Shakespeare and Music



Rossini's Otello, produced at Naples, 1816, is the earliest grand opera on the subject. For many years it enjoyed great popularity. But in 1887, in Milan, was produced Verdi's tragic masterpiece, and the earlier composer's work died a very natural death.

Many serious critics have said that Verdi's is the great tragedy opera of the world, but, anyhow, it is a great tragic opera. The incidental music composed for stage productions of the play has never been of very much importance. There is supposed to be a traditional setting of the "Willow Song," sung by Desdemona; but, as Shakespeare did not even write the words of the said song, merely quoting a few lines from a long poem given in its entirety by Bishop Percy in his invaluable Reliques, this setting, even if contemporary, has not much to do with our subject, "Shakespeare and Music." The other songs, "King Stephen was a worthy peer," and "Let me the canakin clink, clink," are both probably quotations from older songs; while the so-called "traditional" tunes are very like the so-called "traditional" etc. in other plays by the master. In point of fact, I have often heard an old actor sing the King Stephen lyric to the same tune as the First Gravedigger's song in Hamlet, and the two bear a very close resemblance to the traditional tune of "The Babes in the Wood." Still, the so-called traditional (I am tired of writing the word) setting of "A poor soul sat sighing" is a very exquisite thing, and worthy of its place in any production of the play. But the purity of its melodic line would probably stand out in contrast to its modern {107} associates, if introduced into a modern version of the incidental music; so it is as well to leave it honourably alone, and write a new setting more in keeping with the rest of one's music.

Dvor�k's fine Othello overture is fairly well known in concert-halls, but is too long and elaborate for theatre use. It is scored for full orchestra with harp, and an important part for English horn. The opening is slow and pianissimo, muted strings giving out an almost hymn-like subject, occasionally broken in upon by anticipation of the real principal theme. This is developed very dramatically, and leads skilfully into the first subject proper—a very quick, bright, one-in-a-bar theme, with tragic suggestions in it.

The second subject is of a more peaceful character, and the work slows down for a while. The long development is mostly very strenuous, but just before the end are some beautiful sad passages full of tragedy and pathos. The end is fortissimo and accelerando, with a curious sequence of passing notes in the melody against a very rough chord, repeatedly struck by the rest of the orchestra. Though a little long, this overture is full of dramatic and melodic interest, and is, so far as I know, the only composition directly founded on our dramatist by this composer.

Raff's "Othello" overture is a fine though uninspired work.

Rossini's grand three-act opera, Otello, libretto by the Marquis Berio, enjoyed a long run of popularity. It was first produced at the Teatro del Fondo in the autumn of 1816. Originally Othello, Roderigo, and Iago were all great tenor parts; but later, Rossini, realising the difficulty of getting three tenors of high standing to sing together, rewrote the part of Iago for baritone.

The work made an enormous impression, and was soon being played over all Europe. In many ways it was much in advance of its time, the composer writing his own {108} ornaments and embellishments, and often successfully investing them with real dramatic meaning. In the last act the librettist introduces a new character who sings a barcarolle to Dante's celebrated words, "Nessun maggior do lore." This is one of the most beautiful things in the work. It is for tenor. The librettist does not attempt to adapt Shakespeare's tragedy, but is content to take enough plot and situations for a conventional Italian libretto, and he succeeds in doing this very well.

The overture is studiously conventional, but some of the numbers are very beautiful. The duet between Desdemona and Emilia, "Vorrei che il tuo pensiero," is strikingly lovely; and the quintet in the finale of the first act is a fine piece of writing, the insistently-recurring ascending scale of Brabantio to the words "il barbaro tenor" having a terrific effect. The duet, Othello and Iago, in the second act, is full of melodic beauty and dramatic moments. Desdemona's great aria, "Assisa a pie d'un salice," is really beautiful, and the end of the opera is truly dramatic. The whole work is unquestionably Rossini's greatest opera, with the exception of William Tell.

Verdi's "lyrical drama in four acts," book by Arrigo Boito, is on a very different plane. Here we have the finest opera-librettist, with the possible exception of Richard Wagner, collaborating with one of the greatest dramatic composers of all time on a subject by the dramatist of all time—and a stupendous work is the result.

The comparative slowness of the sung as against the spoken word has necessitated much cutting, but with great technical skill Boito has devised a wonderful book, as true to Shakespeare as is possible in a libretto. The work was first produced at the Scala, Milan, February 5, 1887. The English translation is by Francis Hueffer, for a long time musical critic of the Times. The success was immediate, and the opera at once passed into the world-repertory.

