Shakespeare and Music



It is a curious thing that, though critics are unanimous in saying that The Merry Wives of Windsor is the weakest comedy Shakespeare ever wrote, it has directly inspired one opera of first-class importance—Verdi's Falstaff, by some considered the finest comic opera in the world; also Nicolai's Merry Wives of Windsor, a first-rate opera in the second division, as it were, still constantly played in Germany, and here by the Carl Rosa Opera Company; and Balfe's comic opera Falstaff, produced at Her Majesty's, July 19, 1838. This work is not so easy to place; it is essentially Italian music, and shows how wonderfully adaptable Balfe's genius was.

Braham, Parry, and Horn wrote numbers for a musical version of this play, which was produced in London in 1823, but I cannot trace the score nor any of the numbers.

We will take Balfe's opera first. There was a fine cast for the first production—Grisi, Rubini, Tamburini, with Lablache as Falstaff: so the work had every opportunity, as far as singers were concerned, but it never passed into the opera repertory, and few people now have heard of it. Perhaps the libretto by S. M. Maggioni may have helped Falstaff into its present oblivion. The work opens with a conventional overture, a slow introduction and a quick second part, getting quicker towards the end—the sort of overture that would suit almost any comedy-opera as well as The Merry Wives. After the overture comes a duet for Page and Ford; then Falstaff's entrance and song. {81} It is impossible to follow the plot clearly, as there is a great deal of spoken dialogue; but all the principals have very "fat" bits. The composer was obviously writing for singers whom he knew well, and he did not bother much about character, colour, Windsor, or Queen Elizabeth's time; everything is perfectly vocal, and the melodies are quite pleasant.

Balfe certainly had a wonderful gift for melody, but there is no drama at all in the work. Parts of it would sound quite well in a concert-hall, but I could not trust it on the stage. At the end, instead of fairies tormenting Sir John, a chorus of witches is introduced for that purpose, and they do it quite effectively. The work ends with a brilliant ensemble for the principals and chorus, with Grisi "coloraturing" all over the place. The opera is only in two acts, so a good deal of plot is omitted; still, the work is interesting, if merely from the fact that Balfe is the only British composer who has written an opera, The Bohemian Girl, which has been played, and is being played, all over the world. It is the fashion for "superior people" to sneer at Balfe, but The Bohemian Girl is the sole English opera in the international repertory.

Nicolai's opera, Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor, book by Mosenthal, produced at Berlin in 1849, is now a classic. The overture is quite beautiful; the second subject so attracted Wagner that he "pinched" it and put it into the Meistersinger. The libretto is very well done, too. Although none of the rest of the opera quite reaches this high level, all is very good.

After the overture, Mistress Page and Mistress Ford enter with their letters, and the plot gets under way at once. No tiresome preliminary chorus, but straight to the story. In this charming duet is hatched the plot for the undoing of Falstaff. Fenton is made into a much larger and more important r´┐Żle than Shakespeare conceived; in point of fact, he is the solo tenor lover, and much very pretty music is given to him. All Sir John's music is very expressive {82} of the man, and, though vocal, is suited to the character. With the exception of the enlargement of Master Fenton's part, Nicolai's librettist sticks closely to Shakespeare's text; but there are occasional excrescences, mostly harmless. At the opening of the second act, Falstaff sings a song, with male chorus, the words of which begin with the famous Clown's song at the end of Twelfth Night, "When that I was and a little tiny boy"; but after a few lines it grows into a drinking song. Anyway, there's some Shakespeare in it, and it is a first-rate number.

The third act opens with a ballad about Herne the Hunter and his oak for Mistress "Reich" (Ford). It is a very weird and effective song, and in excellent contrast to the music which has preceded it. Sweet Anne Page also has much more to do in this version of the story than in Shakespeare's; but in opera one must have young lovers, and Falstaff and Mistresses Ford and Page are not quite romantic enough for the average opera audience. The grotesque music for Slender and Dr Caius is wonderfully done, and full of quiet humour. After the "Herne" ballad Sweet Anne Page sings a long and almost tiresome aria, but this is followed by the Moon chorus scene, which opens with the same motif as the overture. The orchestra plays the beautiful melody, and the chorus sustains long, pianissimo six-part harmonies. The whole effect is very fine. Next comes a ballet with chorus of fairies, also on themes used in the overture. Whenever Nicolai employs a theme from the overture the whole work seems to rise in value and become quite first-rate. With Fenton disguised as Oberon, King of the Fairies, and Anne Page as Titania, Falstaff is "put through the hoops," even as he is in Shakespeare's play, and a very melodious trio begins the finale. This is sung by the three ladies—Anne, Mistress Page, and Mistress Ford. Near the end Falstaff joins in, and for the last fourteen bars principals and chorus sing an ensemble.

