Shakespeare in music

John Steane Thu 21st April 2016

John Steane on how the Bard inspired composers - and how music, in turn, inspired him

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

Conveniently if not quite precisely we can say that ‘bardolatry’ began in 1769. In that year the Great Shakespeare Jubilee established the small market town of Stratford-upon-Avon as a place of pilgrimage. For three crowded days, the beau monde, up from London, squeezed into lodging-houses bursting at the seams and risked their courtly footwear in the muddy streets which were now ‘enchanted ground, where Shakespeare walk’d and sung’. On the second and third day the rain poured down in torrents, but with ‘Sweet Willy O’ to lead them, the pilgrims were exhorted to join the choral song, or, as David Garrick proclaimed in his Festal Ode, to ‘roll the full tide of harmony along’. Music was enlisted in the Bard’s service from the first, and on this occasion its prime representative, as composer and conductor, was Dr Thomas Arne.

But Arne, remembered now principally for his melodious injunctions to Britannia, was nothing if not British. The Great Shakespeare Jubilee was no more than a national celebration. Europeans were to become increasingly aware of Shakespeare from that time onward, and the cult began in earnest as the Romantic movement got under way early in the next century. In 1795 Haydn published his tender and thoughtful setting of the five famous lines from Twelfth Night starting ‘She never told her love’. But there is nothing of Shakespeare in Mozart or, more surprisingly, Beethoven (what a King Lear or, for that matter, Falstaff we may have lost). From Schubert we have most notably the two song-settings, ‘Who is Sylvia?’ and ‘Hark, hark the lark’, both in German translation. Then, in 1827, a German production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream was graced by the Overture provided by the genius of the 18-year-old Mendelssohn. And it was at just this time in Paris that performances by a visiting English company were providing what he later called ‘the supreme drama of my life’ for the inspiration of the leading crusader in this Shakespearean revival, Hector Berlioz.

For Berlioz the discovery, as he describes it, ‘struck like a thunderbolt’. It revealed ‘the whole heaven of art, illustrating it to the remotest corners’. This is the language of passionate youth, and it was in this way that Shakespeare appealed to the young, ardent and imaginative of that time. He was the man of inspiration who (as the Romantics saw it) followed only the laws of his genius, defying academic precept and conventional taste. In default of a precedent by Beethoven, Berlioz wrote a King Lear Overture; from Hamlet he chose the death of Ophelia, in solo setting and in the lovely and haunting movement for women’s chorus in Tristia. Towards the end of his life, in 1862, he wrote the opera Béatrice et Bénédict based on Much Ado About Nothing. Earlier (1839) there had been the dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette, in which the chorus pays explicit tribute. Referring to poetry, they sing of Shakespeare as he ‘who alone had the supreme secret’, one which he ‘took with him to Heaven’. Such was the veneration.

The history of opera based on Shakespeare might be a volume in itself. It can be traced back, in annals if not in extant texts, well into the 18th century, and of course it extends into our own. The 19th century was nevertheless its age of plenty, with the three operas by Verdi – MacbethOtello and Falstaff – its widely acknowledged masterpieces. They also command attention here because of their closeness to the original.

'The witches’ cauldron chorus has all the supernatural terror of old-time cockneys out for a knees-up in Southend'

Falstaff is both the culmination of the whole Verdi oeuvre and a rich expression of so much of the humanity we feel to be essentially Shakespearean. Even so it concerns us less in this context than do the two tragedies. The Merry Wives of Windsor is not poetic drama in a comparable sense; its words and all other features of the writing are not of the same irreplaceable nature. Boito, as Verdi’s librettist, adds weight by incorporating (for instance) the Honour monologue from Henry IV and by allowing Verdi to develop Ford’s soliloquy into a serious and, in its resonances, even a tragic utterance. For the present the point is that The Merry Wives is still sufficiently itself, with no great harm done, in spite of alterations to Shakespeare’s text, and in this Macbeth and Othello are quite another matter. Verdi’s Macbeth (1847, revised 1865) now stands higher in esteem than at any other time in its history. Until the late 1930s it was usually criticised, derided even, both for its treatment of Shakespeare and for what was considered musical banality. We should not, in my opinion, deride this critical view. For my own part, I still find the music for witches and assassins ludicrously inept. The witches’ cauldron chorus has all the supernatural terror of old-time cockneys out for a knees-up in Southend. Possibly (who knows) there would be a giggle among the groundlings in Shakespeare’s own time, but, dramatically, these agents of evil have to be taken seriously: their role in the play is not as part of a demonic pantomime but as the unequivocal (if equivocating) ‘instruments of darkness’. The fact that Verdi’s characterisation of Macbeth and his Lady is both faithful to the play and independently creative, does not justify the opera as truly Shakespearean, though it is often assumed to. The supreme exponent of poetic drama in our language is more than a creator of characters, even when they are as fascinating psychologically and as central dramatically as are the protagonists here.

