Shakespeare and Music



Of the tragedies, Macbeth, for some strange reason, is more associated with incidental music than any of the others. "The celebrated music introduced into the tragedy of Macbeth, commonly attributed to Matthew Locke," as Novello describes it in his edition, is associated in the minds of a great number of people with Shakespeare's play. I have known the work since I was a child. It used to be very popular at village and school breaking-up concerts. I never could understand its village popularity, but I know boys liked some of the strong words in it, and sang them with great gusto. It was sung in nearly all stage productions until about twenty years ago, and is very much missed by local choristers when not performed with the piece on tour. I remember how very disappointed the local chorus-master was to find that Sir Frank Benson was not using it in his later years. The chorus-master thought its absence would spoil the whole play. I have been through the text of Davenant's version, to which Locke wrote the music, and can discover only four consecutive lines and some odd words of Shakespeare's in the whole work. How it persisted through all those years is a great mystery. The music is not even interesting. The four lines immortalised are:—

Black spirits and white,
Red spirits and gray,
Mingle, mingle, mingle, mingle,
You that mingle may.

For many years this music was falsely attributed to Purcell, but musical historians have finally cleared Purcell of all {55} connection with it; though long ago he got even with Locke by writing an elegy on his death. Daniel Purcell, uncle of Henry, also wrote some Macbeth music.

John Eccles wrote music for a revival at Drury Lane in 1696; and Richard Leveridge, composer of "The Roast Beef of Old England" (a song which should be popular if revived now) and "All in the Downs," also wrote music for the second act in 1708.

To come to more modern times, Sullivan's music is perhaps the best. Composed for Sir Henry Irving's great production at the Lyceum, it was an instant success. The overture, a very elaborate work, is often done on concert platforms. The whole of the music is most effective, and perfectly suited to the play. Subsequently, Sir Henry gave readings of the play on tour with Ellen Terry, for which they travelled a full band of sixty performers for Sullivan's music.

Michael Balling, one time musical director for Sir Frank Benson, and subsequently for Cosima Wagner at Bayreuth, where he conducted The Ring and Parsival, composed some very clever music for his old chief's production, very modern in feeling and permeated with Scottish atmosphere: the Witch music being very grim and mysterious, and in the cauldron scene very clearly bringing in a suggestion of Locke's "Mingle, mingle." The Banquet music (strings only) is bagpipey, and the marches for Macbeth and Macduff are stirring and in strong contrast, while there is fine battle music for the close. Unfortunately, he wrote no overture or entr'actes.

Several operas have been founded on this theme, the most notable being Verdi's Macbetto, produced on March 17, 1847, at the Pergola, Florence. Unfortunately, Verdi was not so lucky in his librettist as he was in the cases of {56} Otello and Falstaff, when he had the invaluable assistance of Arrigo Boito, perhaps the greatest librettist who ever lived, with the exception of Wagner. Piave's book is not very inspiring. The opera was never a success. Verdi could not see Macbeth as a tenor, and bravely made him a dramatic baritone. The Italian could not understand a grand opera in which the hero was not a tenor; and the only tenor, Macduff, comes on late in the evening. It is a great pity, as there is much fine music in the work, though very little of Shakespeare's Macbeth gets through. The very Italian singing and dancing witches seem out of place on a blasted heath, and the ballet of Scottish retainers savours of a warmer clime than that of the North of Scotland. Still, the work should be revived.

