Shakespeare and Music



It is a curious fact that, though Romeo and Juliet contains more exquisite lyrical passages than almost any other play of Shakespeare, there is no song or lyric in it.

Anyone except Romeo would have hired a quartet, or anyway, one singer, to serenade Juliet under her balcony; but she remains unserenaded. Even the four lines beginning "When griping grief" (sung by Peter in Act iv., Scene 4) are not Shakespeare's, but quoted by him from Richard Edwards's Paradise of Daintee Devices, and sung to a so-called traditional tune. But if there is no song like "Sigh no more, ladies," or "Who is Sylvia?", there is little doubt that a greater number of composers have been inspired (more or less) by this tragedy than by any other of Shakespeare's subjects if we except Hamlet. A mere list of the names is imposing. The most popular work is, no doubt, Gounod's opera Rom�o et Juliette. The book, which adheres fairly closely to the original play, is by Barbier and Carr�, and the work was first performed at the Lyrique, Paris, on April 27, 1867. The characters are the same as those of Shakespeare's play, with the addition of Stephano, page to Romeo (mez. sop.), and Gregorio, a watchman. The waltz in Act i. is a very popular coloratura soprano song, but is not in the least the kind of thing the real Capulet would have allowed the real Juliet to sing to his guests. Mercutio's Queen Mab scena is very effective, as are the Balcony duet and the prelude to the fifth act. But the most successful and to my mind the most Shakespearian character in the whole opera is Friar Laurence, a conception full of dignity and pathos. Pol Plan�on was {119} magnificent in this part. Taken altogether, Gounod has turned out a very successful French grand opera, which will hold its place in opera repertories for many years to come.

The only other opera on this story that has had any great success is Bellini's work in three acts, I Capuletti ed i Montecchi, book by Romani, produced at Venice, March 11, 1830. It is a real Bellini, full of florid arias, word repetitions, bravura passages, cadenzas, and all the vocal gymnastics so beloved of his period; but the music, as a whole, would fit any story quite as badly as it does that of Romeo and Juliet. The overture is rather curious. The first subject, second subject, development, recapitulation, and coda are all in the same key, that of D major. The effect is overwhelming. It is a perfect tonic orgy. An amusing account of this opera is given by Berlioz in his Autobiography. During the time he held the Prix de Rome, passing through Florence, he heard some strangers at a table d'h�te talking of Bellini's Montecchi, which was soon to be given. He writes: "Not only did they praise the music, but also the libretto. Italians as a rule care so little for the words of an opera that I was surprised, and thought—at last I shall hear an opera worthy of that glorious play. What a subject it is! Simply made for music. The ball at Capulet's house, where young Romeo first sees his dearly loved one; the street fight at which Tybalt presides, patron of anger and revenge; that indescribable night-scene at Juliet's balcony; the witty sallies of Mercutio; the prattle of the Nurse; the solemnity of the Friar trying to soothe the conflicting elements; the awful catastrophe; and the reconciliation of the rival families over the bodies of the ill-fated lovers. I hurried to the Pergola Theatre. What a disappointment! No ball, no Mercutio, no babbling Nurse, no balcony scene, no Shakespeare! And Romeo sung by a small thin woman, Juliet by a tall stout one. Why, in the name of all things musical—why?"


I will just enumerate the remainder of the operatic settings, giving date and place of production and names of composer and librettist. It is rather a formidable list, but one never hears any of the works mentioned, save those of Steibelt and Vaccaj, at the outside; and as for Bellini's version, it would scarcely be possible to hear it anywhere out of Italy.

Romeo e Giulietta, a serious opera in three acts, by Zingarelli, was composed in Milan and first performed in that city (1796). It was produced in Paris in 1812, and had some success. Nicol� Antonio Zingarelli was born in Naples, 1752. He was celebrated in his lifetime, and was thought much of by Haydn, who prophesied a great career for him. According to Coppa, his librettist, he wrote the opera in "forty hours less than ten days." He composed a cantata for the Birmingham Festival of 1829, and, as he could not take it to England himself, entrusted it to his pupil Costa. This was Michael Costa's first introduction to the English public. Hence the Philharmonic pitch and loud orchestral playing from which we suffered for so many years. The two most celebrated numbers in the opera are the duet "Dunque mio ben" for soprano and contralto, and the air "Ombra adorata aspetta." The Emperor Napoleon I. was unable to hide his emotion when he heard this song, especially when sung by Crescentini (Romeo); who achieved so great a success with this melody that he persuaded himself that he was the real composer. This fable obtained, very unjustly, some credence from the general public. The last time the Emperor heard Crescentini sing this song he was so affected that he sent him from his own breast the Order of the Iron Crown, and gave the composer an order for a Mass for the Imperial Chapel that should not last longer than twenty minutes. He had it rehearsed in his presence, and was so pleased that he gave the musician 6000 francs. Zingarelli was an enormously productive composer, and wrote a great number of operas, as well as quantities of church and chamber music, but one {121} seldom hears his name now. His music is still sung in provincial Catholic churches.

