Shakespeare and Music




There is a long list of operas under the names Cl�op�tre and Kleopatra in Cl�ment et Larousse's Dictionnaire Lyrique, and in Riemann's Opernhandbuch, but it is doubtful if a single one of them can be said to be founded on Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra. There seems material in it for hundreds of operas, but no one seems to have been inspired to write them.

Sir Henry Bishop has certainly written an "Epicedium," or funeral dirge, for the end of the play, for the production at Covent Garden; but though no author's name save Shakespeare's appears on the title-page, I can trace no text of Shakespeare's in this "Epicedium." It was produced in November 1813, and Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians does not mention it. It was sung at the end of the play, and is for chorus, orchestra, solo tenor and baritone. The first and second choruses are laments of the soldiers over Antony's death; then the solo baritone tells the chorus not to be ashamed of shedding tears, and the chorus sentimentalise over his bravery and generosity. The tenor sings of how he (Antony) was deserted by Mars and Neptune, and tells them to bury the lovers together. The final chorus is quite cheerful. Everyone seems pleased with the monument that has been erected, and "the shout of warriors thunders o'er the tomb." It is not a very dignified production, and I should not have paid much attention to it but for the fact that so little has been written musical on this subject that I thought some of my readers might be interested by this slight and incongruous work.


K. H. Graun in 1742 composed an overture to this play which is, I think, the earliest known work on the subject. The only available copy of the score is in Berlin, and, at the time of writing, rather difficult to get at. Graun was born in 1701, at Wahrenbr�ck, Saxony, and is one of the few celebrated composers who were famous operatic singers before they were composers. His oratorio The Death of Jesus takes the same place in Germany as Handel's Messiah does here in England.

August Enna, a Danish composer, wrote an opera founded on Shakespeare's play, which was produced at the Royal Opera House, Copenhagen, in 1894; but, with the exception of the overture, none of it has been performed in London. The overture was played under Sir Henry Wood by the Queen's Hall Orchestra on July 6, 1912. The opera was not a success in Copenhagen, in spite of the popularity of the composer and the natural sympathy he would receive from his compatriots. The critics said that he was obviously too much under the double influence of Wagner and Verdi, and, though admiring his prodigious technique in orchestration, gave him otherwise but faint praise. Enna was born May 13, 1860. He was largely self-taught; but, with the help of Niels Gade, won the Ancker Scholarship, a sort of Danish "Prix de Rome," which enabled him to study in Germany and acquire a considerable technique—a useful possession for a modern grand-opera composer.

Rodolphe Kreutzer, whose violin exercises have driven thousands of amateurs nearly to suicide, composed a "Grand Historic Ballet" on Antony and Cleopatra, which was produced in Vienna, but the date is as uncertain as the work's connection with Shakespeare's play. It would seem impossible to anyone who has seen or read the play not to have been influenced by it to a certain extent, and as Kreutzer was born in 1766 he may have seen or read some translation; but he does not appear to have gathered {3} the slightest glimmer of the tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra, and he was content to compose a whole series of numbers, all equally banal, not one of them suggesting for a single moment either of the great lovers or the surroundings. The only redeeming feature of a long and tedious work is that there is no attempt at Wardour Street Egyptian music.

Hector Berlioz made his third unsuccessful attempt on the Prix de Rome with a cantata on this subject. Though not founded on a scene or scenes from Shakespeare's play, it was undoubtedly inspired by the poet. Berlioz describes the action as follows:—"The subject was, Cleopatra after Actium; dying in convulsions, she invokes the spirit of the Pharaohs, demanding, criminal though she be, whether she dare claim a place beside them in their mighty tombs. It was a magnificent theme, and I had often pondered over Juliet's 'But if, when I am laid into the tomb,' which is, at least in terror of approaching death, analogous to the appeal of the Egyptian Queen." Berlioz himself says: "I think it deserved the prize." And I am sure it did; but the Grand Prix was not awarded that year, so that the composer had to wait twelve months before winning the coveted honour. He afterwards used the music, unchanged, for that curious but interesting work Lelio.