Hippolyte Andr� Jean Baptiste Chelard was born in Paris in 1789, and subsequently won the Grand Prix de Rome. He was one of those Frenchmen, like Berlioz later, whose music was thought little of in Paris but was much admired in Munich and London. The adaptation of this play for the French lyric stage was not suitable, especially at the Opera House, where the action and words are the most important things to the public; and Chelard found that his harmonies, simple enough to our modern ears, were too complex for the Parisian audience. He left Paris and went to Munich, where he revised the whole opera most carefully, and made a great success of it; the result being that he became Court Capellmeister and dedicated the score to the Bavarian King, his patron. The rest of his life he divided between failure in Paris and success abroad, again very like his so much greater compatriot, Hector Berlioz. In this opera, for the first time, so far as I know, the witches are given names—Elsie, Nona, and Groem. I think the last a good name for a witch, but I should not dream of calling Shakespeare's first or second witch Elsie or Nona. I don't think Rouget de Lisle, the librettist, better known as the poet and composer of the "Marseillaise," ought to have done this. The opera is in three acts, and opens with the {57} conventional overture of the period—as composed by second-rate musicians, quite harmless; but one expects something more from a Macbeth overture. The Witches have some effective trios, some of them unaccompanied; and one of their motives was used by Liszt, who knew Chelard at Weimar, and taken from Liszt by Wagner for use in the Walk�re. It comes quite as a surprise in its original place in this Macbeth. Macbeth's march is fine and sombre, and the ballet music is quite exciting. One number is marked tempo d' inglese, though why a Franco-Scottish dance, produced in Germany, should be in English time I cannot understand. The choruses are broadly written, and the music, though mostly very florid, is often dramatic. There is a tremendously difficult and florid song for mezzo-soprano in the third act for a character called Moina, a friend of Lady Macbeth, and the prelude to this act is a long duet-cadenza for harp and flute. It has nothing to do with the plot, and must have been put in to please two friends who were excellent players or had valuable patrons. The librettist does not stick too closely to Shakespeare's story; in fact, he gives Duncan a daughter, the Moina just mentioned, and introduces the Sleep-walking scene before Duncan's death. When the opera was performed in London in 1832, Mme. Schroeder-Devrient, for so long Wagner's favourite singer, actress, and companion, sang the part of Lady Macbeth.

An amusing story is told of Chelard's Macbeth by FitzGerald, Tenderer into English verse of the Rub�iy�t of Omar Khayy�m. In one of his letters to the celebrated actress, Fanny Kemble, niece of John Philip of that name, he writes: "You may know there is a French opera of Macbeth, by Chelard. This was being played at the Dublin theatre—Viardot, I think, the heroine. However that may be, the curtain drew up for the Sleep-walking scene; Doctor and Nurse were there, while a long mysterious symphony went on—till a voice from the gallery called out to the leader of the band, Levey—'Whist, Lavy, my dear—tell us now—is it a boy or a girl?'"


Surely the world's operatic tragedy is that Beethoven never completed his Macbeth. He composed sketches for an overture and chorus to libretto by J. von Collin, who also, as we have seen, wrote the play Coriolan, which inspired one of Beethoven's greatest overtures.

Wilhelm Taubert's opera Macbeth was produced in Berlin in 1857, libretto by F. Eggers. It is in five acts, and begins with an overture in Scoto-German style. The curtain rises on the blasted heath, the three witches, two sopranos and one alto, singing in a very spirited manner. Macbeth enters, and the music closely follows the original plot. The second scene is in Macbeth's castle at Inverness, Lady Macbeth being discovered alone, having received her husband's letter. This is really very dramatic music; and when a servant announces that Duncan is coming that very night, Taubert gives one a fine thrill. Duncan enters and is heartily cheered by Macbeth's retainers, and all exit save Macbeth and his lady, who soon make arrangements for King Duncan's long sleep. The act ends pianissimo in a sombre manner. In the second act there is much festal music, a great procession of bards playing harps, and much singing of "Hail, Macbeth, hail!" Now comes a Scoto-German characteristic dance, towards the end of which Macbeth hears from the murderer that Banquo is dead, but that his son has escaped. The music gets louder and wilder at the end of this dialogue, and the dance finishes with great abandon.

Macbeth summons his guests to the banquet, and Macduff (tenor), with harp, sings a song in praise of Scotland and Macbeth, the chorus joining in heartily. At the end of the song Banquo's ghost appears and spoils Macbeth's party. This act also ends piano, Lady Macbeth taking a very remorseful Macbeth to have a nice quiet rest.

