Shakespeare in music

Shakespeare in Music

When I was younger and less discerning, I used to make money by editing doctoral theses. It was an informative, sometimes painful experience. I learned about subjects as diverse as economic and ophthalmology. It wasn’t all plain sailing, however. One of the theses I had to proofread and edit came from the pen of a certain “doctor” of English literature. The topic was something like: “Gendered pronouns in children’s fiction”. In Mark Twain’s memorable turn of phrase, this was chloroform in print. One of the chapters in this gigantic tome of “woke” drivel was a lengthy tirade against William Shakespeare.

The bard, according to our “doctor”, was guilty of having “gendered English”. Thank heavens! Finally, a sage, rotund member of the middle class had descended from on high to enlighten us, the teeming masses. She had located the source of this pernicious gender. With four languages rolling around in my head, I had always thought that gender was a sort of near-universal grammatical category by which nouns and adjectives inflect. I was wrong. Clearly, all human languages, even those that predate the English language by millennia, had been poisoned at the source by the pernicious Saxon.

Shakespeare Abroad

Needless to say, this is philistinism of spectacular proportions, even by South African standards. Shakespeare himself would have returned our misanthropic doctor’s hatred tenfold, and had a great deal of fun spitting on her idols and mocking her stupid “woke” pieties. Nevertheless, a prominent chair in a renowned university is currently being warmed by the writer whose Sokal-esque word salad I had to wade through all those years ago. I can obviously say no more than that, but the memory of this debacle comes back to me momentarily. This is because it reflects, in a rather tasteless vignette, the curious fact that the English do not respect their heritage. Each generation cuts its teeth on a radical criticism of its parents. There is, I believe, a direct line between the banning of Shakespeare by the regime of the reprobate Oliver Cromwell, and the bureaucratic philistinism I described earlier.

There is also, thankfully, a direct line between Shakespeare and the European continent, where his reception has been, I think, more meaningful than in the Anglosphere. I particularly like the Russian Sumarokov’s appellation of “inspired savage”. I can think of no higher praise of a man than that. Incidentally, the reception of English culture in the Byzantine and Slavic East is a subject all to itself. From the marriage of the daughter of the last English King to a Russian prince, to the first New England, there is a substrate of shared experience (primarily religious) between these peoples that is lost under subsequent centuries of conflict.

Shakespeare in Russian Music

Beginning with Russia therefore makes some kind of historical sense. There is no shortage of examples of Russian composers who drew on Shakespeare. We’ll start with a film score that Shostakovich wrote for the 1964 adaptation of Hamlet. Like everything in Soviet culture (and in Shakespeare’s own Elizabethan England), the film is both political and personal. It plays up the theme of the relationship between the state and the man. The score that Shostakovich wrote is tense, angular. Frankly, it’s ugly, just like the hideous play that inspired it. I’m with Eliot on this one.

Next up, and in a very different mood, we have Tchaikovsky’s Fantasy Overture Romeo and Juliet. Like Hamlet, this is a play that I loathe. I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I cannot bring myself to loathe this symphonic poem, however. A symphonic poem is a genre of composition in which one extended movement illustrates a narrative or idea. The athleticism of the string part makes the whole thing very easy to listen to and engage with, even the gaudy, saccharine love theme. I like to think Tchaikovsky had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he wrote this:

My very favourite Russian musical interpretation of Shakespeare is Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. I am at a loss as to why this hollow, archetypically western story found favour with both of these great composers. If anybody out there has an answer I’d love to hear from you. We’ve looked at Prokofiev before. Here is the Dance of the Knights from his ballet after Shakespeare:

Shakespeare in European Music

The music of Jean Sibelius is, in my opinion, among the finest ever written. The fact that Adorno hated him makes me love him even more. Most famous for his Finlandia, Sibelius produced a large symphonic output. On a personal note, playing his fourth symphony remains one of the most profound experiences of what has been a rather unorthodox and colourful life thus far. This particular piece, his suite based on The Tempest, manages to be as bizarre, charming and esoteric as Shakespeare’s play. Various characters are represented by specific instruments, similar to Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. For those familiar with the play, Prospero features as a harp, which just makes sense. In The Tempest we see Shakespeare as an English adventurer and discoverer – exotic islands, Italians and magic. In this suite, the Finn Sibelius, usually a stern nordic voice, is at his most whimsical, child-like.

The next one is a film score for a 2015 Franco-British movie rendition of Macbeth. This is a bleak, violent film with a score to match. The music is scathing, almost harder to bear than the film itself. There are moments of transcendent beauty as the camera pans around the Scottish Highlands between grimy shield wall battles and drawn-out executions. It’s a personal favourite mine and I truly believe that it’s the kind of over-the-top production that Shakespeare would have put together if he had had a camera:

Shakespeare in English Music

If you’ve made it this far, well done. This little tour would not be complete without some English music. Ralph Vaughan Williams is a composer whose music, more than any other, is unmistakably English. The England he describes, a place that actually no longer exists, is a green and merry. It is Chaucer’s bardic, eccentric myth-island at the fringe of European consciousness. If you ever make a pilgrimage to Canterbury (and if you have English blood you have no reason not to), you might catch an inkling of this.

In his Three Shakespeare Songs, Williams has set passages from two of Shakespeare’s plays to music. The first song, Full Fathom Five, comes from The Tempest. Ariel is singing to Ferdinand about his presumably drowned father:

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change,
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them, – ding-dong bell.

The second song is from the same play. The words are a little meditation on the fleetingness of life, with a double-entendre about the globe and The Globe:

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind: We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep. 

The final, tumultuous movement is from the famous A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a work that drawn the attention of many other composers. In it, the fairy sings to the Anglo-Saxon sprite Puck about the mischief fairies get up to:

Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough briar,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire
I do wander everywhere.
Swifter than the moonè’s sphere;
And I serve the fairy queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green.
The cowslips tall her pensioners be;
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours,
In those freckles live their savours:
I must go seek some dew-drops here,
And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.

Shakespeare at Home

I think it’s fitting to end with Williams’ sincerely English homage. No doubt, Shakespeare will continue to endure as either the bête noire of the “intellectuals”, or the hallowed arbiter of “correct English” that conservatives think they know. In truth he was neither of these things. He was a European moment, a kind of library of human experience. Listening to great works of music inspired by his plays is like touring that library with a very learned old friend.

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