Twelfth Night (Photo by Fine Art Photographic Library/Corbis via Getty Images)

The music of the Bard

A great tradition of Shakespearean songs have been all but forgotten

Artillery Row

There are over four hundred published pieces of music which accredit William Shakespeare’s plays and poetry as their inspiration; in November 2023 BBC Radio 3 ran a day of tribute to them. Some, like Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Tchaikovsky’s or Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet are extremely well known and frequently performed. Others are less so: I’ve never heard Claude Debussy’s Le Roi Lear, for instance, or Bedrich Smetana’s incidental music to Richard III. There are also sixty five operas, though that is a slightly spurious figure because there are some operas which are loosely or slightly inspired by Shakespeare. (How does one class West Side Story, for example?) All in all Shakespeare must be considered to be the writer who has inspired the most high quality music.

I am a Shakespeare buff. I have seen several hundred productions of his plays, including all the fully accredited plays at least twice and those which are currently thought to contain a contribution (such as Edward III) at least once. I’ve seen them all over the world, but mostly I have seen the productions of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Yet I have never knowingly heard any of this music used in a production. I say “knowingly” because I may have heard, for example, one of Ralph Vaughan-Williams settings of a Shakespeare song used on stage without realising it. The absence of the music so far as I am concerned is both a deprivation and a mystery.

Joy was replaced by suppressed fury as I read the director’s notes

A major clue to the mystery lies not with Shakespeare, but with Ibsen. In 1994 I went to the RSC’s production of Peer Gynt. This is a kind of control experiment because Edvard Grieg’s incidental music to the play is almost certainly the best known incidental music ever written. The first suite of it is constantly performed and, for example, in 2023 was voted as the number 27 piece of music of all time in the Classic FM Hall of Fame. Even the second suite, put together by Grieg ten years after the original production, makes it onto the list. I have a special relationship with the music; as I was introduced to it at primary school, it became the first record I ever bought. I went along to that production with joy because I was at last going to hear the music in its proper context.

Joy was replaced by suppressed fury as I read in the director’s notes that he had immediately chosen not to use the famous music because he regarded it as a “cliché” and a “distraction”. The former I took as a kind of personal insult because I am an avid theatre-goer, and this was the first chance in my lifetime to see a production of the play. As for distraction, babies and bathwater comes to mind. The reason I called this a “control experiment” is that in this case, unlike any of the Shakespeare examples, the music is indisputably of a higher standard than the play which is best described as interesting. It is interesting in the context of Grieg’s work because it is the study of a wastrel and fantasist and forms a contrast with its predecessor, Brand, which is a rather grim study of a religious fanatic. It is also interesting in the context of Norwegian culture because Peer both rejects and yearns for his homeland. Overall, though, it is as rambling and aimless as its eponymous character, and I would hypothesise that if it were not for the music, it would be even less well known than it is.

The director in question was John Barton CBE (1928–2018), who was a very well established figure at the RSC. He had been involved from the beginning, as he was invited by Sir Peter Hall when the company was reconstituted in its present form in 1960. I think his views can be taken as representative more broadly of a modern orthodoxy amongst the theatrical elite. It must be stressed that there are no technical problems with using the music. Barton used music in the production — specially commissioned and entirely forgettable. Nearly all RSC productions use a band of half a dozen or more to play incidental music. There is no problem with modern technology (if there ever was) in using a smaller band to play music designed for a full orchestra, and we as audiences are entirely used to hearing music accompanying films and plays. They are happy with music — their productions of Shakespeare often involve singing and dancing — just not the really good stuff.

Its now time to use the best of the music as it was meant to be used

In observing interviews and having occasional conversations with directors, I have concluded that Barton’s view is the key to understanding the situation. The text is paramount and the music should complement it rather than become a distraction. There is a sense, very clear in the way the RSC sells itself, that theatre should be intellectually challenging even if an explicit idea of “message” is avoided. Music is ideologically neutral. My favourite example of this is Aram Khachachurian’s Spartacus and Phrygia. The composer was the most orthodox of Soviet composers, secretary of the musicians’ union, orders of Lenin and Stalin, only ever out of favour for a short interlude. Spartacus was a Communist icon after which the original Soviet alternative to the Modern Olympics was named. The famous Adagio describes a rare moment of peace for Spartacus and his lover away from the battlefield. Yet to British viewers of a certain age, it describes the sails billowing as a ship carrying a bunch of rampant international capitalists leaves the mouth of the Mersey in search of profit. It was the theme to The Onedin Line, a BBC series about a shipping company in Victorian times which ran from 1971 to 1980.

A more hostile view might invoke public choice theory and ask the questions, “What are directors trying to achieve?” and “Who are they putting on plays for? It is fairly obvious that the real answers are about career and reputation. This is most obviously true in the subsidised sector where critics, fellow professionals and funding bodies are what you want to please. The bums are on the seats anyway, and the RSC’s main constituents are tourists, school parties and a fairly elderly membership. The same directors are to some extent involved in the more commercial theatres, but there they face greater counter-pressures. To put it bluntly, I think the target audience might think using great music a trivialisation or a gimmick, whereas the actual audience would love it.

The RSC has never been afraid to innovate: recently gender-reversed roles have been a bit of an obsession. In the past I have seen the three parts of Henry VI in a day and watched all-American and all-Indian productions as well as (paradoxically) The Merry Wives of Windsor presented as a musical. They have often planned a year or two years of productions as a themed “festival”. I think its now time to use the best of the music as it was meant to be used, with a run of six to eight plays chosen for the quality of music that they have inspired. It would be an opportunity for directorial wit and imagination. It would be difficult to exclude Romeo or Dream, but very difficult to include Titus Andronicus. However, I do note that there is an indie rock band from New Jersey which is called “Titus Andronicus”.

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