The third act takes place in the Witches' cave. Hecate (tenor) and chorus are with the Witches. Macbeth enters and is told about Birnam Wood. The music here is very impressive. The Witches raise up the ghosts of the eight {59} kings, and they pass Macbeth to a sort of funeral march; this also is very striking. The scene ends with a terrific hubbub, which gradually dies away, the curtain rising on Birnam Wood and a male chorus singing "O Scotland, poor fatherland, how has fate treated you!" It is a very sentimental bit of work, and must often draw tears; but I don't think real Scotsmen would be caring about it. After this sad opening we are prepared for Macduff's entrance. He is full of the news of the murder of his wife and children, and is very vocal about it. The chorus sympathise, and the act closes by Malcolm, Fleance, Macduff, and male chorus vowing vengeance on Macbeth. The third act begins with the Sleep-walking scene. The doctor and lady-in-waiting are there, and presently Lady Macbeth enters, and, keeping closely to the original text, the act finishes again pianissimo. The scene of the last act is in a chamber near Dunsinane. A harper sings a good imitation of a Scottish song, and then the Wood of Birnam seems to move nearer and nearer. Lady Macbeth appears in the last scene of all, and sings a very dramatic aria, welcoming the advent of the Birnam Wood, and firmly believing in the immortality of Macbeth; but Macduff kills him, and all he says to his wife is "Farewell, my wife, Eternal sleep is welcome." The Witches make a short appearance here, singing "He had the crown, we have the King," and Malcolm is crowned; and the chorus spread themselves, hailing their new King. By this time they must have become accustomed to hailing new kings. Already they have sung in praise of Duncan and Macbeth, and now, quite easily, they adapt their vocal transports to Malcolm, and are very Scoto-Germanic in their efforts. Still, the opera has very good points, and should not die.

The latest opera on this subject is the gigantic lyric drama in a prologue and three acts, each act having two scenes, by Ernest Bloch, poem by Edmond Fleg, after Shakespeare.

This work was produced at the Op�ra Comique, Paris, {60} 1910, under the direction of Albert Carr�. I can find nothing about the composer in any dictionary of music, but, judging from the score, he is a modern of moderns. The work is planned on an heroic scale, and is appallingly difficult to perform, the time and key changing, sometimes every bar, during long passages: moreover, the composer seems very fond of putting in an odd five-four bar unexpectedly. The opera opens with a prelude, depicting the blasted heath, and the witches enter one by one. They are, severally, soprano, mezzo, and contralto. During their trio distant drums and muted trumpet are heard announcing the near presence of Macbeth, Banquo, and the army. They gradually get nearer, and finally, with a burst of grim, significant music, the mortals enter to three horrible chords and a sinister figure in the bass. At the words, "Glamis, and thane of Cawdor! The greatest is behind," the orchestra plays a solemn theme curiously reminiscent of the Valhalla motif in Wagner's Ring. So ends the prologue; the orchestra conveys one to Macbeth's castle, and the curtain rises just as he has finished telling Lady Macbeth about his interview with the three witches on the heath. This ingenious device saves the time generally used in the latter scene, and also saves the audience hearing Macbeth's account of his meeting with the Witches, which they have already heard. Further, it allows Macbeth to be present when the servant announces the advent of King Duncan, which makes a strong dramatic point, and is admirably emphasised by the fine Duncan theme ringing out in the brass. It would take hundreds of pages to explain in detail this enormous and complicated work, so I will just touch on a few points of outstanding interest. Duncan's entrance is finely managed, and his dignified thanks and praise of Macbeth and his lady are calmly and peacefully set, in great contrast to all that has gone before. In the duet (Macbeth and Lady Macbeth) which follows, the composer emphasises the scorn of the lady for her undecided husband, and the passage, "I have nourished children at my breast, and I know it is sweet," has a {61} concentrated bitterness in it that is not often found in music. A very elaborate and beautiful orchestral scene-change interlude, founded on the Duncan theme, quiet and very calm, brings us to a court in Macbeth's castle. It is moonlight, and all is still until Macbeth begins the dagger soliloquy, which is set with great force. The Porter's song is very elaborate, and the composer has an explanation, in a footnote to the score, in which he says: "The character of the song of the Porter is this:—The Porter is drunk. He really hears the knocking. He listens, but his troubled brain confuses reality and fiction, and the hammering blows awaken in him the memory of a familiar song. In each verse you get a suggestion of this old song, and only at the last verse he realises that he must open the door." The situation is held with great intensity. The song is long; there are three verses, each richly varied, and I should think it is one of the most difficult songs to sing ever written. A great ensemble number, for principals and chorus, very dramatic and brilliantly written technically, nearly finishes the act; but by a happy device the crowd rush into the King's chamber, leaving the stage empty save for an old man. The music fades away, the great bell continues to toll, and the ancient sings, very quietly, "I can recall all that has happened for seventy years; I have seen terrible hours and strange things, but I have never seen a night comparable to this night." (I translate roughly.) Curtain falls slowly.