And now (Shakespeare being at least half our subject) we have to engage with some principles of literary criticism. By that I mean the main line of intelligent reading from (roughly) Dr Johnson to Dr Leavis. An exemplary essay in the reading of Shakespeare with, conveniently, Macbeth as its chosen illustrative subject is LC Knights’s ‘How Many Children had Lady Macbeth?’ (Explorations: 1946). The title caricatures, mildly, an approach to Shakespeare common in late-19th and early-20th-century criticism which focused its attention upon Shakespeare as the creator of ‘real’ men and women. Knights pointed out that this was to abstract a part from the whole, and what he offered then was to show by example (with Macbeth as the subject) a way of reading by which this ‘whole’ could more justly be apprehended. The dramatic poem is not the sum of its characters, great speeches, beautiful thoughts, evocative ‘atmosphere’ and memorable action. You learn what the play is through its words. For instance, the first scene (‘When shall we three meet again?’) concludes with the lines: ‘Fair is foul and foul is fair. Hover through the fog and filthy air’. The paradox confronts us with a state in which normal values are reversed, and the image which follows suggests a confusion of nature in which men lose their way and air itself is tainted. The lines have resonance throughout the play (we have met it already, for instance, in the witch’s ‘When the battle’s lost and won’) and are woven into the fabric. Such working is intrinsic, of the play’s essence. Character (Macbeth’s ‘single state of man’, so shaken that ‘nothing is but what is not’) is part of this fabric, but what we call ‘Shakespeare’ is the fabric: more perhaps (for it involves an interaction with our minds), but certainly not less.

In this sense, it is doubtful whether any ‘Shakespearean’ opera deserves the name. The ‘Shakespeare’ of Verdi’s Macbeth is a collection of parts abstracted – plot, people and a number of translated lines. There is no question that Shakespeare was the original source of inspiration. But where Verdi achieves or approximates to greatness it is on his own terms: that is, as a composer of Italian opera. For instance, a point where opera achieves an effect no playwright can attempt is in ensemble: the passage which captures the whole dramatic momentum up to then, intensifying the emotions in a way peculiar to opera, is the ensemble with all the characters on stage after Duncan’s murder. Superficially, the score may look inappropriate with its triple-time rhythm and orthodox harmonies. Well performed, it has the force of a great communal lament. It has no counterpart in the play: Shakespearean only by association, it is pure Verdi. And that is what matters: it is where the genius lies.

In Otello (1887) the genius is ripe and pervasive, but this too is very superficially Shakespearean. In the play Othello speaks with the grandiloquent perfection of an educated foreigner; Iago is the man who speaks conversational English. The style of speech, contrasting in this way, is essential to the play (for one thing, it accounts for the difficulty actors find in their attempts to make Othello the sympathetic figure they feel he should be, and why Iago is such a hit with the audience in spite of their assured sense of right and wrong). This has no regular counterpart in the opera, and the interpolated ‘Creed’ of Iago confers upon him an operatic status which is markedly at odds with his style of speech in the play.

This, of course, is not to deny that Boito wrote a fine libretto, still less that Verdi made a great opera out of it. And it goes without saying that in point of fidelity to Shakespeare it is in a totally different class from the Otello which had held the stage previously. This was Rossini’s (1816), of which Byron reported at the premiere that ‘they have been crucifying Othello’. The librettist seems to have been drawing on Shakespeare’s principal source; but, in any case, rather than looking for Shakespeare, Byron should have been listening to Rossini.

