Shakespeare and Music



With the exception of the perfect lyric "Who is Sylvia?" composers have left this play severely alone; but Sir Henry Bishop certainly produced a pasticcio opera on The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Royal, Covent Garden, in 1821. The work is the usual jumble of words from the plays, poems, and sonnets, set to music for the most part by Bishop. There is an overture which is really a string of tunes, mostly in C major, not labelled by the composer, and which do not occur later in the opera. It is a very bad example of a very bad class of so-called overture. The first song is a setting of the fifth to the twelfth lines of the Sonnet No. 64, sung by a character called Philippe, who does not appear in Shakespeare's play. It was performed by a Master Longhurst, a boy of some importance in his time, as he is mentioned by name in several books of reference regarding this song. The song in question is not worth very much, but is a good example of how a perfect sonnet may be transformed into a very indifferent song. This is followed by a duet for Philippe and Julia, with words from Shakespeare's 92nd Sonnet, but the first line is unhappily changed from "But do thy worst to steal thyself away," into "Save, though you strive to steal yourself away." The improvement is obvious! and the musical setting quite in keeping with the improvement in the text; only a few lines of the poem are sung, but oh! how often repeated!

Sylvia has a great show in the next number. It is an extraordinary perversion of the Sonnet No. 109, "Oh, never say that I was false of heart," a poem that any {159} decent-minded pirate or burglar would have left alone. Still, Sir Henry rushes in with what is officially described as a bravura song. Certainly only lines 1-4 and 13-14 are set to music, but how the few words are contorted! In the coda Sylvia sings on the word "all," fourteen bars first and then fifteen!

A society for the protection of sonnets should certainly be formed. The ever-useful Passionate Pilgrim is used for a mixture of Dr Arne and Bishop as an unaccompanied quartet, "Good night, good rest," and we will leave it at that; but the following number cannot be lightly treated. It is difficult to forgive a composer who seizes on the perfect sonnet in the world and writes a "Solo Brilliante" on the first four lines. These are certainly correctly printed, save that the word "curse" (Shakespeare) is transformed into "moan" (Bishop), and lines 9-12, with endless repetitions, are dragged in for the second half. This solo ends with a long cadenza for voice and flute, the voice only using the first half of the word "heaven"; there are just thirty bars on the syllable "hea-"! The four-part round, "To see his face," words from Venus and Adonis (only the first four lines of stanza 183 are set), is an ingenious and entertaining piece of work, and should be most effective. For some strange reason, "Who is Sylvia?" is set as a quintet, with Julia on the top line. The first half of the melody is by Bishop, but the second half is believed to be by Rousseau; anyhow, no one would quarrel now as to how to apportion the requisite blame; the "dishonours" appear to be equally divided, except that Rousseau, being a Swiss, could not be expected to show so tender a regard for Shakespeare as Shakespeare's own fellow-countryman Bishop did. The cavatina sung by Julia is to the first eight lines of the 73rd Sonnet; and the male chorus, "Now the hungry lion roars," is, of course, from one of Puck's speeches in A Midsummer Night's Dream, but is sadly cut and altered.

The duet, "On a Day," words from Love's Labour's Lost, and also The Passionate Pilgrim, is another "I know a {160} bank"-like thing, and quite as uninteresting. Julia's next song, "Should he upbraid," is familiar to all, and the words are founded on a speech of Baptista in The Taming of the Shrew. The finale is a duet by Sylvia and Julia, assisted by the full chorus: its title is "How like a winter," and the words are partly adapted, very freely, from the first four lines of the 97th Sonnet, and from the masque in As You Like It.

A stranger jumble of words could hardly be conceived; yet this opera was quite successful, and no one seemed to think any the worse of Bishop, who was mainly responsible for its monstrosities.

Dr Arne's version of "Who is Sylvia?" is really a very charming song, very melodious, very vocal, and full of delicate grace-notes. The last verse is set as a trio, but can be sung as a solo without spoiling the composer's intentions; in fact, he says it may be done without additional voices.

Macfarren's part-song is very good—I mean Sir George's, not Walter's. Both have set the words. But the best setting of "Who is Sylvia?" must for ever remain Schubert's—one of the perfect songs of the world.

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