Shakespeare and Music



The most successful opera founded on Much Ado About Nothing is Berlioz's two-act work entitled B�atrice et B�n�dict, produced at Baden, 1862. The composer wrote his own libretto for this, and it is an ingenious one. The first reference we get to the work is in a letter to his greatest friend, Humbert Ferrand, dated November 1858: "I am getting on with a one-act opera for Baden written round Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. It is called B�atrice et B�n�dict; I promise there shall not be 'much ado' in the shape of noise in it. Benayet, the King of Baden, wants it next year."

A very interesting point is made here in the little joke about "noise." Berlioz had long been accused by critics and public of using too large orchestras. He was very careful to put down in his scores the exact number of each instrument that he required, and the ignorant, non-musical person cannot understand that thirty violins playing pianissimo are still pianissimo and are infinitely more beautiful than sixteen or eight. Berlioz composed this work, "little opera" he calls it, immensely quickly, and complains that ideas come to him so fast that he has not time to write them down. In a letter to his sailor son, Louis, dated November 1860, he says: "You ask how I manage to crowd a Shakespeare's five acts into one. I have taken only one subject from the play—the part in which Beatrice and Benedick, who detest each other, are mutually persuaded of each other's love, whereby they are inspired with a true passion. The idea is really comic." I don't {99} quite understand what he means by the last sentence: it is certainly a comedy idea, but not to me comic. Perhaps the translation of the original may be somewhat free: I have not the French original version by me, so I quote from the volume in Dent's "Everyman's Library."

It will be noticed that the original idea of a one-act opera is abandoned. The work was produced in two acts, and was a great success.

Writing again to his son he says: "Beatrice was applauded from end to end, and I was recalled more times than I can count"; and to his friend H. Ferrand: "I am just home from Baden, where Beatrice is a real triumph." He speaks of his "radiant singers." He says: "People are finding out that I have melody; that I can be gay—in fact, really comic; that I am not noisy." Benayet, whom Berlioz humorously calls "King of Baden," was the director of the new Opera House, and he treated the composer most generously financially, and lavishly as regards scenery and dresses—a thing to which he was not accustomed: so he ennobled him thus. The whole Beatrice episode is one of the happiest in a not very happy life.

Coming to the music itself, the overture is not long, but an admirable comedy overture, beautifully scored. The first number is a drinking-song in praise of the wine of Syracuse, sung by a bass called Somarone, a creation of Berlioz, with a spirited chorus.

A fine chorus welcomes the return of the victorious Don Pedro. There is a very pretty "Siciliana," followed by a song in praise of Claudio, sung by Hero.

After this, the hero and heroine have most of the work; and on their finally agreeing to get married, much simple fun is made by the rest of the characters. The so-called "Maidens' Duet" became a very popular number. In this work are two four-part choruses called "�pithalme grotesque," composed in capella style. The end is very bright, and the whole opera though difficult to sing and play, is not expensive to mount.

I cannot trace a performance of this work here in London, {100} but it would be well worth the attention of the Carl Rosa Opera Company; for even if it has been produced, it must have been a long time ago, and it would be perfectly fresh now. The opera has been performed more frequently in Germany than anywhere else. It was given at Weimar and Stuttgart under the composer's direction, and the last important production was under Mottl.

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford's opera, Much Ado About Nothing, has nothing in common with Berlioz's B�atrice et B�n�dict, and very little in common with Shakespeare's work of the same name. The libretto is by Julian Sturgis, and the work was produced at Covent Garden in May 1900, and also at the Stadt Theater, Leipsic, April 1902, with a German translation by John Bernhoff.

Berlioz took a single episode for his opera in two acts, and worked it out logically, ignoring everything that had nothing to do with his own plot, which was "Beatrice and Benedick." Sturgis and Stanford bring in nearly all Shakespeare's characters, but these say and sing things that would have made Shakespeare turn in his grave if he could have heard them there. When Debussy wanted to set Maeterlinck's Pell�as et M�lisande, he set every word of the original play and made a perfect work of art. When Richard Strauss made an opera of Oscar Wilde's Salome, he did the same thing, and, however much some of us may dislike it, no one can deny that he turned out a very perfect art-work, as regards form and brilliance. He produced a great opera, unpleasant from some points of view, but, judged as a whole, a real achievement. He trusted in his librettist and was justified in his trust. Stanford did not trust in Shakespeare as much as he did in Julian Sturgis, and his trust was very much betrayed.