There is no overture, and the whole action of the piece {109} takes place in Cyprus. In the original production Tamagno and Maurel were Othello and Iago. After two and a half bars of fortissimo orchestral music, the curtain rises on a tavern with an arbour. In the background is the sea. It is night, and a storm is raging. It is really Shakespeare's Act ii., Scene 1. Iago, Cassio, Montano, Roderigo, and chorus are watching Othello's ship, buffeting the waves, making slowly for harbour. Eventually Othello lands, and explains that the ocean has overwhelmed the Turk, and the war is over. Othello goes into the castle, and the chorus celebrate the happy news, the storm gradually dying away. No finer opening for an opera has ever been devised, and it is remarkable how the composer and librettist have managed to sustain this high level right through the four acts of the work.

Iago and Roderigo, following closely the original text, conspire against Othello, and the crowd make a bonfire in the background. Cassio enters and joins a group of soldiers, and the crowd light the bonfire and sing a chorus in praise of fire generally; at the end of which Iago tempts Cassio to drink, and sings an enlargement of "And let me the canakin clink," the chorus joining in the refrain.

Cassio gets very drunk, and the Shakespeare text is closely followed. Towards the end of the fight Othello has a magnificent entrance. He stops the strife with the words, "Lay down your arms."

After a tremendous fortissimo chord on the orchestra there is a long and most significant pause. Then Othello has a beautiful but most distressing scene with Cassio. All exit save Desdemona and Othello, who sing an exquisite and passionate love-duet, which finishes the first act.

Near the beginning of the second act Iago has his first long soliloquy: very grim, but most dramatic. The duet between Othello and Iago that follows, in which Iago sows the seeds of jealousy, carries the action forward swiftly, and the "green-ey'd monster" lines are impressively set. At the close of the scene a chorus is heard singing softly, "off," accompanied by two notes (tonic and dominant) on {110} the cornamusa, or "bay-pipes." Grove is silent on the subject of the cornamusa; but Riemann, in his Dictionary of Music, says it is "an old Italian kind of schalmey," "also similar to the word bagpipe": so that "bay-pipe" is obviously a misprint for bagpipe in my edition of this work. The schalmey or schalmei was the predecessor of the oboe. This accompaniment is added to by mandolins and guitars on the stage, and gradually the whole orchestra joins in. The chorus is peaceful and melodious, and makes a strong dramatic contrast to what has gone before and what follows. At the end of this chorus Desdemona intercedes with Othello in Cassio's favour, and really fans the flame of jealousy; Othello denounces Desdemona, and the act ends with a dramatic duet between Othello and his betrayer.

The third act has a somewhat longer orchestral prelude than the first two, but the librettist gets to work very swiftly none the less. The handkerchief business is immediately begun. A long duet between Desdemona and Othello follows, the former very loving, the latter very ironical, the whole culminating in a magnificent passage in which Othello sings the words, "I mistook you ... for that strumpet of Venice who has married Othello." Desdemona is overwhelmed with horror, and Othello pushes her out of the room. There is great trumpeting from all sides of the stage, and, to a chorus of welcome by the Cypriotes, the Venetian ambassadors enter, bringing Othello's letter of recall. After a big chorus and ensemble, Othello and his ancient are left alone; the former gets more and more excited, and finally swoons. Iago jeers at the fallen Othello, the chorus, behind, sings "Hail, Othello," and on this situation, to a great music of trumpets, the curtain falls.

The fourth act opens with a short orchestral prelude on the subject of the "Willow Song," which comes a little later. The scene is Desdemona's bedroom, and she and Emilia are discovered. After a short dialogue, Desdemona sings the "Willow Song." For sheer beauty this is the most exquisite thing in the work: it is a wonderful piece of pure lyrical writing. Emilia says "Good night," and {111} exits. Desdemona intones to a sustained accompaniment a "Hail, Mary," and then sings a beautiful prayer. She lies down on the bed, and long-sustained high chords are heard on the orchestra. These cease, and a sinister motive on the lowest bass notes is heard pianissimo. At the first note Othello is seen standing on the threshold of a secret door. To a certain musical figure he lays his scimitar on the table. He stands before the candle, doubtful whether to blow it out or not; he goes to the bed; he stops himself; he raises the curtains and looks for a long time at the sleeping Desdemona; he kisses her once, again, again, and she wakens. It must be understood that until Desdemona wakens not a word is spoken, but the whole action is fitted to the most dramatic and speaking music, and the effect is awe-inspiring. He tells her to pray, as he does not want to kill her soul; and after a short duet he stifles her, and she utters a shriek. This arouses Emilia, who knocks three times on the door—Othello still gazing at Desdemona—three times again, and yet again. Each knock is as carefully written down in the score as if it were a part for a musical instrument—Verdi is so thorough. Finally Othello opens the door. Desdemona manages to gasp out, "I have been slain unjustly, I die here guiltless," and expires. Emilia shouts for help, and Ludovico, Cassio, Iago, and others enter. All is explained to the unfortunate Othello, who suddenly stabs himself. As he is dying he sings the perfect words, "I kissed thee ere I killed thee;—no way but this, Killing myself, to die upon a kiss." Mr Hueffer has slightly altered the last six words, but I have ventured to put back Shakespeare's original text; in fact, I could not have put down the translator's variant. On these immortal words, sung pianissimo, the curtain falls on this great art-work.