Rom�o et Juliette, an opera in three acts, book by M. de S�gur, music by Daniel Steibelt, was produced at the Theatre Feydeau, 1793, just four months after the production of a work on the same subject by Monnel and Dalayrac, All for Love, or Rom�o et Juliette. In spite of this clashing, the opera was a success. It had been refused by the Academy of Music, so the authors cut the recitatives, put in prose dialogue, and produced the piece as an op�ra comique. The Moniteur of September 23 describes the music as "learned, but laboured and ugly." However, the public loved it, and other critics say it had power and originality and distinguished voluptuous melody. Juliette's song, "The calm of the night," and the quartet, "Graces, virtues," held their own for a long time; as did the funeral chorus at the end of the second act.

In 1825, at the Th��tre Italien de Paris, in Milan, Nicol� Vaccaj produced his opera on the same subject. It is one of the composer's best efforts, the finest scene being that at the tomb. The air, "Ah, se tu dormi svegliati," is pathetic and passionate. The last act of this work is often substituted for the last act of the Bellini opera already dealt with, as the latter composer's fourth act is very weak. Nicol� Vaccaj was born at Tolentino in 1790. He spent some years in London, where he was a very successful singing teacher. He wrote a great amount of music, but none of it is very distinguished.

The Marquis Richard d'Ivry composed an opera on this subject, produced in Paris in 1878. He was a gifted amateur, born, February 4, 1829, at Beaune (C�te-d'Or), and composed several other operas. This one was dedicated to Edward VII. when he was Prince of Wales, and was called Les Amants de Verone, a lyric drama in five acts, words and music by d'Ivry. The music, not at all {122} ambitious, is tuneful and simple. The most important number is the farewell duet between Romeo and Juliet in the second act. A critic, writing of this work, says: "It is a pity that the author has not corrected in his poem those vulgar expressions that disfigure it, and in his music those old-fashioned formulas (peu nouvelles)." As I have only the piano solo copy before me, I cannot speak on the first complaint; but on the second I agree with the critic. The work is amateurish and old-fashioned, often in the abusive sense of the word, but it is certainly melodious and generally unpretentious. Each act has quite a pretty and effective prelude, and the occasional dances are graceful.

Pietro Carlo Guglielmi's opera on this play, Romeo e Giulietta, was produced in London in 1810. The composer was born at Naples in 1763. There are several detached numbers in the British Museum Library. They are just the ordinary Italian opera music of the time. The wonder of the story does not seem to have made the slightest impression on the composer, who proceeds calmly on his conventional way, after one interesting burst of originality: he actually makes Romeo a bass baritone! After this one is not so surprised to find Juliet a deep mezzo, nearly a contralto. To make up for the lack of tenor interest, the part of Paris is made quite important, and among other numbers he is given a very effective duet with Juliet. One of Juliet's songs is described as "The Favourite Prayer," and is quite a good example of the conventional operatic music of the period; as is Romeo's song with chorus, in which he strives to quiet the street-quarrel between the rival houses. The love duets with Juliet are thoroughly vocal; and the trios, called "Favourite" again, for the lovers and the Friar, and for Bianca and the lovers, are pretty melodious stuff, but utterly lacking any sense of drama.

