the 15 dance-scenes which make up the complete Ballet; of the whole work, the listener's conception of the story is more effectively achieved through the inclusion of the Overture, which portrays the dockside stage-setting, and commences in the ominous key with which the Suite itself concludes - D minor.
This Suite was of great significance to Bliss, for in the dedication to his wife, Trudy, and to his two young daughters, Barbara and Karen, he gave thanks for their safe return from America - by sea from Philadelphia to Lisbon and, many weeks later, by plane to England, in the darkest days of the war, in November 1943.
© George Dannatt