Shakespeare and Music



From a musical point of view one of the most important of Shakespeare's plays is A Midsummer Night's Dream. It is possible to use nothing but Mendelssohn's music for this play, but I have never heard it in England without additional numbers. Sir Frank Benson, in his poetical production, used all the original music, but also included a song by Cooke, "Over hill, over dale," for the first singing fairy, and a duet, "I know a bank," by Horn, for first and second singing fairies: the latter a very boring work and quite out of keeping with the rest of the music. There is no reason why these words should be sung at all: they should be spoken by Oberon. Sir Herbert Tree had them sung to the tune of "Auf Fl�geln des Gesanges"—certainly by Mendelssohn, but the effect was very distressing. Most producers use the Spring Song and Bee's Wedding as fairy dances, and this effect is quite legitimate and absolutely in the picture with the rest of the score. Mendelssohn is at the top of his form in this music, and here is no Shakespearian Old English Wardour Street style: it is just Mendelssohn at his best, and a very good best it is. With careful arrangement it can be played on a small orchestra, and is a tremendous help to the success of the play. There is bound to be a long wait between the first and second acts—the change from Athens to the Forest—and Weber's overture to Oberon is very effective here; and, although scored much more brilliantly than the Mendelssohn music, does not seem out of place, and fills in what would else be a very tiresome interval. Several {89} English composers have set the fairy chorus, "You spotted snakes," as a glee for mixed voices; but I never quite fancy fairies singing tenor or bass, and consider Mendelssohn was very wise to stick to women's and children's voices only.

Mendelssohn was only seventeen when he wrote the overture, but the rest of the music was composed much later, at the request of the King of Prussia, and first produced at the New Palace, Potsdam, in 1843. His critical German friends took him much to task for wasting such beautiful music on such a foolish play, but I don't think he ever regretted it. There is a fine ophicleide part in the overture, giving the idea of the clumsy Bottom among the fairies. Mendelssohn chose this instrument because it blends with no other instrument on earth, and really knew what he was doing; but, because of its very quality of tone, for which he chose it, modern conductors have cut it out and substituted a bass trombone or tuba, both of which blend quite prettily with the other instruments. I am speaking of a few years ago; there are hardly any ophicleide players left now.

I suppose the great majority of Christians in the world have been "Mendelssohned," as Kipling has it, out of church once in their lives, and I daresay that is why many people talk sniffily about the "Wedding March."

I am going to make a dreadful confession. Once at a small theatre I did the whole of the Mendelssohn music to the Dream, excepting the scherzo, on a band of eighteen, and it didn't sound half bad. The parts were carefully cross-cued, and everyone was very busy, but I was very proud of the general effect. Of course, the orchestra was almost beneath the stage, which was a great help. The players—they were picked men—consisted of single wood wind, one horn, two trumpets, one trombone, and drums, four first violins, two second, viola, 'cello, and bass. Incidentally we threw in Weber's Oberon overture. I know this sounds like vandalism to read about, but it didn't sound so in the theatre.


Purcell wrote music to a perversion of the Dream produced in 1692 (see above, p. 12), and in some strange manner managed not to set a single line of Shakespeare.