Of the non-operatic works on this subject, Berlioz's symphony Romeo and Juliet is by far the greatest. {123} During the six years that Hector Berlioz was a student at the Paris Conservatoire, the two influences that affected him and his work most, according to his own memoirs, were those of William Shakespeare and Ludwig van Beethoven. It is interesting and strange that perhaps the greatest of all French musicians should have been so profoundly moved by the plays of an English poet and the music of a Dutch musician. I speak of Beethoven here intentionally as Dutch, because his father was Dutch, and had only lived in Germany two years when Beethoven was born; and I consider that a man takes his nationality from his father and not from his actual birthplace. Beethoven could certainly have played cricket for the Rhineland on a strict birth qualification; but he was distinctly of Dutch blood, and took the precaution of leaving Germany for Austria as soon as he could. Finally came another influence to drive Berlioz further into the arms of Shakespeare but not of Beethoven—also a foreign one, that of Henrietta Smithson, the Irish actress. She was playing Shakespeare heroines at the Odeon early in 1833. He fell madly in love with her and went to see her whenever she played, just as our modern gilded youths haunt the stalls every night to see their favourite musical-comedy actress; the only difference being that Berlioz saw his dear one in many different and exquisite characters, while our youths hear their favourites say the same few lines or sing the same little song every night of the year. Berlioz composed music for her and gave concerts of his own compositions in her honour (the latter must have bored her very much, judging from the attitude of the average actress towards serious music—and Miss Smithson, from all accounts, was not a great actress); and finally he married her. They lived together as unhappily as possible for several years, and then parted; but at least one great art work was the result of their union: I mean the Fifth Symphony. "Rom�o et Juliette, symphonic dramatique avec choeurs, solos de chant, et prologue en r�citatif choral, op. 17," to give it its full title, was finished in 1838, produced in 1839 at the Conservatoire, and {124} repeated three times within a short period. The work had a very mixed reception. Berlioz was never popular in Paris or among his own countrymen; but all admitted that the general conception was colossal. It is now regarded as a classic throughout the world, but it is a big undertaking to produce. Little bits of it "would never please" as entr'actes or incidental music to a production of the play in London. The words are by Berlioz, inspired by Shakespeare, and versified by Emil Deschamps; and the work is dedicated to Paganini, who a little earlier had presented Berlioz with twenty thousand francs to show his admiration for the earlier Symphonie Fantastique. Berlioz says in his autobiography: "I remember in one of my Campagna rides with Mendelssohn (this was during his tenure of the Prix de Rome) expressing my surprise that no one had ever written a scherzo on Shakespeare's sparkling little poem, Queen Mab. He, too, was surprised, and I was very sorry I had put the idea into his head. For years I lived in dread that he had used it: for he would have made it impossible, or at any rate very risky, for anyone to attempt to do it after him. Luckily he forgot." This was a very generous tribute to Mendelssohn's power as a fairy-music composer, coming from a musician in no very great sympathy with his style.

This symphony is scored for a very large orchestra. The first movement consists of a fine musical imitation of a street fight, culminating in the entrance of the Prince (on the full bass), who stops the fight. Then comes a choral prologue for contraltos and basses, giving a rough idea of the plot. Then a Queen Mab scene for tenor and chorus, and a great concert and ball given at the Capulets'. This finishes the second part. The third part is the love scene (Balcony scene as we call it) in Capulet's garden. There is some very exquisite love-music here; and the whole movement, which is really the so-called "slow movement" of the conventional symphony, is very beautiful. The fourth section (Scherzo) is called "Queen Mab," and is one of those delicate, gossamer, fairylike works in which Berlioz {125} so excels. Then come choral music for the funeral cortege of Juliet, and Romeo's invocation at the tomb of the Capulets. The finale takes place in the graveyard: Montagues and Capulets are both there, Friar Laurence explains everything, and there is reconciliation between the rival houses, ending in their swearing over the graves to be friends for ever. I know this is a very bald account. The work should be heard to be understood fairly; but a very interesting couple of hours can be spent by a musician on the full score of this work in the British Museum reading-room. The text is given in both French and German. Wagner, in his letters from Paris, 1841, says of Berlioz: "He has no friend deemed worthy to be asked for counsel, none he would permit to draw his notice to this or that sin against form in his works. In regard to this, I was filled with regret by a hearing of his symphony, Rom�o et Juliette. Amid the most brilliant inventions, this work is heaped with such a mass of trash and solecisms that I could not repress the wish that Berlioz had shown this composition before performance to some such man as Cherubini, who, without doing its originality the slightest harm, would certainly have had the wit to rid it of a quantity of disfigurements.... Wherefore Berlioz will always remain imperfect, and, maybe, shine as nothing but a transient marvel." There is some sound though exaggerated criticism in these sentences; but Wagner could not have known on what sort of terms Cherubini and Berlioz were. That the latter could submit a work for correction to the former is impossible for anyone knowing anything about their personal and artistic relations to consider for a moment. Still, the personal criticism of one great composer by another is always interesting and informing.

Tschaikowsky's Overture-Fantaisie, Rom�o et Juliette, is scored for an ordinary symphony orchestra with horn and harp. It is very modern and very emotional, and at times almost hysterical. The work begins in a quasi-organ manner, but the first subject is very bold. Whether {126} it is to express Montague or Capulet I don't know. It seems too robust to express my idea of Romeo, but it may be Tschaikowsky's. The second subject is obviously Juliet, and the two themes are developed to the end, which, curiously enough, for the last few bars is quite lively. The work makes a very interesting contrast to Berlioz, but I suspect that the great Frenchman had a deeper insight into Shakespeare's poem than the Russian. Tschaikowsky's work could be done without any mention of Romeo and Juliet or Shakespeare; Berlioz's could not.

