Shakespeare and Music



Very few composers seem to have been attracted by The Merchant of Venice, though in the last act occurs one of the most beautiful eulogies of music in the world—the lines are too familiar to quote. I can only trace two operas on the subject. The first is Il Mercante di Venezia, by Ciro Pinsuti, produced at Bologna, November 8, 1873. It is in four acts, and the libretto is by G. T. Cimino, who very freely adapted Shakespeare's story. The work opens with a short overture-prelude of no very great importance, and the curtain rises on a street in Venice with chorus singing and gondolas floating by. Presently Portia appears in a gondola with the Prince of Morocco, playing the lute. She sings a greeting to Venice and its inhabitants, and exits with the Prince, who has not a singing or speaking part in the opera. But Bassanio and Antonio have observed her, and the former has fallen in love with her and tells Antonio about it. They exit, and the chorus, cunningly knowing that Shylock is about to enter, sings a derisive anti-Semitic song. Shylock tells them that he is following a really inoffensive industry, but no one seems to believe him. It would be wearisome to follow the plot too closely here. Shylock has a terrific aria about his daughter's elopement, after which the pound of flesh contract is made; and this scene is really impressive. Then there is a long trio between the three—Shylock, Antonio, and Bassanio—which makes a brilliant finale to the first act.

Act ii. opens at Belmont. Portia is wondering about her father's will, and she sings quite a long and florid song {75} about it. Bassanio enters and declares his love, and a long and impassioned duet follows, at the end of which is a lengthy fanfare, succeeded by the strangest caricature of Mendelssohn's Wedding March I have ever heard. The rhythm is exactly the same, and the melody and harmony are almost identical. This brings on poor Morocco again. The casket business, very much shortened, takes place, and Bassanio, as usual, wins. Then comes the March again, this time quite frankly called "Marcia Nuziale," and the act finishes with the bad news of Antonio and Bassanio's hurried exit to try to save him.

The third act discovers Shylock in a bad temper, still singing about his daughter's elopement. (Really Shakepeare's construction was not quite so bad as his adapters seem to think.) Afterwards a chorus of Jews comes on and sings hymns at Shylock. This seems to make him even more angry. The Trial scene is very much curtailed, and Portia "comes to the 'osses" very much more quickly than Shakespeare lets her.

The fourth and last act opens with a long and elaborate choral ballet, at the end of which (Jessica and Lorenzo being cut out) Portia and company soon finish off the plot; but, for some probably operatic reason, the full chorus is at Belmont, and, what is stranger, the chorus of Jews break in on it with Yiddish hymns. At the back of the stage a ship is seen on which is Shylock. The Jews and Christians continue singing, but gradually the Christians win, the Jews dying away as the Christians become more vociferous. So the curtain slowly falls. It is a strange and interesting work, and not without some dramatic touches. The themes are mostly cheap and banal, and there is little or no dignity about the part of Shylock; but the work is noteworthy if only for the fact that it is the only opera but one ever written or in any way produced on The Merchant of Venice. Also Shylock has one thing in his favour—he is not a tenor.

Louis Deff�s, a French composer, born at Toulouse, {76} July 25, 1819, also composed an opera on this subject, in four acts, calling it Jessica. The libretto is by Jules Ardevies. The work was first performed on March 25, 1898, at the composer's birthplace. M. Deff�s was a pupil of the Paris Conservatoire, where he studied under Hal�vy and subsequently won the Prix de Rome. The librettist has taken the elements of his dramatic poem from Shakespeare's play, but has, owing to musical exigencies, very much cut down the work. On the other hand, he introduces a tragic d�nouement that had no place in Shakespeare's drama. To this book the composer has written most moving and dramatic music, which produced a deep effect on the audience when first performed.

This opera was to have been called Shylock and brought out at the Op�ra Comique, where the work had been accepted; but circumstances decided otherwise. Among the prominent numbers that stand out in the first act are the song of Antonio, "C'�tait le soir," and the fine finale. In the second act Jessica has a charming cavatina, and a very interesting duet with Shylock, who also has a fine song in this act. In the third act, at the culminating point of the work, is a delicious chorus of swallows (at the first performance beautifully sung by a chorus of young lady pupils from the Toulouse Conservatoire); a poetic dream reverie by Portia; and a charming ballet; the act ending with a brilliantly written quintet. In the fourth act are serious songs for Jessica and Shylock, the whole ending with a dramatic version of the Trial scene. The first performance was a veritable triumph for the composer, who, at the age of seventy-nine, an old pupil of the Toulouse Conservatoire, an old Prix de Rome man, and the composer of a dozen works produced in Paris, had returned to his native town to produce the opera and to take over the direction of the school of music at which he had begun his studies.