Touching on the opera purely from a musical point of view, there is much very pleasant music in it. There is no overture, and the first act begins just before the masque. The male chorus sings "Sigh no more, ladies" as the curtain rises.


Almost at once Don John and Borachio begin the plot. Claudio and Benedick enter, Claudio immediately disclosing his love for Hero, the story of the play being pretty closely followed. Leonato now makes a tardy effort to welcome Don Pedro and the rest, and a masque begins with a very stately saraband. Then, according to stage directions, "Enter a pomp of clowns and country girls," who dance a morris-dance, while the chorus sings about spring and maying. The masque ends with Hero, crowned Queen of Summer, singing a very graceful welcome to the princes. Claudio, as in Shakespeare, thinks the prince is wooing for himself, and sings a tragic farewell to Hero and love, with many repetitions of the words "farewell" and "love." Beatrice and Benedick then have their little comedy scene, and the Prince explains to Claudio that he has won Hero for him, and gives him some solemn advice. All the principals join in and sing a fine sextet, Don John on the bottom line singing with the others, but with sinister significance, that he will mar their music presently.

The Prince announces his intention of making Beatrice and Benedick fall in love with each other, and the four conspirators, Hero, Claudio, Pedro, and Leonato, sing a quartet about it, finishing with a great number of "with a fa-la-la's." Don John says he will cross the wedding, and in a few words tells Borachio to meet Hero's gentlewoman, Margaret, that night, and he will bring the Prince and Claudio. The doors of the supper-room are thrown open and a procession of guests comes out, with Hero and Claudio in the centre, the chorus singing "Sigh no more, ladies," until the curtain comes down on the first act.

The second act opens with a short orchestral introduction. The scene is Leonato's garden near Hero's window. Claudio sings a typical serenade, at the end of which Hero comes out on the balcony, and they have a long love-duet. Benedick then enters, and sings a lengthy and very clever soliloquy about love and ladies; and then Hero, Pedro, and Claudio, in a vocal trio, describe the love of Beatrice for {102} Benedick, the last-named listening as in the play. The scene ends with a very bright trio by the conspirators about having snared their bird.

The next episode sticks closely to Shakespeare. Don John guides Pedro and Claudio to Hero's window; they see Borachio embrace Margaret, and Claudio makes up his mind to denounce Hero in the church. The act ends excitedly by Claudio rushing off, followed by Don Pedro and Don John, and the curtain quickly falls.

The third act opens tempestuously on the orchestra, typifying Claudio's bitter thoughts. He is discovered alone in the church, where he sings a grim and very dramatic quasi-recitative about Hero's fall from grace. The bells are now heard—only three, F, G, A, and the organ begins, acolytes lighting the altar candles. The church fills, friars start the hymn outside to the words, "Mater dulce carmen lenis," the bells going right through the hymn with excellent effect. Then comes Claudio's denunciation of Hero and his refusal to marry her; she swoons, and everyone leaves the church except Hero, Beatrice, Benedick, Leonato, and the friar. The friar, in a fine bass number (beautifully sung at Covent Garden by Pol Plan�on), explains his plan of pretending that Hero has died of shame at the false accusation. Benedick promises to challenge Claudio, and during this scene a funeral bell is heard, and a procession of the Misericordia Fraternity crosses the stage carrying a bier and singing "Miserere mei Deus" as it passes out of sight. Benedick sings very solemnly "And so farewell" (I don't quite see why, because Benedick knows Hero is not dead), and the curtain comes down to fortissimo music on a very effective third act.