Joseph Joachim Raff, a composer whose name is unfortunately mostly associated with the well-known or notorious Cavatina, is a much underrated man. He was an indefatigable worker and an outstanding example of the fatuity of Carlyle's definition of genius. Undoubtedly Raff was no genius, but he was a composer of far from common ability. His four Shakespearian overtures, of which the one to Romeo and Juliet is the first, are all most interesting. They are not absolute programme music. They give the idea more than the story, but are none the worse for that. The Romeo overture opens with a fine broad theme for the horns, swiftly followed by a somewhat suave melody for the strings, the other instruments gradually joining in. The middle part is quite tragic, and the whole is carried out to a well-constructed finish. Without achieving great music, Raff rises to certain heights in this overture.

Hugo Pierson's concert overture Romeo and Juliet, op. 86, is very interesting, but not so much so as his symphonic poem Macbeth, which I described at some length in an earlier section. Composed for a large orchestra, it opens with a short allegro appassionato introduction; but this soon changes to a graceful theme typical of the luxurious life of Verona, broken in upon occasionally by suggestion of the hate between the rival houses of Montague and Capulet. This is followed by an amorous subject typical of Romeo, and by a gay theme for the great dance. The {127} Balcony scene is beautifully portrayed. The remainder of the music becomes high tragedy, and it remains so till the very end. The overture is quite short and not so difficult as most of Pierson's work, and it is full of melody and broad orchestral effects. The themes are all original, as is their treatment, and the tonality is interesting though difficult to follow.

Edward German composed the whole of the music for Forbes-Robertson's production of Romeo and Juliet at the Lyceum, September 1895, and also dedicated it to him. It is a complete piece of work, admirably carried out and suited for the occasion. It opens with a fine sombre prelude, showing the atmosphere of hate which was brooding over the otherwise pleasant town of Verona. This feeling of hate and the love-music are the two most important themes in the prelude, which finishes up with six bars, religioso, to suggest the tomb. For the remainder of the music Mr German has himself made a selection of themes containing all that is of the most importance. The curtain music for the first act is a broad theme in common time, which serves to open the scene and is otherwise harmless. Then comes the Peter motif—a good Old English comedy theme with an excellent descending bass. The March which follows is a thoroughly good Old English march of the kind to which Mr German has accustomed us. The Capulets' Reception music and Juliet's theme (I am quoting Mr German) are graceful six-eight numbers, and if taken a little faster than marked would make excellent Old English country dances. Even at the proper time one expects to see shepherds, not great ladies and gentlemen. The Love motif is sombre enough—Mr German never seems to give his lovers time to be happy; but the Nurse theme is a real bit of German at his best, and is very welcome. The music for Paris at the tomb of Juliet is necessarily sad, and the Death theme, the last number, is quite in keeping with the end of Shakespeare's tragedy. There is a charming nocturne which makes a very effective {128} entr'acte, delicately scored and very original. The Pastoral, again, is a delightful composition. But the best number, to my mind, is the Pavane. Here Mr German has got the real Romeo-Juliet-Shakespeare atmosphere, and in this simple dance has done more to express in music what Shakespeare was showing to us than in his complicated prelude or in the rest of the incidental music. This Pavane is a real gem.

Joseph Holbrooke's poem for chorus and orchestra, Queen Mab, was first performed at the Leeds Festival in 1904. The chorus part is ad lib., but if properly performed makes a very effective addition to the fairly large orchestra that Mr Holbrooke has scored for. The opening is in the guise of a scherzo, very brilliant and difficult; then comes a long slow episode; then much development; and finally the entrance of the chorus. The time is adagio, and the words begin, "Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon," ending six lines afterwards. These lines are repeated again and again, quite in the so-called old-fashioned style; the chorus dies away; and the orchestra finishes the work with a coda fortissimo. Queen Mab has long since disappeared.

Johann Severin Svendsen, born 1840, Christiania, wrote a Romeo and Juliet overture, but there is no copy of it in the British Museum.

The following operas are mentioned in Mr Barclay Squire's interesting article on Shakespearian operas, from the book Homage to Shakespeare, 1916. As they more or less complete the list, I mention them; but I cannot find copies of them or any reference as to their comparative merits, or otherwise:—Dramma per Musica, in 2 acts, pub. Berlin in 1773, with no composer's name; opera by Benda, Gotha, 1776; T. G. Schwanenberg, Leipzig, 1776; L. Marescalchi, Rome, 1789; Von Rumling, Munich, 1790; Porta, Paris, 1806; Schuster, Vienna, {129} 1809. This article gives a fairly complete list of the music inspired by our play. It seems curious that with so magnificent a theme only one composer—Berlioz, of course—should have risen to absolutely supreme heights. I suppose his work is performed very occasionally; whereas Gounod's is in every operatic repertory in the world.

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