Shakespeare and Music



When I first contemplated writing these articles it seemed to me to be a very interesting, amusing, and pleasant job indeed. I had seen a great number of Shakespeare's plays, read some of them, and written or conducted music for most. All I had to do, I thought, was to jot down a few notes of what I had heard or read, and out of them make a readable couple of columns. I began to make the notes, and swiftly it dawned upon me what an enormous task I had taken on. I found that nearly every composer, great or small, since Shakespeare's time had been inspired, directly or indirectly, by our poet. True, Handel avoided him (I can find no trace of Shakespeare in the opera Julius C�sar), and I don't suppose Bach ever heard of him; but I feel sure that Beethoven's "Coriolan" Overture owes something to Shakespeare as well as to von Collin, the direct author of the play. But when the plays began to be translated and circulated abroad, composers all over Europe came under his extraordinary influence, and began composing music to his plays or about characters in them.

No music to the plays by contemporary composers has survived. Most people associate him with Purcell, Locke, Robert Johnson, Bannister, or Pelham Humphrey; but all these were born some years after his death, except Johnson, whose settings of "Where the Bee Sucks" and "Full Fathom Five" are supposed to be the original; but, as Johnson was only twelve years old when Shakespeare died, The Tempest must have been produced without these songs, or Johnson must have been more than usually {xii} precocious. The Encyclopaedia Britannica definitely says that Johnson's settings are the original.

There are many theories to account for the singular absence of contemporary musical settings of Shakespeare's lyrics: a quite possible one being that he wrote his songs to popular tunes of the day, which everyone knew and no one troubled to write down and print. Many of our great revue composers hammer out the tune first and then get some versifier to write words to it. Anyhow, if one is going to produce Shakespeare's plays and only use settings composed for the original productions, one would have very little music; and, as he was always calling for music, both in his stage directions and from the mouths of his characters, the performances might please the Stage Society, but certainly would not have pleased the author.

Musically, there are many ways of producing Shakespeare's plays. One is the absolutely "correct" method—that is, to play The Tempest, say, with the precocious Johnson's two songs only. Another way, not so "correct," would be to use the precocious one's two songs, and also use contemporary music not written originally for the words, but adapted by the producer. Yet another way is the "broad-minded," and includes any setting of Shakespeare's words written within a hundred years or so. This method is still roughly described as Elizabethan, but if you include yet another hundred years the music is called Shakespearian. After that you get the Old English Wardour Street variety, and, later still, the tambourin school. To some people a liberal tambourin part in two-four time denotes "Old English" music:

(The same figure on the tambourin with the tinkling bells, is called "Eastern.")

A quite good method is to use the best of all the written music and make it into a hotch-potch. This is really a very practical way, and often gives good results. Finally, {xiii} one takes the whole music written specially for one play by one composer of any period, and does it as written, with no addition or alteration: this is an ideal method very rarely put into practice. Even when commissioning a living composer, managers try to bring in a favourite number by Arne or Horn, and, unless the composer is a very strong or a very rich man, his musical scheme will be broken by some well-known tune not in the least in the style of the rest of his music.

It is difficult to persuade the average Shakespearian producer that Shakespeare, Arne, Sir Henry Bishop, and Horn were not great friends who used to meet daily at the Mermaid Tavern to discuss incidental music.


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