The last act takes place in Messina, near the burial-ground of Leonato's family. The music to open is not at all gloomy, as it is to introduce Seacole, Dogberry, and Verges. Curiously enough, Verges is a silent performer, or, as he is called in the bill of the play, a "persona muta." The watch come straight to the point. They have caught Borachio telling of his doings, and the movement follows {103} very closely Shakespeare's development of the episode. Benedick comes on, tries to make a song in Beatrice's honour, fails (just as he did in Shakespeare), but finally sings quite a good song about "Morning, spring-a (sic) ring-a (sic) and chantecleer." Don Pedro and Claudio enter; Benedick delivers his challenge and they prepare to fight, when Don Pedro comes between them. Dogberry, Verges, Watchmen with Borachio, bound, enter, and all the villainy of Don John is explained. The Friar enters; Claudio begs forgiveness, and the Friar produces the living Hero without any of Shakespeare's pretence that she was another daughter. Claudio at once sings a song to Hero, calling her angel of pity, and sentimentalising over her for quite a long time. Hero joins in the general soppiness, and, after a great high-note effect on the part of both, Beatrice and Benedick break in with their comedy scene, in which they agree to get married, to shouts of "How dost thou, Benedick, the married man!" The principals and chorus all join in singing "Sigh no more, ladies," which finally brings down the curtain very brightly on a charming comedy opera; the music vastly superior to the book. It was a brave attempt of Sir Charles Stanford, but he was beaten by his librettist every time. It is not my intention to give Mr Sturgis's perversions of Shakespeare; but why not have followed the original text whenever possible, and cut anything that would have made the work too long? Some of the paraphrases are quite as long as the original, but how lamentably weak! If only Sturgis had used Shakespeare and a large blue pencil! Of course, the whole text is too long to set for an opera—even as a play it is too long; but to rewrite immortal phrases and put them into such obvious opera libretto form (of the worst period) was a foolish thing to do, and will kill Stanford's heroic attempt to achieve English grand opera whenever it is performed. Mr Sturgis touched no phrase of Shakespeare's that he did not degrade; there is really no reason why the libretto of a modern opera should be written in rhyming couplets.


There are two other operas on this subject, but neither has yet been performed in England: Beaucoup de Bruit pour Rien, by P. Puget (Paris, 1899); and Ero, by C. Podesta (Cremona, 1900), about the latter of which I regret I can obtain no details. The former, an opera in four acts and five scenes, libretto taken from Shakespeare's play by Edouard Blau, music by Paul Puget, was first performed at the Op�ra Comique, Paris, on March 24, 1899. As a whole, the librettist adheres closely to his text, with the exception of the omission of Dogberry and Verges; and I don't think that anyone except an Englishman could possibly understand two such thoroughly British characters. In this work they would only make the serious parts seem ridiculous. The last scene of the last act is novel, and owes very little to Shakespeare. Hero is lying on a mortuary bed before the altar of the cathedral; Claudio enters, throws open the great doors, and, in the presence of all, makes a humble confession of his mistake and begs for pardon. He swears to consecrate himself to her, and puts on her finger a ring. At the touch of his hand Hero comes slowly from her faint, and the piece finishes happily. It is a very good libretto, and quite as near the original text as an opera can be expected to be. To this libretto M. Puget has composed some very beautiful music. The prelude to the first act is full of happy characterisation, though rather short. The duet, Hero and Beatrice, sung while they present flowers to Don Pedro, is melodious and simple; and in this act there is a very pretty Sicilian song and dance. In the second act a madrigal, sung by Benedick, is charming and very delicately scored, as is also a quartet for Pedro, Leonato, Benedick, and Beatrice. In the third act, the scene of the arrival of the bridal cortege at the cathedral, with fine organ and orchestral effects, is very impressive; and in the last scene, the long monologue, addressed by Claudio to the crowd, is broadly phrased and very pathetic in its dignity: but it is unfortunately largely overscored. The one serious blot on the work is the tendency of the composer to {105} over-weight the singers. The opera earned a very well-deserved success.

Edward German's overture and incidental music for Sir George Alexander's production of Much Ado at the St James's, 1898, is German at his best. The overture is mostly very bright, the first theme being really a saltarello. The second motif, Hero and Claudio, is naturally more sentimental and subdued. Don Pedro has a fine theme (the third subject of the overture), which is afterwards used for his entrance. These themes are all blended and woven together, and the whole ends with a brilliant coda, in saltarello style again. There is a very pretty movement, alla Siciliana, called "Leonato's Garden"; while the Dogberry music is in a hurried, flurried manner, quite indicating the fussy old constable. The Bourr�e and Gigue are very well known on the concert platform. The former is one of the prettiest Old English dances that Edward German has ever given us. The grandioso effect of the first theme coming in augmentation for the coda is wonderfully good, and makes a really brilliant ending. In the Gigue, also, German is in his happiest vein; but I fear that a great deal of the incidental music is still in manuscript.

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