The tone poem “Moonfleet” is based on the novel of the same name by J Meade Falkner. It is set in the south of England in a seaside village, Moonfleet, which is named after the once-prominent local family, the Mohunes, (pronounced “Moon”). Their coat of arms includes a symbol shaped like a capital 'Y' which is represented musically in a motif occurring at bar 26 and throughout the piece.
It opens with the ominous theme of the sea (bars 1 -10), a sea which has a particularly nasty tidal undertow. It is hardly surprising that the villagers of Moonfleet turn to religion to offset the constant threat of the sea. Musically, this is represented by a hymn-like melody which appears in fragments between figures 1 and 2 and which is given fully at figure 5 and again at the conclusion of the piece.
And being a story of the sea, there have to be smugglers! Their theme first appears at figure 3, capturing the furtive nature of the activity (solo horn and accompaniment), and the omnipresent danger of the pursuing excisemen (trombones).
The two heroes of the story are John Trenchard, an orphan who lives with his aunt, and Elzevir Block, the landlord of the local inn, and smuggler-in-chief. John was ignorant of the activities of smugglers, only becoming aware of them when at church one Sunday he thinks he hears coffins moving about in the crypt under the church (bass line from bar 143 et seq). When he investigates the next day, he finds himself trapped in the crypt while hiding from the smugglers. He discovers a locket in a coffin which holds a piece of paper with verses from the Bible. John is trapped there for some days, fuelled only by the smugglers’ wine, passing out and being rescued by Elzevir, who now takes him in and looks after him.
A smuggling escapade (figure 7) then goes wrong, and John, now one of the smugglers, is wounded. Elzevir saves him and takes him to a cave to recover. While there, John discovers that the verses from the locket he found earlier contain a code that will reveal the location of a famous diamond, apparently stolen from King Charles I by one Colonel “Blackbeard” Mohune.
Once John's wounds heal, he and Block decide to recover the diamond (figure 10, glockenspiel with chordal accompaniment). They find the jewel and succeed in escaping to Holland where they try to sell it to a diamond merchant (figure 11) who negotiates with them and eventually cheats them, claiming the diamond is fake. Elzevir falls for the deceit and angrily throws the diamond out of the window. John, however, knows they have been duped, and suggests they try to recover the diamond through burglary. The attempt fails, a struggle ensues, (figure 15) and they are arrested and imprisoned for life (bar 420).
Ten years later, while they are being transported to the Dutch colonies, their ship is wrecked just off the coast of Moonfleet. While trying to reach the beach Elzevir helps John to safety, but falls victim himself to the notorious undertow of the sea and is drowned.
However, there is a happy ending. John is reunited with and marries his childhood love, Grace. He receives an inheritance to the value of the lost diamond from the deceitful merchant - who suffered from a guilty conscience. The piece ends triumphantly with the reiteration of the hymn tune (bar 449).