Shakespeare and Music



In spite of its great poetical beauties, Twelfth Night has not attracted many composers. There is only one opera that I can trace, and that is Cesario, by K. G. Wilhelm Taubert, produced in Berlin at the Royal Opera House in 1874. There is no attempt to foster the delusion that anyone who is not next door to an idiot could ever mistake Sebastian for Viola, or vice vers´┐Ż. Viola, in this version, is a soprano, and her brother a tenor-baritone, so it is hard to understand how even Orsino was taken in; but he was (and he a baritone, not a tenor!).

The opera opens with an overture, conventional and not very characteristic, and the curtain rises on a scene in Illyria, near Orsino's palace.

A chorus of maidens, wives, sailors, children, and musicians is discovered, singing a very bright and melodious number, which, though very tuneful, does not help the action at all. The second scene opens with storm music bringing on Viola and the Sea Captain.

The librettist, Emil Taubert, does not adhere any too closely to the original, so I will just describe the most effective numbers. Sir Toby's drinking song in the first act is a thoroughly good German drinking song, with the usual low bass E for the end; and directly afterwards Sir Andrew has a grotesque love-song with no little humour in it.

In the fourth scene there is a very sentimental duet between Viola and Orsino. As the work progresses we get farther and farther away from Shakespeare, and so I leave the only opera founded on this exquisite play. I {151} think a great deal of its weakness is due to the librettist cutting out Feste, the clown. There is no "Come away, Death," "O mistress mine," or "When that I was."

So it is with pleasure that I turn to Humperdinck's delightful music for Reinhardt's production at the Deutsches Theater, Berlin, produced on October 17, 1907. The first scene is in Orsino's court (as in Shakespeare), and gives the whole romantic atmosphere of the rest of the play. Most producers begin with the short scene of Viola's shipwreck, thus cunningly avoiding the whole idea of the plot. Two violins, viola, and viol-da-gamba are discovered playing the music of "O mistress mine" on the stage; and if it is impossible to obtain a viol-da-gamba, the composer allows one to use a violoncello. Also there is a guitar off the stage. The text is closely followed. The setting ('cello solo) for the words "If music be the food of love" is very beautiful; and until the Duke's words, "Enough, no more," the incidental music fits in with every shade of expression in that perfect monologue. The next number is the serenade for the clown (Feste). He is supposed to accompany himself on the guitar, but the guitar part is cued in for the harp if the singing-actor has not enough skill on the instrument. It is a very charming song, not in the least like the settings of the same words to which we are all so accustomed, but none the worse for that. The catch "Hold thy peace" is a perfect canon at the unison, sung by Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and the clown. All the verses in the kitchen scene are set to music, the versatile clown playing the accompaniments on his ever-ready guitar.

In Act ii., Scene 4, no expensive prima-donna is called upon to sing "Come away, Death." Orsino simply sends for Feste, and tells his orchestra to play the tune while they are all waiting.

When the clown does arrive to sing the song the audience has been played into the exact mood Shakespeare wanted; and the number, lovely as it is, gets a better chance of {152} success than if the orchestra had been playing something quite different (as I have often heard), or an entirely new character, a singing woman, had been introduced for this special number. Feste sings "Hey, Robin, jolly Robin" and "I am gone, sir," to specially composed music still accompanied by the guitar, and there are two settings by Humperdinck of the epilogue song, "When that I was." Both are written for Feste; but the first one is accompanied only by the guitar, while the second has an elaborate orchestral accompaniment. You can take your choice; both settings are equally good.

This music, both in form and expression, is, perhaps, the ideal music for a Shakespearian production. Nothing is forced on the hearer. When Shakespeare wanted music he said so, either in his stage directions or in the text. This is exactly what Humperdinck has given us. Never to my knowledge has Shakespeare's text been so reverently treated by any composer or producer. I often think that it is not entirely the fault of the composer of Shakespearian music that so much of it is superfluous; perhaps a little blame may lie with the actor-manager-producer, who must have a march to bring him on and take him off at every entrance or exit.

Sir Alexander Mackenzie's delightful Twelfth Night overture was first produced at a Richter concert in 1888. Though it is not exactly programme music, Sir Alexander gives occasional quotations on the score indicating his intentions.

