Shakespeare and Music



Despite the fact that Cl�ment and Larousse, the French musical operatic historians, give no fewer than seven Italian operas entitled Coriolanus, and mention four more, unfortunately not one of them is founded on Shakespeare's play. One great overture that is always associated with the play was not composed directly for Shakespeare's drama but for a work on the same subject by Baron von Collin, a Viennese dramatist. M. H. Laboix fils, the celebrated French musical critic, in his essay, "Les traducteurs de Shakespeare en musique," says: "Among symphonic works it is not possible to avoid mentioning Beethoven's 'Coriolan Overture,' and we should have placed it in the front rank if a scruple did not require us to refer only to music directly inspired by Shakespeare." In spite of the character of grandeur and majesty which gives it its stamp, the overture "Coriolanus" was not composed for the English tragedy, and a little story will serve to show this.

A German poet, von Collin, had written a play, Coriolanus. To give relief to his tragedy, he took it to the composer of Fidelio and prayed him to write an overture. Perhaps Beethoven knew the English Coriolanus; perhaps the stern Roman pleased him so much by reason of his vindictive and indomitable character that one night, so say the historians, sufficed the composer to provide the magnificent pages that serve to preface the work for which we have to thank von Collin. The critics have found, with reason, the striking connection between Shakespeare's play and Beethoven's overture; but if the anecdote be true, these analogies are a proof of that intimate tie which binds {15} together great men of genius. The overture is too well known to require analysis. Everyone will remember the austere opening, the turbulent principal theme, the perfect melody of the second theme, the wonderful fiery development, and the exquisite morendo at the end. Beethoven, one feels, must have known Shakespeare's Coriolanus.

Of real incidental music composed for this play very little has survived. Most managers were content to play the Beethoven overture if the orchestra was large enough, and to get through with a couple of marches—one for the Romans and one for the Volscians,—a few fanfares, and a little soft music to illustrate the "home life" of the hero.

Not so Sir Henry Irving, all honour to him. He commissioned Sir Alexander Mackenzie to write special music, which it is my privilege to discuss now. The composer has made his incidental music into a suite of four movements. The first number is called "Prelude," and is in C minor and common time. It opens with a vigorous, decisive chromatic theme lasting only for nine bars, and is followed by a very tender and beautiful subject for strings, which is soon developed, in an animated manner, into a forte passage, that quickly dies down and enables a tranquil melody for wood wind and harp to be heard. After a little while the trumpets enter with a rapid fanfare figure, which quickly spreads over the rest of the orchestra, and works up finely to the return of the first theme fortissimo. All these themes are now finely treated in various ways by the composer, and the movement ends with a brilliant coda in the major. The second number is a march in D major. After a quiet introduction for strings pizzicato, the violins give out a martial theme very quietly, and presently the wood wind joins in, and a graceful, rather florid theme for the wood is added; then comes the first theme again, and the march ends with some piano trumpet fanfares. The trio is in the minor and slower; its theme is broad and flowing, and at its end Sir Alexander introduces a longish piece of complex development music {16} working to the first march theme, which is played for the first time fortissimo, but soon gets piano again. The coda is quite short and quiet, with a reference to the trio: the music gets slower and slower, and ends pianissimo.

The third number is a funeral march. The opening theme is practically the same as the few bars of the prelude, but is developed more lyrically. The middle part, or trio, is even more solemn; there is a very impressive kettledrum effect, and a fateful subject is played on trombone and cornet in octaves against a strong string passage. The first part is repeated with very little alteration, and the end is fitly funereal. The fourth and last number is by far the most descriptive of the suite; it is called "Voces Populi," and gives, musically, the effect of an angry crowd being gradually stirred up to great heights of wrath. This is followed by an expressive affettuoso theme, mostly for the violins, leading to a new melody, very triumphant and happy, but soon broken in upon by the murmuring of the people, this time sounding even more ominous. After a short appearance of the affettuoso theme the movement finishes triumphantly on the third theme in a great blaze of music. No stage music could be more in keeping with the true meaning of the play; it is all on a very high and important level, and is most worthy of its distinguished composer.

It is of this Coriolanus production that a very good story is told. After the final dress rehearsal two stage hands were discovered outside the stage door reading through the day-bill. One said: "Scenery designed by Sir Laurence Alma Tadema; music composed by Sir Alexander Mackenzie; produced by Sir Henry Irving—three knights. About all it will —— well run." Unfortunately, owing to no fault of the music, this prophecy was not very far out.

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