It is indeed a very merry work, and curiously Shakespearian; all the parts are showy to sing and to act, the {83} music, though full of character, is thoroughly vocal, and the orchestration is never too heavy for the singers. As a comic opera it is quite one of the best in the world, and fully deserves its place in the repertory of opera for all time.

We now come to the third opera founded on The Merry Wives of Windsor, Verdi's Falstaff, libretto by Boito. After the production of Otello, 1887, the composer was silent operatically; but in 1893, at the age of eighty, he produced Falstaff, and astounded the entire musical world. The work was produced at the Scala, Milan, February 9, and its success was instantaneous. The book by Boito is, as the score says, "derived from Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor, and from certain passages of Henry IV. having relation to the personality of Falstaff," and is a masterpiece of construction and adaptation.

The opera is in three acts, each act being in two parts. Shallow, Page, Slender, Sir Hugh, Nym, Simple, and Rugby all go. Certain lines have to be transposed. For instance, in Act i, Scene 1, Caius speaks Shallow's lines, beginning "You have beaten my men"; but these things are necessary in converting a five-act comedy, with two scenes, into a three-act lyrical comedy with six scenes. Sweet Anne Page becomes Annetta Ford, and her part and Master Fenton's are much written up; in fact, they become a very pretty pair of lovers, and their frequent love-duets are beautifully melodious, and never sentimental. Bardolph (tenor) becomes an important part, and he pursues his old master after his dismissal with the utmost malignancy. The scene is Windsor in the time of Henry IV. Falstaff is a baritone. Victor Maurel, the great French baritone, created the part.

As is usual with this composer's later work, there is no overture, the curtain rising on the interior of the Garter Inn at the fourth bar of an allegro vivace. Sir John has just sealed the two love-letters. Dr Caius (tenor) enters angrily and abuses Falstaff nearly in Shallow's words; Falstaff pays no attention, but calls for sherry, and in a brilliant scene the Doctor accuses Falstaff and his followers {84} of making him drunk and robbing him. After Caius's exit, Sir John calls for his bill and sings a song of his wandering from inn to inn, following the light shed by Bardolph's nose, and setting forth how much it has cost him (Falstaff) to get it into its present condition. He then produces the letters, and Pistol and Bardolph refuse to bear them. Falstaff bundles them out of the room and the scene ends. The whole of the music in these comedy scenes is as light as air, the action is wonderfully swift, and every nuance in the words is reflected in the orchestration. It is only necessary to comment on a few features, as the original story is so well known and Boito follows it fairly closely now. There are no real numbers that can be separated from the main body; no songs or concerted pieces that it would be wise to perform apart from the context: the whole work is so welded into one homogeneous whole that it would be sacrilege to do scraps on the concert platform. There are no numbers, like the "Preis" song or Hans Sachs' soliloquies from Wagner's great comic opera, that can be performed with great effect at concerts: with Verdi's Falstaff it is all or nothing. The reading of the letter by Mistress Ford makes a fine comic effect, and the unaccompanied quartet for the four ladies—Page, Ford, Sweet Anne, and Mrs Quickly—that follows it is a rare bit of vocal writing. The concerted writing throughout is splendid—the counterpoint is never obtrusive, but always there,—and the orchestration a wonderful combination of lightness and strength.

To return to the plot. Falstaff comes only once to Ford's house, and is thrown out of a window into the Thames, so never escapes as the wise woman of Brentford. A very amusing effect, though not in Shakespeare, is obtained during Ford's mad search for Sir John. Fenton and Anne Page have hidden behind a curtain. In the middle of the fearful din everyone is making there comes a sudden pause, during which the lovers kiss audibly. Ford at once thinks it is Sir John and his wife, creeps up to the arras, jerks it aside, and discloses his daughter and her forbidden lover, {85} much to Ford's anger and the lovers' mutual embarrassment! During this act Falstaff sings to Mistress Ford the fine song about his youth, "Once I was page to the Duke of Norfolk."