John Christopher Smith, composer of an opera called The Fairies, founded on A Midsummer Night's Dream, was born at Anspach in 1712, but came to England as a boy with his father, who was Handel's treasurer and agent for the sale of his music. At the age of thirteen he became a pupil of Handel, and, when his master went blind, his amanuensis. The Fairies was produced in 1754, and on the title-page of the score is written, "the words taken from Shakespeare," but not by whom. Also, unfortunately, as was the manner at the time, the name of the singer is printed, but not that of the character; however, it is usually possible to get a fairly shrewd idea, from the gist of the words, who is singing. This music is strictly Handelian, though the score as a whole shows greater pains and industry than is generally displayed by his great master. The overture has an introduction, fugue, tuneful minuet, and a fine march in D major after the manner of Handel's Scipio march. The first song is for tenor, with trumpet obbligato, and, I think, must be intended for Theseus. The words run, "Pierce the air with sounds of joy, Come Hymen with the winged boy, Bring song and dance and revelry." From this I take it that Theseus was preparing for his wedding. It is a very stirring, florid air, and, given a robust tenor and a first-rate trumpeter, makes a good opening for the opera. Helena sings next a song with a very pathetic middle part, saying how she scorns to hide her love. Lysander (baritone) has a brisk song about the joys of country life, followed by Helena, singing, sadly, "O Hermia fair; O happy, happy fair"; and Mr Smith sets four lines of Shakespeare's text. Hermia's next air is not very interesting, so we will pass on to a graceful setting of the words, "Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind," sung by Helena or Hermia, I can't settle which; {91} the words are correct text, and very respectfully set. Puck, taken by a boy, now sings, "Where the bee sucks"—quite a new setting to me, and a charming one, too. Here follows an orchestral interlude, called "Sinfonia," for strings, with two independent oboe parts. I don't know if it is meant to be played with the curtain up for business, but rather think it is intended for scene-change music. Titania sings a very "fairy" song, words not by Shakespeare, to her fairies, telling them to follow her; and Oberon, a boy singer, does the same office, in a florid air, for his fairies. Helena, who seems to have too much to do, now has another pathetic song; Titania sings herself to sleep with "You spotted snakes," with slight verbal alterations to make sense. The human lovers become rather tedious here, as they do sometimes in the play; they have several sentimental love-songs and duets, so we welcome Oberon and his fairies. His number, "Now until the break of day," is really beautiful and most fairylike, and brings the second act to a charming close. Oberon sings "Flower of this purple dye" to a solemn largo melody, and the mortals take up the tale again. Oberon sings a setting of "Sigh no more, ladies" very interestingly, and sticks closely to the text; it certainly might have been written by Handel, but is none the worse for that. Puck sings "Up and down" to thoroughly suitable music while he chases the foolish lovers about the forest; after which Titania obliges with "Orpheus with his lute," with oboe obbligato, quite one of the best numbers in the piece and one of the best settings of these much ill-used lines—the close of the second verse is exquisitely done. A hunting "Sinfonia" heralds the last scene, with a couple of fine solo horn parts. This introduces a bold march for the entrance of Theseus, who has a lusty hunting-song with an elaborate orchestral accompaniment. Hermia now has an unnecessary song, "Love's a tempest," and the opera closes joyfully with a solo and chorus to the words "Hail to love and welcome joy." So ends a work I should very much like to have seen. There is no sign of the clowns in {92} the score, so I fear Smith's librettist cut them out; but the music is all by one composer and all in one style. There is none of the horrible jostling of periods that annoys one in Bishop's pasticcio Shakespearian operas, and the text is quite as near the original as Bishop's.

