Major Operas | King Priam by Michael Tippett | Modern Era

Composed: 1958–61
Premiered: 1962, Coventry
Libretto by the composer, after Homer’s Iliad

Act I

It is foretold that Paris will cause the death of his father, Priam, King of Troy. His mother, Hecuba, believes he should be killed. Priam orders this, but is troubled: he is both a father and a king. Priam and his elder son, Hector, encounter the young Paris while hunting. Priam accepts both his son and his fate. Hector, who resents Paris, has married Andromache. In Sparta Paris has fallen passionately in love with Helen. She must choose between Menelaus and him, but if he takes her there will be war. Ordered by Hermes to choose between Athene, Hera and Aphrodite (represented as Hecuba, Andromache and Helen), he gives the apple to Aphrodite. The others curse him.

Act II

Hector accuses Paris of cowardice. Priam tells Hector to take advantage of Achilles’ withdrawal following a disagreement with Agamemnon. Hector and Paris go to battle. Achilles is sulking in his tent with his friend Patroclus. His singing moves Patroclus to tears. Patroclus offers to lead the counter-attack in Achilles’ armour. Hermes, as a messenger, tells Priam that Hector has killed Patroclus and stripped his body. Hector enters in Achilles’ armour. As the Trojans rejoice, Achilles’ war cry is heard.


Andromache and Hecuba turn on Helen, who defends her semi-divine status as the source of men’s desire. Andromache senses that Hector is dead. Priam knows that Hector’s death began the moment he spared Paris. Priam visits Achilles to plead for Hector’s body in exchange for Patroclus. They foretell each other’s death. Paris has killed Achilles. The Greeks are in the city. Priam will not speak to Hecuba or Andromache. He sends Paris to his death, but speaks gently to Helen. Greek soldiers burst in and Achilles’ son kills him.

Personalities | Michael Tippett | Modern Era | Opera


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