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THAT SHAKESPEHEAREAN RAG

The Globe was a low-tech theatre. With its roof open to the elements there wasn’t much chance of sophisticated lighting cues; its tiny stage (which often contained some of the A-reserve seats) could be transformed into fair Verona or Burnham Wood only by a poet’s language. The one special effect at Shakespeare’s disposal was music: a song like ‘Come away, Death’ in Twelfth Night lets the drama stop and breathe; trumpet calls (‘sennets’ and ‘alarums’) might transport the audience to the fields of Agincourt. And when Shakespeare wants us to understand that a miraculous transformation has taken place – a statue restored to life as a woman, four noble lovers waking from what they think was a crazy dream, a prince cast ashore on a desert island – he does so by calling for music.

Shakespeare was as magical for music as music was for Shakespeare, at least when the temper of the times allowed it. The mere handful of Shakespeare-derived musical entertainments from the later 17th century includes John Blow’s Venus and Adonis and the unconscionably bowdlerised version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream which became Henry Purcell’s The Fairy Queen. The Enlightenment had little use for a poet of verbal ambiguity, supernatural visitations and unhappy endings, though Beethoven acknowledged the influence of Romeo and Juliet on the slow movement of his String Quartet in F, Op.18 No.1 and a sadly abortive project of an opera on Macbeth seems to have left its mark on the so-called ‘Ghost’ Trio Op.70 No.1.

With the rise of Romanticism in the 19th century, however, the Bard was back, combining as he does the ‘gothic’ world of King Lear, Macbeth or Hamlet, the only momentarily requited passion of Romeo and Juliet, the magical realms of the ‘Dream’ or The Tempest. One of the first to succumb was the young Hector Berlioz – partly no doubt as a side effect of his passion for the Irish actress Harriet Smithson whom he saw act the role of Juliet. Through the translations of Nerval, Berlioz became well acquainted with Shakespeare’s work: his early cantata The Death of Cleopatra (1829), while not based on Shakespeare’s play, uses a quotation from Romeo and Juliet as a superscription above a passage which Berlioz went on to recycle as a musical description of the ghost of Hamlet’s father in Lélio, or the return to life. Shakespeare remained a potent and profound force in Berlioz’s music throughout his life, in the ‘dramatic symphony’ Romeo and Juliet, the fantasy on The Tempest, the King Lear overture and the gentle comedy of his last opera Béatrice et Bénédict, but also in what he called the ‘Shakespeareanized Virgil’ of his operatic masterpiece, The Trojans. Berlioz’s countryman Ambroise Thomas likewise produced operas on A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1850) and Hamlet (1868) – the latter famed for its drinking song.

Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream was one of a motley band of sources for Carl Maria von Weber’s last work, Oberon, commissioned by the London based impresario Kemble in 1824; at the same time, Schlegel and Tieck – themselves in the vanguard of the Romantic movement – were translating Shakespeare into German, inspiring the young Felix Mendelssohn to write his celebrated Overture in 1826 and many years later (at Tieck’s request) his incidental music to the ‘Dream’. Shakespeare’s blend of broad-brush dramaturgy and the contrasting exploration of individual characters’ inmost thoughts was attractive to composers like Berlioz, as we have seen, and Franz Liszt, whose (wordless) symphonic poems Hamlet and Othello likewise balance a sense of dramatic action with that of profound soliloquy. Liszt’s model proved invaluable to Richard Strauss in his symphonic poem Macbeth of 1892 and a century later to Hans Werner Henze, whose Eighth Symphony is a musical commentary on A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Liszt also influenced Tchaikovsky in his concert overture (a symphonic poem by any other name…) Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo and Juliet was irresistible to a number of composers: Charles Gounod made an opera of it, as did, mutatis mutandis, Leonard Bernstein in West Side Story (1957). Other Broadway versions of Shakespeare include Cole Porter’s Kiss me, Kate – based on The Taming of the Shrew, and Rodgers’ and Hart’s The Boys from Syracuse – their take on A Comedy of Errors. One of the more spectacular ‘translations’ of Romeo and Juliet is into Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet score of 1938. (The Soviet authorities, incidentally, insisted at first on a happy ending…) Russian interest in Shakespeare grew hugely during the Soviet period, with the music that Dmitri Shostakovich contributed to the burgeoning film industry including an astonishing incidental score to Hamlet. Incidental music such as Mendelssohn’s spawned its own genre, with Claude Debussy writing for stagings of King Lear and Jean Sibelius for The Tempest; like Shostakovich, William Walton had a gift for capturing Shakespeare as filmed – in Henry V (1944-1955), Hamlet (1948) and Richard III (1955) – by Laurence Olivier.

Giuseppe Verdi, perhaps inevitably, looked to Shakespeare for his blood and thunder Macbeth and for the late masterpieces Otello and Falstaff (based on The Merry Wives of Windsor). Ralph Vaughan Williams had a go at the latter in his Sir John in Love, a work which tests the orthodox view that Shakespeare’s actual words should not be set to music, as if they contain sufficient inherent music of their own. Benjamin Britten likewise felt that this was an empty taboo, noting dryly (as he set to work on cutting A Midsummer Night’s Dream down to a manageably singable length in 1960) that ‘the original Shakespeare will survive’. Tan Dun, using fragments of The Tempest alongside Chinese folk song in his Ghost Opera for Chinese lute and string quartet (1994), or Michael Tippett, whose The Knot Garden draws heavily on The Tempest, might have said the same thing.

Shakespeare does of course survive. What Keats called Shakespeare’s ‘negative capability’ – the ability to seem completely removed from his poetry, makes his work endlessly interpretable, and particularly suited to the fluid responses of music.

Gordon Kerry © 2002