If Christopher Smith omitted the clowns, his fellow-countryman, John Frederick Lampe, composed a mock-opera, entitled Pyramus and Thisbe, the words freely taken from Shakespeare, which was produced at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in 1745. Johann Friedrich Lampe was born at Helmstadt, Saxony, in 1703. He came to England as a bassoon player at the opera, and married Isabella Young, a famous singer, sister of Dr Arne's wife. He soon settled down in London as a composer, and made a tremendous success with his opera The Dragon of Wantly, written in imitation of the famous Beggar's Opera, and burlesquing current Italian operas. This Pyramus mock-opera consists of an overture and thirteen numbers. The overture is a delightfully fresh and original composition, very melodious, with quaint rhythms, and finishing with a very plaintive movement for strings and oboes. Wall (a tenor) has the first song, words not by Shakespeare, explaining his duties; it is good burlesque, and great point is made of repeating the word "whispering" seventeen times, making fun of the Italian method of the time somewhat heavily but amusingly. Pyramus (tenor) has a mock-dignified entrance, and sings an elaborate burlesque song on Shakespeare's words, "And thou, O wall, O sweet and lovely wall, That stands between her father's ground and mine, Show me thy chink that I may blink through with mine eyne." No other words are used in this long song, and the effect should be very comic, and also irritating to Lampe's contemporaries. Pyramus proceeds with a second song, "O wicked wall," using the last two lines only of his speech in the original text. Thisbe, the part taken by Mrs Lampe, now enters and sings about her love for Pyramus in a little amorous song, again not by Shakespeare. The lovers now have a {93} duet, called the First Whispering Duet, to the words, "Not Cephalus to Procris was so true"; a short spirited duet, "I go without delay," takes them off; and the Lion enters and roars pleasantly in florid baritone passages. The Moon (tenor) enters and sings of the joys of drinking and loving in the sky. Thisbe has a lament, so well written that it hardly seems a burlesque at all. Pyramus, thinking her dead, sings a furious mock-heroic song, "Approach, ye furies," followed by "Now am I dead," a beautiful plaintive burlesque with obbligato parts for two oboes. Thisbe sings her lament, "These lily lips, this cherry nose," to a sad little tune; however, for some curious reason not explained in the text, neither of the lovers dies, but they finish the burlesque off with a very bright and cheerful duet to the words, "Thus folding, beholding, caressing, possessing, My Thisbe, my dear, We'll live out the year." As there is no spoken dialogue in my copy of this work, I don't know how the author gets over the death of Pyramus and Thisbe: doubtless he has some ingenious way out of it. Some of the fun is quite Shakespearian, and some is very German, but the whole little mock-opera is amusing and worth a few hours' study. The orchestration is simple and good, and the vocal writing, as was nearly always the case in this period, is excellent.

Sir Henry Bishop's operatic version of this play is the first of his series of pasticcio operas founded on Shakespeare's plays. It was produced at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, in 1816, and is a wonderful hotch-potch of musical styles from Handel to Bishop. The overture is in four distinct movements, none of which seem to have any bearing on the play or each other; and not one is used later in the opera. The whole appears to be entirely detached from the rest of the production. The first song (Hermia) is still sometimes heard; it is by Bishop, and is a melodious setting of the passage beginning "By the simplicity of Venus' doves." The next number is a trio and chorus for the {94} Clowns, beginning "Most noble Duke." Quince, Snout, and Bottom all have little solos, but I can't trace the words—I think they were by some contemporary of Bishop's; the tune is by Arne and Bishop, but is not very valuable. The next song is for the first fairy and by Dr Cooke. The words do not occur in the play or in any other work of Shakespeare's; they are just the conventional fairy-song words about fairy rings, lightly trip it o'er the green, but the musical setting is charming. The fairy march by Bishop is the same as in his As You Like It, beginning pianissimo and finishing with about fifty bars of such vulgar fortissimo noise as would have frightened away any number of fairies. Demetrius has the next song: it is by Bishop, but the words are not Shakespeare's. The words, "But ne'er recall my love," are repeated thirteen times, and the tune is insignificant. The next number is a "grand recitative air and chorus" for Oberon and the fairies; again the words are not by Shakespeare, but are of the "trip it" and "so nimbly" school; the music is by Bishop and Dr Cooke, and Cooke's part is the better. Demetrius (tenor) sings Helena's beautiful words, "O happy fair, your eyes are lodestars," to a graceful melody of Bishop's: this number is still heard occasionally. The duet that follows between Demetrius and Hermia is by Bishop, and the words are by Anon.; it is a maudlin piece of work, words and music admirably fitted. Oberon's beautiful speech, "Flower of the purple dye," is set to music by our old friend Smith, with ineffective additions by Bishop, as a song for Oberon. The second act ends with a recitative for the fourth fairy, a dance and a chorus welcoming the little Indian boy. In the third act is a quartet for the four solo fairies by Bishop, words anonymous and very bad, which takes the curtain up. Oberon sings his speech, "Be as thou wast wont to be," to music by Battishill and Bishop, a very graceful melody; and this is followed by a hunting chorus about Spartan hounds, music by Bishop, poet unnamed. An anonymous character sings Handel's "Hush, ye pretty warbling choir," from Acis and Galatea. The effect should {95} be amazing in this wilderness of bad music. Demetrius now has a song by Bishop, to "original words," called "Sweet cheerful hope," but as it is of no particular value we will pass on to a real piece of Shakespeare from this very play, a setting by Bishop for Oberon and chorus of the words "To the best bride bed will we," finishing with the chorus "In Theseus' house give glimmering light," or, as Shakespeare more happily phrases it, "Through the house," etc. Hermia now sings a song, words by some ruffian unnamed, to Hippolyta and her amazons about freedom; very poor, pretentious stuff. The opera ends with a so-called characteristic march, beginning with the entrance of the Cretans, followed by the Thebans, Amazons, the Centaurs, the Argo, the Labyrinth, the Minotaur—a sort of grand historical pageant of Theseus' life. The music by Bishop is not in the least descriptive of any of these varied things and persons I have catalogued; one expects some rather special music for a Centaur, a Labyrinth, and especially a Minotaur, but one is disappointed.

