Shakespeare and Music



There have been several operas composed about this King when he was Prince of Wales, but only one of them, Mercadante's Gioventu di Enrico V., Milan, 1834, has any connection with Shakespeare's play. Verdi's Falstaff opera contains some bits from the Henry IV. plays which I am dealing with under The Merry Wives of Windsor.

The most important modern work on this subject is "Falstaff, symphonic study in C minor, with two interludes in A minor, composed by Sir Edward Elgar, Op. 68." The work is dedicated to Landon Ronald, was composed for the Leeds Musical Festival, and was produced there, the composer conducting, on October 2, 1913. Sir Edward, in a foreword, says: "We must dismiss from our minds the Falstaff of The Merry Wives of Windsor and turn to the Falstaff of Henry IV., parts one and two." A literary civil servant, Maurice Morgan, wrote a defence of Sir John from the general accusation of cowardice, which has, to some extent, helped the composer's inspiration. This essay was published in 1777, and contains several most interesting passages. In one place, quoted by Elgar, he writes: "...a conception, hardly less complex, hardly less wonderful, than that of Hamlet"; and again: "He is a character made up by Shakespeare entirely of incongruities, a man at once young and old, enterprising and fat, a dupe and a wit, harmless and wicked, meek in principle and resolute by constitution, cowardly in appearance and brave in reality: a knave, a gentleman and a soldier, without either dignity, decency, or honour." This is the complicated character that Sir Edward sets out to portray in music.


Mr Gilbert Webb, who made the analytical notes for the performance at the Albert Hall Sunday Concerts on December 14, 1913, divides the work into four parts:—(1) Falstaff and Prince Henry. (2) Eastcheap, Gadshill, The Boar's Head. (3) Falstaff's March. The Return through Gloucestershire. The New King. The hurried Ride to London. (4) King Henry V.'s Progress. The Repudiation of Falstaff and his Death—and this seems a very wise division. The work opens with a boisterous theme given out on the bass instruments, depicting the mature Falstaff in the height of his fame or infamy, as you will. It would be impossible in my limited space to follow the ramifications of this immensely complicated work. It is a Pageant of Falstaff's life and death. Of the two interludes mentioned in the title, the first is headed in the score, "Dream Interlude." "Jack Falstaff, now Sir John, a boy and page to Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk." The music here is very quiet, melodious, and graceful. The second interlude represents Justice Shallow's orchard, and is again very calm and reposeful. There is much fine march music for the King's coronation procession, and the meeting between the King and his old companion is graphically and tragically described. The work ends sadly, the various characteristic themes already used being heard again, but in much sadder mode: Mistress Quickly's beautiful account of Sir John's death (in Henry V.) is very touchingly musicked, and the work closes on a pianissimo chord. It would take a long pamphlet to describe this symphonic poem, and it must be heard and studied often and deeply to be appreciated properly.

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