The opening is labelled Act ii., Scene 5, Malvolio (taking up letter), "By my life, this is my lady's hand." The 'cellos, basses, and violas play a unison quaver passage of introduction, and Malvolio obviously speaks through the medium of a bassoon. The clarinets and the rest of the wood wind join in, the strings sustaining an accompaniment; and so the first episode finishes.

The next is labelled Act ii., Scene 5, Sir Toby, "Why, thou hast put him in such a dream that when the image of {153} it leaves him he must run mad." Then comes, to my idea, the triumphal music of Malvolio. This is quickly followed by a label, Act ii., Scene 3, Sir Toby, "Shall we rouse the night owl in a catch?" and for a few moments we have bright sounds of revelry; but very swiftly the music gets slow and piano, and presently we return to Act i., and the words on the score are, "O, she that hath a heart of that frame, To pay this debt but to a brother," etc. This subject is very beautiful, and admirably portrays Orsino's love for Cesario. After this comes a bright, melodious episode working up to a fortissimo climax. Then we have another label, Act iv., Scene 2, Malvolio, "Fool, there never was a man so notoriously abused. I am as well in my wits as thou art."

The music then proceeds in fugato manner for a long time, and there are no more directions or quotations from the text in the score till towards the end. This is now the regular coda, and very brilliant it is. But just before the close one finds the label, Act v., Scene 1, Malvolio, "I'll be revenged on the whole pack of you"; the original Malvolio motif being played by the violas and 'cellos and taken up by the rest of the orchestra. The whole finishes fortissimo and very cheerfully. There is a curious kettledrum solo in the third bar before the end. Taken all round, this overture is quite one of the best Shakespearian commentaries extant. Without being in the least pedantic, it has a smack of the period; and as a sheer, joyous bit of comedy it ranks very high in the repertory of Shakespearian music.

Sir Henry Bishop's third pasticcio opera was founded on Twelfth Night. It was produced at the Royal, Drury Lane, in 1820. Contrary to his usual custom there is no overture, and the first number is a song for viola with bassoon obbligato to the words, "Full many a glorious morning" from the 33rd Sonnet. The first half is very unlike the composer's usual manner, but in the second he soon gets back to his original style. The next number is a quintet with words from The Two Gentlemen {154} of Verona—"Who is Sylvia?" The melody of the first verse is by Ravenscroft (1714), that of the second by Morley (1595), and the whole is arranged by Sir Henry; so there is not much unity of style about it, though if well sung and unaccompanied it should be effective. The duet "Orpheus with his lute," words by Fletcher, for Viola and Olivia, is really too bad; and with pleasure we turn to a quartet by Thomas Ford (1580) and D. Calcott (1766). It is called "Come o'er the brook, Besse, to me." The first line is from King Lear, Act ii., Scene 6, but in the text it is "bourne" not "brook." The rest of the lines are spurious. The first verse is by Ford, the second by Calcott, and the whole arranged by Bishop; but this time he has thrown in a harmonica part, the first that I have met with in this orchestration. The quartet and chorus at the end of the second act are by Bishop; the words, some of them from the second part of Henry IV., and some spurious. The whole finale is very pretentious and of no real musical value. In Act iii. we have the inevitable cavatina, "Take all my loves," from the Sonnet No. 40, sung by Olivia. It is a most sugary song; only a few lines are taken, and repeated ad nauseam. The duet Olivia and Viola, called "Cesario," is adapted by Bishop from a work I cannot trace (by a certain Winter). The only composer of that name in any musical biography is Peter von Winter, born at Mannheim in 1755, and pupil of Browning's celebrated Abt Vogler. The words are a very corrupt version of Olivia's speech in Act iii., Scene 1 of this very play, and the music sometimes fits in and sometimes does not.

Kit Marlowe's "Crabbed age and youth," set by Bishop for Olivia, has a fine cadenza duet with the flute, but is otherwise not notable; and "Bid me discourse," which follows, is too well known to need mention. An old setting of the Clown's song, "When that I was," is arranged by Bishop for the finale. Viola and Olivia have one chorus to themselves, very rubato. The melody and chorus are frequently changed, rhythmically and melodically, but it {155} makes a good finish to a very extraordinary mix-up of styles and composers. True to his ideals, Bishop does not use "Come away, Death," or "O mistress mine," two of the loveliest lyrics in the language—I suppose because they happen to occur in Twelfth Night!