Mr Cecil Sharp arranged and composed the incidental music and songs for Granville Barker's most interesting production of this play at the Savoy, January 1914. In a striking preface he points out that not a single note of contemporary music for the songs in this play has been preserved; he debates the possibility of using contemporary tunes and fitting the words to them, of having fake music composed, and of commissioning a composer to write entirely new music. He rejects all these propositions, and plumps for using folk-songs. He says: "By using folk-music in the Shakespeare play we shall then be mating like with like, the drama which is for all time with the music which is for all time." Whether the result at the Savoy was successful or not I leave to the judgment of the many people who saw the production. Unfortunately, Mr Sharp does not indicate very clearly when he has arranged, composed, or adapted the tunes in the printed score. The first musical number occurs in Act ii., Scene 2, a dance, song, {96} and chorus; the dance is to the melody of that interesting old folk-tune "Sellenger's Round," and the baritone solo is, I am sure, by Mr Sharp, as is the following chorus. The words, which fit in too neatly for it to be an adaptation, are the familiar "You spotted snakes"; but, though he is bitter with Mendelssohn for repeating "so good night" so often, he cheerfully cuts out one "lul-la," surely a grievous thing to do for one so correct! The next number is Bottom's song, "The ousel cock so black of hue," and is, presumably, by Mr Sharp, as only the melody is printed, and I don't see how anyone can have a copyright (it is marked copyright) in a folk-song tune. I don't think it is an improvement on the so-called traditional tune to which I have always been accustomed. The next number is for orchestra alone, and occurs in Act iv., Scene 1; it is called "Still Music," and the melody is the old folk-song, "The sprig of thyme," collected and arranged by Mr Sharp. The Bergamask dance, Act v., Scene 1, is one of the numerous versions of "Green Sleeves," collected and arranged by Mr Sharp. The wedding march is on the tune "Lord Willoughby," arranged by Mr Sharp, and is certainly a great change from the one usually associated with this situation. The love charm seems to have gone all wrong again, and even Theseus and Hippolyta seem to have soured on one another. As for the other lovers——! Even the tierce de Picardie fails to liven up the last bar. The song and dance in the same scene and act are composed by Mr Sharp, and, following the glorious tradition of Sir Henry Bishop in the pasticcio operas, the words "Roses, their sharp spines being gone" do not appear in the play. They are not by Shakespeare, but from Fletcher's Two Noble Kinsmen. The final number is a traditional dance arranged by Mr Sharp, but from what source he does not say; it is rather a sad little tune, followed by the more lively "Nonsuch," and finishing off with "Sellenger's Round," which was the first musical number.

It would be an interesting point to discover whether Shakespeare would have preferred this very "correct" {97} musical setting to Mendelssohn's now derided one. I rather think that Mendelssohn's Overture and Scherzo would have appealed to him. There seems to me to be very little in this play, with its frequent classical allusions, that calls for folk-music, and artificial simplicity in a production of a play so full of Elizabethan artifice seems utterly out of place.

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