The same might be said of many 19th-century operas on ‘Shakespearean’ subjects, Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette and Thomas’s Hamlet for example. In the 20th century Holst’s At the Boar’s Head and Vaughan Williams’s Sir John in Love are honourably in tune with their source. Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (libretto by Peter Pears out of Shakespeare) probably comes as close as any to what is truly Shakespearean, which Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra does not, though it is a rich and underrated score. Reimann’s Lear is impressive in its concentration, unfortunate in some aspects of its voice-casting (it seems absurd to cast Edgar as a countertenor and then expect us to believe that his father, who is blind but not deaf, will fail to recognise him).

Altogether, The New Grove Dictionary of Opera lists (according to my fallible counting) 391 stage-works, mostly operas, based on plays by Shakespeare. That was published in 1992, so it is very likely the figure will have reached a round 400 by now.

Shakespeare wrote more than 90 poems listed as lyrics and some of these have been among the most frequently set of all. Several are still sung to the original tunes: Desdemona’s Willow Song and Feste’s O mistress mine are examples. In the 17th century Matthew Locke wrote music for Dryden and Davenant’s version of The Tempest, Ariel’s songs being particular favourites among composers then and now. In the 18th, Arne wrote settings of the equally popular As You Like It lyrics, which have later attracted Sullivan, Parry, Quilter, Finzi and many others. Probably the loveliest of all sets of Shakespeare’s songs in music is Finzi’s Let Us Garlands Bring, and the third of them, ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’ would, I think, be my nomination for the most moving of all.

But that term, ‘moving’, has to be very subjective. Thinking of the lyrics in The Tempest, for instance, I am moved by the memory of Vaughan Williams’s choral settings and not a bit by the thought of Tippett’s Songs for Ariel. In the theatre (again the accident of personal experience) I remember Guy Wolfenden’s setting of ‘When icicles hang by the wall’ making the perfect end to Love’s Labour’s Lost many years ago at Stratford. But there again, in the theatre I have been more deeply moved (if the truth is to be told) by West Side Story than by Romeo and Juliet itself. Come to think about it (and here further candour is involved), one of those occasions was not even in the theatre but the cinema. The soundtrack of the original film of West Side Story I still find preferable to the subsequent recordings. Shakespeare himself has been appropriated by film-makers, usually adapting the texts and producing a modern addition to the so-called Bad Quartos among early copies. But the music has often been good. Excerpts from Walton’s scores for Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III can be wonderfully effective in calling the films to mind and remain attractive as independent compositions. Michael Nyman’s Tempest music is on my black-list together with Prospero’s Books, the dreadful film for which it was written. Sibelius’s Tempest is another matter, as are Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet and Prokoviev’s Romeo and Juliet.

Shakespeare, it seems, is everywhere, usually bringing music with him; or the music may come first, carrying clouds of Shakespeare somewhat remotely in the rear. At any rate, the ambitions which motivated the planners of the first Great Jubilee have been fulfilled. The ‘lov’d, rever’d, immortal name’ resounds throughout the world.

When the fanfares have died away, the revels ended and the actors melted into air, a stillness may settle: ‘soft stillness and the night’. Conditions are then in place for ‘the touches of sweet harmony’. It is always dangerous to extrapolate from the plays an opinion which can be accepted as Shakespeare’s own, but it does seem that he liked music. He may indeed have valued it in moral, even religious, terms:

The man that hath no music in himself,

Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds

Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils,

The motions of his spirit are dull as night

And his affections dark as Erebus.

The last reference to music in his plays (Tempest, V i 52) is coupled with the adjective ‘heavenly’. And, we note, there is harmony ‘in immortal souls’, a phrase from The Merchant of Venice (V i 60), the scene in which Jessica and Lorenzo meet by moonlight and ‘let the sound of music creep in [their] ears’. These were the lines chosen by Vaughan Williams for his Serenade to Music (1938), and if there is any work which brings Shakespeare and music together as one, this surely is it, a lovely and reciprocal tribute between the two arts, which for the space of some 15 minutes have become inseparable.

This article originally appeared in the June 2007 issue of Gramophone.

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