The second act opens in Macbeth's castle, himself as King. The opening orchestral introduction is very regal, but Macbeth's subsequent soliloquy shows how doubtful he is of himself. A fine series of fanfares brings on Lennox and his followers to the banquet. The music for the appearance of Banquo is most suggestive; in fact, in suiting the music to the words or situation Bloch is never at fault. The last Witch scene, with the procession of kings, is awe-inspiring, as is Lady Macbeth's sleep-walking scene and Macbeth's "to-morrow and to-morrow" monologue. The tragic feeling never ceases until the very death of Macbeth, when the curtain falls slowly.


This is, I know, a very inadequate description of a most tragic opera, but I have no more space. There are no separate numbers, save the Porter's song, which could be detached from the rest of the work. The opera must be taken as an entity or not at all. There are no attempts at sustained, beautiful melody; everything is sacrificed to the drama. There are no effective bits from a singer's point of view, and Mr Arthur Godfrey would have some difficulty in writing a really popular selection founded on this work. For a perfect performance, wonderful acting, singing, orchestral playing, and mise-en-sc�ne are absolutely essential. It requires months of the most careful rehearsal, but the result would justify all the time and labour spent over it. It should be a great privilege to take the smallest part in a performance of such a stupendous tragedy.

It is the general custom of amateurs to sneer at Spohr. True, he was the finest classical violinist of his time, but that cannot account for the general abuse from which he suffers: there must be something else. The something else seems to me to be the curious foresight he had with regard to Richard Wagner's works. When no one, save Liszt, would hear them or of them, dear old-fashioned classical Spohr risked his whole reputation to produce operas by this young art—and practical—revolutionary at his theatre at Cassel. There was something very splendid about him. Among the enormous quantity of music he has written there is one overture, "Macbeth," to which I wish to draw attention; it is short, it is conventional, but there is a lot of the real feeling of Macbeth in it. I don't say for an instant that this is an epic, but it is a very excellent piece of work and quite worthy of the great man, if not great composer, who devised it.

In some editions of Robert Schumann's pianoforte works the "Novelette," op. 21, No. 3, is headed with these words from Macbeth: "When shall we three meet again?" They certainly fit in with the first phrase of the movement, {63} and the whole sounds very like a witches' dance, but there is no mention of the words in Peters' edition. I hope it is true, as that gives us another piece of Schumann's Shakespearian music in addition to the Julius C�sar overture and the last Clown's song from Twelfth Night.

Raff's "Macbeth" overture is quite one of his most successful works. It opens with a dance of the Witches, mostly for flute and piccolo at first, but getting very wild later; then there is a sort of dialogue between Macbeth (wood wind and horns) and Witches (their own dance). These themes are developed with considerable skill, and a new one (Lady Macbeth) is added, as are some odd little bits of a sort of Scottish character. There is fine fight-music near the end, and the final triumph of Macduff is celebrated with a very cheerful noise. This overture would make an admirable opening for an elaborate stage performance of Macbeth.

Henry Hugo Pierson was an English composer, born at Oxford, 1815, but is still unknown to the majority of his fellow-countrymen. After leaving Cambridge he studied in Germany, where he became very intimate with Mendelssohn. Meyerbeer, Spohr, and Schumann were all his friends and admirers; and in 1844 he succeeded Sir Henry Bishop as Professor of Music at Edinburgh, but very soon resigned, and settled down in Germany, marrying a German literary lady, Caroline Leonhardt. The inordinate Mendelssohn-worship of his day rendered England a difficult home for a modern English composer: so he changed the spelling of his name from Pearson to Pierson, settled down in his adopted country, and died at Leipsic, January 18, 1873.

His symphonic poem, "Macbeth," op. 51, was once performed at the Crystal Palace concerts, but has been very thoroughly neglected since. It is real modern programme music, and scored for a very large orchestra, including a solo part for the cornet-�-pistons and a military drum. The symphonic poem opens at Act ii., Scene 2, and is headed {64} with the words, "Hours dreadful and strange things." The music is very slow and mysterious, but works up to a climax on the words of the Witches, "Fair is foul and foul is fair." Then comes, very piano, "The March of the Scottish Army"—a most characteristic piece, the tune on the high wood wind, drones on the bassoons, and great use made of the military drum. This works up to a tremendous fortissimo, and dies away mysteriously before Banquo's words:—

                    What are these,
So withered and so wild in their attire,
That look not like th' inhabitants o' th' earth,
And yet are on't?