"The Vision of Cleopatra," a "Tragic Poem for Orchestra, Soli, and Chorus," words by Gerald Cumberland, music by Havergal Brian, is inscribed to the Southport Triennial Festival, who gave it its first performance. Though not an actual setting of a scene or scenes from this play, the work owes much to Shakespearian inspiration. For instance, though Antony and Cleopatra belong to anyone, Iris and Charmian, who appear in this work, are essentially Shakespeare's creations. This "Tragic Poem" is scored for a very large orchestra, and two choruses, one large, the other small. In addition to the usual full modern orchestra, there are two extra ad lib. horn parts, making six, and four {4} trumpet parts. For the sake of "Oriental colour," the percussion list is so unusually heavy that I must quote it: glockenspiel, tympani, bass drum, side drum, triangle, castanets, Indian drum, gong, large cymbals, and small cymbals—rather a healthy lot when they all get going! The work opens with a slave dance, allegro con fuoco, and is marked double pianissimo. After a few introductory bars (twelve), the dance proper begins, still very softly and in a curious syncopated rhythm. According to the composer's directions the dance grows "gradually wild and riotous," then comes a slower passage marked "yearning," followed by a long stringendo passage leading to the climax, "wild and uneven"; this presently dies away, and Iris and Charmian have a long duet, the chorus occasionally breaking in, telling how the "Queen is sick for Antony," and how "once more

Venus and Bacchus meet, and all the world
Stands still to watch the bliss of living gods."

The music here is very difficult; the rhythm changes often, every other bar, as does the key; the intervals are strangely unexpected, and the singer can look for no help from the orchestra. A passage marked "In regal martial style" ushers in the lovers, and we have a long vivid duet. Cleopatra sings a lengthy mystic solo, which is followed by an ominous chorus, at the end of which Antony seems to have died, for Cleopatra sings a very powerful dirge for him:—

Now all is finished, all is done,
    My world is dead;
And he whose glory shamed the sun
    Lies shamed instead.
These lips that frenzied him with love
    Have death bestowed.

The Finale is marked "Marche Fun�bre," and is a short chorus, dirge-like in feeling, rounding up the work effectively. It is a very interesting composition, difficult and most complicated, very restless and disjointed, to most {5} ears singularly unmelodious and unsatisfactory, yet, at the same time, full of novel effects, and to that extent certainly worth study; but I suspect that none of it ever got on the Southport barrel organs.

Unfortunately, I cannot get hold of Dr Ethel Smyth's overture of this name, but Mr J. A. Fuller-Maitland, in his English Music in the Nineteenth Century, writes: "Ethel Smyth's genius lies in the direction of strong and even virile work; her overture 'Antony and Cleopatra,' given at the Crystal Palace and the London Symphony concerts, showed that she understood all the resources of the orchestra, and that she was no amateur." The last six words seem hardly necessary. The composer has since proved her worth in her two operas, The Wreckers and The Boatswain's Mate.

Schubert's setting of "Come, thou monarch of the vine" is not so successful as his "Who is Sylvia?" or "Hark, the lark." It is a straight, robust song, mostly in unison. There is a quite unnecessary second verse added by one "N. N." Other but not important settings of these words are by William Linley, 1815, for solo boy and male chorus; Bishop, 1837, for three male voices; and Weiss, 1863, for bass solo.

Michael Balling's music for Frank Benson's production of Antony and Cleopatra contains, among other very good music, a baritone song to these words, with male chorus. Unfortunately, he did not write an overture or entr'actes, but his C�sar and Antony marches are full of contrasted character, and his "Rose Procession" for the last "Gaudy Night" is really beautiful. Sir Henry Bishop set these words to a S.A.T.B. quartet and full chorus, and by repeating each line several times, and most of the words pretty often, has made quite a long and uninteresting number out of it.

Thomas Chilcot in 1745 published a setting of these {6} words for a tenor voice. It is a good florid song, with a running accompaniment for strings. The composer omits the fifth line of the lyric for some reason I cannot understand. Surely the poem is very short as it is. In setting it he certainly seems to have found it so, as he repeats several sentences. The line he cuts makes rather a good refrain—"Cup us till the world goes round"—and most composers make their effect here.

Miss Frances Allitsen has composed for Madame Clara Butt a "Scena"; the text chiefly from Shakespeare, the words of the aria by Thomas S. Collier. It is supposed to be the death scene of Cleopatra, and the words are a sad jumble of odd lines taken from here and there. The music is very pretentious, and obviously not written round Cleopatra, but round Madame Butt's exceptional voice. The prayer to Isis and Osiris, with its un-Shakespearian rhymes of "supplication" and "desolation," would sound quite right with small verbal alterations in any Methodist chapel. The aria is vocal and to a certain extent melodious in a "ballad concert" manner, but it is utterly lacking in dignity. A long recitative follows in which nearly every note has an accent on it; Cleopatra applies the asp to a tremolo accompaniment, and finally dies, singing a series of accented high notes, as if the asp were hurting a good deal; and a few bars of minor chords bring the work to a close.

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