As regards incidental music, every production of this play must have some. There must be masque music for {77} Lorenzo and Jessica to elope to; there must be a setting of "Tell me where is fancy bred"; and Portia has her own private orchestra at Belmont. But most of the specially composed music for the Merchant remains in manuscript.

Sullivan wrote a very elaborate masque for the Calvert production at Manchester, much of which is published. There is a long and very Viennese valse, full of melody and grace, and a grotesque Dance for Pierrots and Harlequins, with a highly comic cadenza for the bassoon. The Bounce is the most familiar number, as it is frequently played as an entr'acte in the theatre. It is very attractive, but not at all a bourr�e on the old accepted lines. There is also a melodious serenata in the rarely used key of E flat minor. These few numbers are all that have been printed.

Engelbert Humperdinck wrote music for Reinhardt's production of this play in Berlin at the Deutsches Theater. This version of the play begins with a barcarolle sung by a tenor behind the act-drop as the curtain goes up. This, oddly enough, is sung in Italian, and the words are not by Shakespeare. Portia is discovered playing the lute in the second scene, cleverly imitated by Humperdinck on the harp. Before the second act is a very stately saraband. For the Prince of Morocco's entrance there is no attempt at Eastern local colour. Obviously the Prince in this version did not bring his own band, and trusted to Portia's private orchestra for his effects, and they did not know his national anthem; so he only gets an ordinary flourish, two trumpets and kettledrums. The same thing happens to Aragon, only the fanfare is different though in the same key. The march is very wild, working up to a great climax, and then dying away to nothing. "Tell me where is fancy bred" is set as a duet for soprano and contralto with female chorus, and makes a beautiful number. After this there is nothing till the last act. The curtain goes up to exquisite music, which lasts till the end of the play. {78} It is very lightly scored, strings, harps, solo violin, and horns, and every word can be heard through it: so it makes a perfect ending for the whole play. I have never read of this music being performed in England, but I can very strongly recommend it to any future producer of The Merchant of Venice.

For Mr Arthur Bourchier's production at the Garrick Frederick Rosse composed a great deal of music, some of which is published. It is very good stage music, and admirably suited to the production it was written for. There is a prelude to the first act, ending with a sort of barcarolle; then a melodious intermezzo, entitled "Portia"; an Oriental march for Morocco (evidently the Prince brought his own band for this production); a second prelude, rather sickly sentimental; a good stirring march for the Doge; and a pretty setting of "Tell me where is fancy bred" for contralto, baritone, and harp—very serviceable and useful music all of it. But somehow the play itself does not seem to get the best out of musicians.

Gabriel Faur�, the distinguished French musician, who composed the fine incidental music for Mrs Patrick Campbell's production of Pell�as el M�lisande, also wrote incidental music to Edmond Haraucourt's version of The Merchant of Venice, called by him Shylock. There are not many numbers, but all of them are interesting. The first is a prelude and serenade for light baritone to words of M. Haraucourt's; very graceful and melodious, but unconnected with Shakespeare's plot. The words begin, "Oh les filles, venez les filles aux voix douces." The first entr'acte, in march time, opens with trumpets. There is a flowing trio founded on the same subject, and then back to the beginning for the close—a very pleasant little interlude. Now comes a so-called madrigal, not in the English sense of a contrapuntal number in several vocal parts, but a very pretty sentimental song, the words, again by M. Haraucourt, "Celle que j'aime a de beaut�," being {79} charmingly set for baritone once more. The "�pithalme" or "Bridal Song" is for orchestra only; it is a solemn adagio movement, almost too sombre for such a comedy as M. Haraucourt makes of The Merchant. The love music is in nocturne form, and is chiefly a duet for solo violin and 'cello. The last number, headed "Finale," is a brilliant quasi-scherzo movement in triple time—rather in the manner of a valse-scherzo. This is the longest and most elaborate section of the suite, finishing with a well-developed coda. Altogether Faur�'s Shylock is an interesting, though rather slight, addition to our very scanty amount of music for this play.

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