Though Verdi does not use the leit-motif in the ordinary sense of the word, much use is made of a triplet figure. Mistress Quickly employs it first to announce to Sir John his appointment with Mistress Ford. It is used by Sir John when he announces to Ford, disguised as Brook, his appointment with Ford's wife. Unfortunately, the original Italian cannot be, or has not been, rendered into the same number of syllables in the English version (I am speaking of Ricordi's edition), so there is one syllable missing, which spoils the whole effect. This figure is used wonderfully as an accompaniment during the duet that follows, and the eighty-year-old composer gets heaps of natural boyish fun (though technically marvellous) out of those six notes.

The first part of the third act opens with, for Verdi, quite a long introduction, agitato in nature, on the theme that interrupts Falstaff's love-making in the previous act. The scene is the exterior of the Garter Inn. Falstaff is alone, and sings his famous soliloquy on the wicked, treacherous world. He calls for wine, drinks deeply, and begins to feel better. He mixes the sack with the Thames water he has swallowed, and sings, "How sweet it is to drink good wine while basking in the sunshine." Mistress Quickly comes on, and makes the appointment for Herne's oak at midnight. She begins the story of Herne the Hunter very impressively, and Mistress Page finishes it.

The next and last scene takes place a little before midnight, at the oak in Windsor Park. Anne Page and Fenton open with a love-duet, and as the bell strikes twelve Sir John enters wearing a pair of antlers. After a short scene with Mistress Page, Anne Page is heard as Fairy Queen summoning her wood nymphs, dryads, and goblins. Falstaff falls on his face, and the fairies enter. There is a long and beautiful sort of choral ballet, in which Falstaff is badly treated by everyone, especially by Bardolph. In {86} the hubbub Dr Caius elopes with Bardolph disguised as Anne Page, and Fenton and Anne manage to get Ford's consent to their marriage. Then comes the great moment of all. All parties are reconciled; Ford invites everyone to carouse at his house, and Sir John Falstaff leads off with the subject of the great choral fugue that forms the finale. The words begin, "Jesting is man's vocation," etc. Fenton takes the answer, then Dame Quickly, then Mistress Ford. At first the orchestration is very light, but as the rest join in it grows heavier. Mistress Page then enters with the subject, followed by Sweet Anne in stretto, Pistol meanwhile starting with the counter-subject, closely followed by Ford, with Dr Caius in stretto. It would take too long to describe the ramifications of this, as Browning says of another, "mountainous fugue," but it is one of the most superb pieces of vocal fugal writing extant, and makes one of the finest endings to an opera the brain of man has ever conceived.

The idea of having a great fugue in eight and ten parts, with a full chorus and orchestra, quite independent of the solo parts, to finish a comic opera was a stroke of genius that could only have occurred to a supreme mind, and could only have been carried out by one of the great musical and dramatic geniuses of the world. It is extraordinarily successful, and its daring is gloriously vindicated. Let those lovers of musical comedy, ragtime, and sentimental ballads who sneer at fugue, counterpoint, form, and technique hear this, and wonder. It does not sound very complicated or difficult, but really it is quite as complex as the finale of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony, the "Cum Sancto Spiritu" from Bach's B minor Mass, or the great fugato finale from the third act of Wagner's Meistersinger. Verdi and Mozart make the numbers I have spoken of sound simple and almost easy; Bach and Wagner sound as difficult as they are, and all are equally difficult at bedrock.

I have written a great deal on this work, though no number of pages of mine could do any kind of justice to {87} it; but if I have helped one reader to a little fuller understanding of this great comic opera I shall have "acquired grace," and, anyhow, that is something.

In 1856, at the Lyric, Paris, Adolphe Adam produced his one-act comic opera Falstaffe, with a libretto by MM. Saint Georges and Leunen. He was born in Paris in 1803, and was a pupil of Boieldieu at the Conservatoire. The music is very light and fairly melodious, but quite unambitious, and has been described by a French musical critic, very justly, as mediocre. There is a valse in it which was popular for a time, and a few catchy numbers, but the critic was right—mediocre is the word.

There is a song by J. L. Hatton entitled "Falstaff's Song: Give me a cup of sack, boy." But I cannot find the words in my edition of Shakespeare's plays and poems. It begins:

A full, flowing cup of old sack give me, boy;
For sack clears the head, clears the heart.

I don't think the words are Shakespeare's, in spite of the printed title-page before me. The music is in the composer's well-known "Simon the Cellarer" style; only, unfortunately, the tune is not so good. The words get sillier as the song continues, so that if I had been the boy I should have given the singer prussic acid instead of the sack he so repeatedly calls for.

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