Shakespeare and Music



I must just copy the whole of the title-page of Sir Henry Bishop's operatic version of The Comedy of Errors. Nothing could give any idea of what Shakespeare has been through save an analysis of the music that follows, but I can only touch on that. "The overture, songs, two duets, and glees in Shakespeare's Comedy of Errors, performed at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden; the words selected entirely from Shakespeare's Plays, Poems, and Sonnets. The music composed and the whole adapted and compressed from the score for the voice and pianoforte by Sir Henry R. Bishop, Composer and Director of the Music to the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden."

I have written this down just as it was printed. I was so overwhelmed by it that I felt sure that neither I nor anyone else could improve upon it. I knew there was only one bit of the play set to music—and not a very beautiful example either—in the ordinary anthologies of Shakespeare's music. It is by Dr Kemp, who died in 1824. He chose these few lines from Act ii., Scene 2, lines 187-191, but Bishop, very wisely, does not touch these lines. He brings in every kind of song and tune, from, as he puts it, "Shakespeare's Plays, Poems, and Sonnets," with no reference to the play for which he was composing music. The overture is of the "potpourri" style. After four bars of slow music the theme of Ophelia's song in Hamlet, "How shall I my true love know?", is played. A few bars afterwards a theme from The Tempest, then a very cheerful subject from Macbeth, followed by a bright little thing from The Winter's Tale. Then comes an old tune for "When that I was" {11} (Twelfth Night); next a melody from The Tempest and "St Valentine's Day" lead pleasantly into the catch, "Which is the properest day to drink," from Twelfth Night, all preparing the way for "Under the greenwood tree" (As You Like It). After this theme is given a fair chance, a subject from The Winter's Tale is produced, followed by "Blow, blow," from As You Like It. A sad little bit from Macbeth, succeeded by a very bright coda from The Winter's Tale, brings the overture to a conclusion. But why call it the "Overture to The Comedy of Errors"? There is not a suggestion or a line in this overture, except the one on the title-page, that has anything to do with the play to which that is supposed to be the opening, though it is beautifully printed as "Comedy of Errors Overture."

No one minds Bishop writing a potpourri overture and calling it "Shakespeariana," but why call it "The Comedy of Errors"?—unless he wishes the title to describe the overture, not the overture the play.

The first vocal number in this strange work is a setting of "It was a lover," from As You Like It. It is a simple but quite pretty song. The next is a song for Antipholus of Ephesus, words selected from Shakespeare's Sonnets; it is called "Beauty's valuation," and is a good example of the composer's worst manner. Then comes a strange setting of "Blow, blow," from As You Like It. The melody of the first part is by Dr Arne and the refrain by Mr Stephens, the whole arranged for four male voices by Bishop; it makes a strange medley! After this one is not surprised to find the "Willow song" from Othello sung by Adriana to quite a cheerful tune. Dr Arne's "Under the greenwood tree," arranged for a male quartet by Bishop, follows. The next number is a curious duet for Ceremon and Antipholus of Ephesus to the words beginning "Saint Witnold footed thrice the world," from King Lear (Act iii., Scene 4). There is no attempt to bring out the weirdness of these strange words. Bishop then composed a very obvious duet for tenor and baritone, with effective cantabile {12} passages and plenty of pauses and shakes. Adriana now sings Bishop's setting of "Come live with me" (Marlowe), quite the prettiest number in the opera, though the words seem a little bold for her, and more suited to the nameless character, the last in Shakespeare's cast. Luciana then sings Sir Henry's "favourite cavatina," "Sweet rose, fair flower," words culled from The Passionate Pilgrim, but ascribed by Bishop to the Sonnets. Perhaps this was a "favourite cavatina." The publisher says so, and ought to know, having bought it; but I cannot say I really like it.

The third act is brought to a brilliant finish by Bishop's famous glee from As You Like It, "What shall he have who killed the deer?" The fourth act begins cheerfully by Adriana singing the composer's "Take, oh take those lips away," which is really a very bad setting. The Passionate Pilgrim is again drawn upon for the next number, a duet for Adriana and Luciana. This is a feeble affair rather in Horn's "I know a bank" manner, and the words are again attributed to "The Sonnets." Sir Henry appears to have no more idea of what a sonnet really is than the London editor who asked a poet for a sonnet "not more than a hundred lines long." A pleasant change is caused by the glee party singing "Come, thou monarch of the vine," from Antony and Cleopatra, as an unaccompanied trio. Luciana now sings "The springtime of love," words from The Two Gentlemen of Verona, a good florid vocal soprano solo; and the opera finishes with "Lo, here the gentle lark," from Venus and Adonis, with flute obbligato. This is too well known to need description. I daresay it made as good an end as any other that Bishop could have devised.

I have written at some length on this musical "pasticcio," as this kind of opera is called, because it presents strange points of interest. The persistent way in which no single line from The Comedy of Errors was set to music for this production is only equalled by the manner in which Purcell did not set a line of Shakespeare in his Fairy {13} Queen. Whenever modern critics point out the faults in our occasional Shakespearian productions, one can always say, "Remember 1819, the year of the first performance of this atrocity."

It is not surprising to find that Sir Henry Bishop was knighted (in these days he might get the O.B.E.); but it is odd that he should have succeeded Dr Crotch in the chair of music at Oxford.

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