During his second visit to London, Haydn composed his single contribution to Shakespearian song. It is contained in the set of six "Original Canzonets, composed for an English Lady of Position." The words are from Twelfth Night, beginning "She never told her love," and the song is very pathetic. Curiously enough for the period, the words "Smiling at grief" are the only ones repeated. The canzonet opens with a long symphony for piano. The voice part is melodious and vocal; the harmonies are more complicated than is usual with Haydn, and there is more liberal use made of the chord of the diminished seventh than one looks for in his work. The voice part is of just an octave's range, and there are no aggressive coloratura passages or high notes.

The only work of Johannes Brahms in which I can trace the direct inspiration of Shakespeare is his setting of the Clown's song, "Come away, Death," from Twelfth Night, for trio of female voices, harp, and two horns. This is an exquisite little work, very complete; there is hardly any repetition of the words: just at the end Brahms repeats "to weep there," but that is all. The combination of female voices, harp, and horns seems on paper to be rather eccentric, but in practice it is admirable, used as skilfully as Brahms has used it. This trio was not written for the play. In any decent production the song must be given to Feste, but how often is it? Time after time I have seen a strange woman in tights dragged on to sing one of the numerous Wardour Street versions, and no one seems to mind. Without this song, the whole character of Feste, one of the best of all the Shakespearian clowns, sinks into almost nothingness.


Perhaps somewhere, hidden away in some old music catalogue, I may find something more of Brahms in relation to Shakespeare. Indeed, I hope so. What a Hamlet overture he could have written!

The bridal song, "Roses, their sharp spines being gone," and graceful dance (Malvolio), composed for Sir Herbert Tree's revival of Twelfth Night, make one wish that the composer, Paul Rubens, had devoted more time to this kind of work. The words, by Fletcher, are beautifully set; and though there is no attempt at intentional archaism, there is an inimitable quaintness about this song, and the graceful dance which always accompanies Malvolio's entrances and exits, that is hard to find in modern Shakespearian music.

Augustus Barratt's setting of "Come away, Death," in the same production, is very beautiful. Frederick Corder's version of the same lyric for a trio of female voices and piano is a sad little number; but I wish he would set the words straight, without repetitions.

Sir Charles Villiers Stanford's settings of the "Clown's songs" in Twelfth Night were not written for any special production, and were first sung by Mr Plunket Greene. There is no needless repetition of the words, every syllable being given its exact musical value; so, from several points of view these versions are nearly perfect. The first, "O mistress mine," has a flowing though not very significant melody, and a graceful accompaniment. The second, "Come away, Death," is naturally of a very sombre nature, the harmonies being rather more elaborate than in the other two songs. The last lyric, "The rain it raineth every day," is, to my mind, much the best of the three. It is a very merry song, and the major effect and the little florid voice passage at the end make a charming close. Unfortunately, Sir Charles omits the last verse but one.


Dr Arne's setting is beautiful. It has a curious burden to it, in the accompaniment only; but the words are sadly chopped about.

Sullivan's "O mistress mine" is quite one of his most effective songs; and there is a beautiful flowing obbligato in the accompaniment which suggests that Sir Andrew, who played on the "viol-de-gamboys," was playing it for the Clown.

J. L. Hatton's setting of "When that I was" is quite pretty, but he plays the deuce with the words. The exquisitely quaint first line, "When that I was and a little tiny boy" becomes "When I was a tiny boy"; the last verse but one is entirely omitted; and the last verse of all is quite spoilt. There can be no possible excuse for Hatton or anyone else changing "But that's all one; our play is done, and we'll strive to please you every day," into "But that's all one, our song is done, for the rain it raineth every day." This song, for tenor solo and four-part male chorus, won a prize given by the Melodists' Club. I suppose it was a word-distorting contest, and I congratulate the judges on a fine decision.

Samuel Coleridge Taylor's setting of "O mistress mine" is interesting in several ways. It is not in the least like any other musical version of the same words, and, though they are set quite straightforwardly, the general effect is curiously bizarre. The accompaniment is in the style of a guitar serenade, which is, of course, thoroughly in keeping with the stage situation, although the song itself was not composed for any special stage performance.

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