Shakespeare and Music




(Reprinted, by kind permission of the Editor, from
The Musical Times of April 1, 1919)

When Christopher Wilson published his master-song, "Come away, Death," in 1901, The Times said of it that it was "all that such a song should be—fantastic, yet deeply pathetic, and as musicianly as a work by a Mendelssohn scholar ought to be." The words italicised remain true of all that this gifted composer left us; and the pity of it is that for various reasons, some of which will appear in the present notice, so little of his work has been printed.

"Chris" Wilson, as he was known to hosts of friends in Bohemian circles, was born at Melbourne, in Derbyshire, on October 7, 1874. He came of musical stock on both sides. Many stories, based on undoubted fact, are current as to the boy's proficiency on the pianoforte, even before he reached his teens; and while at Derby School, where his headmaster was J. R. Sterndale Bennett, a son of the composer, he played for the eleven—a somewhat rare combination of talents. There was never a doubt as to young Christopher's future calling; and his brilliant career at the Academy more than fulfilled his early promise. He carried off no fewer than three bronze and three silver medals, and was at the end of his third year awarded three certificates: for the pianoforte, harmony, and sight-singing. He also gained the Agnes Zimmermann Prize. Wilson received every encouragement from the Principal, Sir Alexander Mackenzie, while his professors for harmony and {viii} composition, pianoforte, and viola (his second subject) were Mr Frank Davenport (his uncle), Mr Oscar Beringer, and Mr Walenn, respectively. No one was surprised when he capped all his previous successes by carrying off the Mendelssohn Scholarship in 1895. He went abroad—as winners of the British Prix de Rome usually do—and studied under W�llner at Cologne, von Herzogenberg at Berlin, and Widor at Paris. His gifts were appreciated by his foreign teachers as they had been at home. The beautiful Suite for strings (since, 1901, published by Schott) was performed at Cologne at one of the principal concerts—a compliment that had been paid to only one young Englishman before him, Arthur Sullivan. Moreover, he was selected by W�llner to "coach" a tenor at the Opera in the part of Tristan—no small distinction. There can be no question that Wilson brought back to England one great asset[1]: he had heard all the great operas over and over again, and it was as a composer and conductor for the theatre that he was destined to make his mark. His sense of the stage and of atmosphere and his love for everything relating to the theatre were remarkably keen; so his success in this sphere was not surprising. His gifts were quickly recognised by Sir Frank Benson, Mr Oscar Asche, Miss Ellen Terry, Mr and Mrs Fred Terry, Mr Otho Stuart, Mr Waller, and others; for the two first named he acted as musical director for well over ten years. Apart from the numerous Shakespearian productions for which he wrote the music, his most striking successes were obtained in Kismet, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, and the Greek plays. In these latter he made no more use of the ancient modes than Mendelssohn had done; but the result was highly effective and true to atmosphere. {ix} Opinions are bound to differ as to the comparative merit of the music written for the Shakespeare plays: on the whole, perhaps, King Lear, Richard II., Antony and Cleopatra, Much Ado about Nothing, The Merchant of Venice, and Measure for Measure mark his highest level of achievement. Wilson was, of course, acquainted with all the traditional music, of which he availed himself whenever he considered it suitable; the numerous gaps he filled in with unerring taste and skill. Future searchers in the British Museum Catalogue may consider his output relatively small, in spite of the fact that he died in his forty-fifth year. But it should be remembered that incidental music of this kind, apart from the lyrics, mostly remains in MS. None the less, one may rest assured that its spirit and traditions will live on, and that much of it will be handed on by successive conductors for the enjoyment of future generations.

His published works include, besides those mentioned elsewhere in this memoir, settings of "On the Ground," "Take, oh take those lips away" (1906), and a duet, "It was a Lover and his Lass" (1907); "Rest in Peace" (words by W. Melville, 1900); "If we may not meet" (H. Kendall, 1901); "Roses for my Lady" (Harold Begbie, 1903); "To a Nosegay" (E. Broad, 1903); "There lived a Singer" (Swinburne, 1903); "When Roses blush" (E. Lyall Swete, 1904); "I bring thee Roses" (F. Stayton, 1908); "Ave Maria" for S.A.T.B. (unaccompanied—organ part for rehearsal only—1910); three Duets and a Song from Kismet (1911); and a Novelette in D for the piano, (1903). Of the unpublished works, the most important are the music to a wordless play "Inconstant Pierrot" (the scenario by Sidney Dark); a second Suite for strings; a Mass; a Pianoforte Quartet; two String Quartets; two Violin Sonatas; and a number of lyrics (including several by Shakespeare and a fine setting of Browning's "Prospice"). He also wrote the music for two pageants.

During the last year of his life, when his health was beginning to fail, Wilson worked much at the British {x} Museum on a series of papers for The Stage, dealing with Shakespeare and the host of composers who have set him to music; here his knowledge and experience, if not unrivalled, were certainly unsurpassed. Of these articles, five had appeared up to the time of his death: (1) and (2), Introductory and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" (October 31 and November 7, 1918); (3) and (4), "Macbeth" (December 5 and December 27, 1918); (5), "Romeo and Juliet" (February 6, 1919). The last of the series was published eleven days before the end came suddenly—for "Chris" died of heart failure in the early morning of February 17. A few hours before he fell asleep he was asked to write the music for the forthcoming production by Miss Doris Keane of this same play of Romeo and Juliet—a pathetic coincidence!

Anyone anxious to form some faint idea of "Chris" Wilson's delightful personality, his kindness to all, his utter selflessness, his childlike simplicity of nature, and his humour, should read the two articles on his experiences as a conductor which he contributed to The Stage in 1917. But it is the humbler members of his orchestras who probably know more of his goodness of heart than even his most intimate friends; and it is their testimony he would have valued most highly. It should be added that he was a widely-read man, and possessed a sound knowledge of art and of architecture.

A fine tribute to his memory was paid him by his brother Savages—among whom he had spent so many happy hours—on the Saturday night of the week in which he died, when Mr George Baker sang his "Come away, Death" with an effect that will never be forgotten by those who were present.

[1] Another natural result of his stay in Germany was that his interest in the folk-songs of that country was stimulated; and he edited for Messrs Boosey the volume of "German Folk-Songs" in their Imperial Edition, the English versions being by his friend Paul England (1909). Wilson's accompaniments and harmonies to these are models of what such things should be; and a notable feature of the collection is that it contains a large proportion of songs that had never been translated into English.

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