Shakespeare and Music



Very few composers have had the temerity to lay hands on King Lear. With the notable exception of Berlioz, no composer of the first rank seems to have touched it. At one time Verdi thought very seriously of making it the subject of an opera, and it is much to be regretted that the project was never carried out. With Boito as librettist, what a work Verdi might have turned out in his golden old age!

Berlioz began his Roi Lear overture at Nice while he was holding the Grand Prix de Rome, but was stopped by the King of Sardinia's police as a spy. The composer's habit of writing music without a piano did not please them at all; so he was sent for and interrogated by the chief of the secret police.

"You wander about with a book in your hands; are you making plans?"

"Yes, the plan of an overture to King Lear."

"Who is this King Lear?"

"A wretched old English king," etc.

"You cannot possibly compose wandering about the beach with only a pencil and paper and no piano; so tell me where you wish to go, and your passports shall be made out."

"Then I will go back to Rome, and, by your leave, continue to compose without a piano."

Berlioz finished the overture in May 1831, but it was years before it made any success, and it has never been popular in France.

Some years afterwards Berlioz was invited to conduct a {51} concert of his works at L�wenberg for the Prince of Hohenzollern-Hechingen. At the rehearsal the orchestra played the score "with such spirit, smoothness, and precision that I said to myself in amazement, not having heard the piece for ten or twelve years, 'It is tremendous; can I really have written it?'" I am quoting from Berlioz's autobiography.

The overture begins andante with a bold theme for basses, and the whole of the opening is composed in a much more simple manner than one is accustomed to expect from Berlioz. A beautiful cantabile theme soon appears on the oboe, the opening is repeated fortissimo, and then comes the real Berlioz. This episode is fiery and agitato, leading on to the beautiful Cordelia music. The rest of the work is very long and complicated, but no new melodies are introduced. There are no labels; each hearer must read his own meaning into it; but by keeping the idea of Lear in one's mind it is not difficult to get a very shrewd notion of what the composer is driving at.

Konradin Kreutzer composed an opera on this tragedy entitled Cordelia. It is in one act, the libretto by P. Wolff. It was first produced at Donaueschingen in 1819. The composer was born at Baden in 1780, and was a prolific writer. The only number I can find is the overture, which is an ordinary straightforward composition, that suggests Cordelia just as much as it would Julius C�sar or Charlie Chaplin; I cannot understand why such music should ever be written.

In the Athen�um of June 8, 1912, occurs the following passage:—

"According to Le M�nestrel, a complete libretto of King Lear in Verdi's handwriting has been discovered among his papers. This confirms the report that he had intended to write an opera on the subject."

Antonio Bazzini, the eminent violinist, composed a fine concert overture to King Lear, which was performed {52} twice at the Crystal Palace—in 1877 and 1880. It is really more of a symphonic poem than an overture, but it has no definite programme. Most of the work is very sombre and grim, as befitting its title. I have rarely seen a more restless work from the point of view of tempo, and its tonality is constantly changing. It is not in the least the kind of work one would expect from the composer of the popular "Ronde des Lutins" for violin, which is the only piece of his generally known here; but Bazzini was really a serious-minded composer, and was Professor of Composition in, and subsequently Director of, the famous Conservatoire of Milan. This overture is one of his mature works, and, though the themes are obviously of Italian origin, the development of them shows signs of German influence. The whole work is very interesting and uncommon.

Felix Weingartner, whose symphonic poem King Lear is, after Berlioz's overture, the most important work on this subject, was born at Zara (Dalmatia) in 1863, and is one of the most distinguished of living conductors. The score was published in 1897, and performed in England at the London Musical Festival on May 2, 1902. The composer, in his own account of the work, says that it is not to be regarded as depicting the march of events as they occur in the drama (after the manner of programme music), its form being designed rather on the lines of early examples of the overture. The poem opens with a broad fortissimo theme, showing the King in his pomp and state. This is followed by a crawling theme, signifying the malignant attitude of many at the Court. These two subjects struggle together, with a third, the love theme, hovering over all. The motif of the King in his glory is repeated, but this time the evil influence music gets the better of it. A beautiful theme follows—Cordelia; but the King does not understand it, and soon Lear curses his daughter in a fine dramatic passage. This section is succeeded by a terrific storm, with thunder and lightning; the King's theme is {53} played in a wildly contorted form to show that he has become mad. The beautiful Cordelia music now comes to comfort him, and the two are reconciled, but their happiness does not last long. The work ends most tragically. The whole is a very reverent and masterly attempt on the part of a first-rate musician to set down in musical notation the effect of this stupendous tragedy on a finely-balanced brain.

1 of 2
2 of 2