The perfect combination of Verdi and Boito, and the sympathy of both with Shakespeare, are amongst the wonders of the world to me. The art of collaboration has never, to my knowledge, been brought to such a pitch of perfection except in the case of Falstaff, the work of the {112} same trio. George Meredith, in one of his letters, dated 1896, with reference to his friend Professor W. G. Plimmer, a well-known amateur musician, writes: "He has got a score of Othello to play to me; says it is Wagner and water; would seem to say it is Verdi-gris of Wagner"; which shows that the Professor may have been some sort of a musician, but was certainly an amateur. Some critics endeavour to trace the influence of Wagner on Verdi's later operas, but I think it was the composer's own rich development in his later years that made his last two operas stand out so much from the rest of his operatic work. Of course, Wagner's influence on his contemporaries, especially the younger ones, was, and is still, enormous in Germany. But though it is quite easy to trace the harmonic and melodic influence of Wagner on Humperdinck or Strauss, I quite fail to see either influence on Verdi. The two operas are the natural result of a glorious old age.

Arnold Krug, born 1849 at Hamburg, has written an interesting symphonic prologue to this play. After the usual slow introduction, we start away with a good, quick, syncopated theme for strings, soon added to by wood wind (evidently the fiery Othello). Then comes the gentle Desdemona theme, which persists for a long time, after which the music gets really exciting. Iago works Othello up to a frenzy of jealousy; Desdemona's gentle explanations are overborne. After a strong climax her end comes, followed shortly afterwards by Othello's. The coda is a short morendo episode, in the major, and very peaceful.

Though this work is by no manner of means great, it is not without interest, and it is one of the few purely abstract compositions we have on this play.

Zdenko Fibich, who has composed a very interesting symphonic poem on the theme, was a leader of the "Young Czech" musical movement. He was born on December 21, 1850, at Seborschity, near Tschlau, and was taught music at Prague and Leipsic. This is his first symphonic {113} poem, but it is a very interesting example of the composer's method.

Though there is no definite programme, Fibich quotes several passages from the play to indicate his intentions. The first is:—

... Rude am I in my speech,
And little bless'd with the set phrase of peace.

Here there is a fanfare for trumpets and horns working into a strong, rough military march. Music descriptive of Othello's many adventures follows, until he says:—

This only is the witchcraft I have us'd—
Here comes the lady; let her witness it.

Then the Desdemona melody, oboe solo, harp, and strings, makes its appearance. This is really a beautiful theme, perfectly orchestrated, and it just expresses Desdemona's character. Her words, written in the score, are: "I saw Othello's visage in his mind; And to his honours and his valiant parts Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate." Presently comes Iago with his "jealousy" motif, which struggles for a long time with Desdemona's "innocent" theme, but finally wins. The music is intensely dramatic here: the clash of wills, Iago's and Othello's, and the sweet personality of Desdemona, all struggling for predominance. Finally the trombone and tuba blaze out, fortissimo and grandioso, the jealousy theme in octaves. The music dies away, and for the last time the Desdemona melody is heard very piano. Four short, violently forte bars follow (the brass having the theme), and the work ends with a solo pianissimo chord on the harp. The end is most curious, such an immense amount of meaning being got into the last fifteen bars. The whole work makes a fine piece of vivid orchestral tone-painting, and the music distinctly derives from Shakespeare's text, and is worthy of it. The last words quoted are Othello's: "I kissed thee ere I killed thee;—no way but this, Killing myself, to die upon a kiss."


Sir Herbert Tree commissioned Samuel Coleridge Taylor to write the music for his revival of Othello at His Majesty's. The composer has made a suite for orchestra out of the numbers written for this production. The first section is called just a Dance. This is strictly Oriental in character, full of movement and excitement. The second number is a "Children's Intermezzo," and is very simple in character. No touch of the Orient here. No. 3 is a Funeral March in G minor, mostly written on two ground basses, one for the march and one for the trio. It is a fine broad movement, working up to a great climax in the middle and dying away very effectively afterwards. The setting of the famous "Willow Song" is simple and beautiful.

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