A curious and interesting effect is here made by the tenor trombone, clarinet, and cornet taking the parts of the three witches, and playing the themes that fit what the Witches are supposed to speak. I mean the three "All hail" speeches. The orchestration is full of sinister mystery here; but, on Macbeth's words, "Two truths are told As happy prologue to the swelling act Of the imperial theme," the music becomes, for a time, triumphant, though very wild, and breaks off suddenly for a Lady Macbeth scene. She is reading Macbeth's letter, and these words are printed in the score: "This have I thought good to deliver thee. Lay it to thy heart, and fare thee well." The subjects here used are the Witches' prophetic theme and a passionate Lady Macbeth one. All the music in this section is highly emotional, dramatic, and brilliantly clever. On Macbeth's words, "If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well It were done quickly," a gruesome little passage for strings and bassoons heralds the King's feast music, consisting of curious disjointed wood-wind passages, till Macbeth's words, "Is this a dagger which I see before me?", when the music seems to drive him to the murder. After the words, "Hear it not, Duncan; for it is a knell That summons thee to Heaven or to Hell," there are two intensely dramatic bars; and then, pianissimo, is heard the Witches' prophetic motif on the cornet and horn—a fine {65} bit of musical word-painting. Now comes the longest episode in the work, a magnificent Witches' dance, the composer employing nearly every resource of the modern orchestra. Then, in the distance, is heard the march of the English army, very stirring and martial. At the end of this passage, Macbeth says: "It's ripe for shaking, and the powers above Put on their instruments." Here a great stirring is made in the orchestra, and a cry (violin solo) is heard:—

Macbeth: Wherefore was that cry?
Seyton: The Queen, my lord, is dead.

Very piteous and poignant music is used in this passage, broken in upon by the strains of battle. At the words, "Blow, wind, come, wrack! At least we'll die with harness on our back," the music dies down for the familiar dialogue between Macbeth and Macduff concerning the gyn�cological manner of the latter's birth, and a few more bars of fight music finish off the former. The sound dies down. The prophetic theme is heard very faintly on the trombone and finally on the horn; the music gets softer and slower, and so fades away.

I have written at special length about this composer, because it seems so strange that an English musician, a Harrow and Cambridge man, and a pupil of Attwood and Corfe, should have been so much in advance of his time and especially of his country. Born, as we saw, in 1815, he was only six years younger than Mendelssohn, and forty years old when Sir Henry Bishop died. He was four years younger than Liszt, and doubtless got the general idea of the symphonic poem form, or want of form, from the elder master. He was two years younger than Wagner, yet his earlier compositions are far in advance, musically, of Wagner's early work. It seems deplorable that this remarkable English composer should be so utterly ignored by his countrymen.

Richard Strauss's magnificent Symphonic Poem on this theme must take a very high place in the musical {66} commentary on Macbeth. It is scored for the largest possible orchestra, and every known musical device in orchestration or harmony is to be found in this enormous and complicated score. The poem begins sombrely, but almost at once there breaks in a short fanfare, which occurs repeatedly throughout the work. Immediately after the fanfare the first subject is announced on the brass, and the whole work gets going. Strauss prints a short speech of Lady Macbeth's beginning, "Hie thee hither, that I may pour My spirits in thine ear; And chastise with the valour of my tongue All that impedes thee from the golden round." In the score the music here is marked "wildly appassionato," though pianissimo (Strauss here uses the device of tremolo strings playing on the bridge with great effect). Afterwards he introduces a long, broad, and very beautiful theme, the sort of theme which his detractors are always challenging him to write, and which he is always writing. Strauss gives no definite programme in his score, and it is up to anyone hearing it to make his own; but one could not go very far wrong. There is no need to describe the various developments, thematic and harmonic, which take place in the themes before the end of this work. It is long. Ninety pages of closely printed full score take some time to play, and a longer time to describe in detail: so I content myself with saying that anyone can get a fine, convincing picture of the life and death of Macbeth by hearing this work and not bothering whether a certain theme means Duncan, Bloody Child, Bleeding Sergeant, Macbeth, or Lady Macbeth.

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