Classical Break: Shakespeare
This is a repeat from 2010!
Hullo, this is Classical Break, and I’m Mike Burrows.
Today on Classical Break we shall be hearing works inspired by the plays of Shakespeare, and we start with the concert overture Julius Caesar by the German composer, Robert Schumann. This year, in fact a few days ago, was the bicentenary of Schumann’s birth in Saxony on June the 8th, 1810. He died at the Endenich Hospital outside Bonn on July the 29th, 1856. Julius Caesar was written in 1851 and is intended to evoke the splendour of Caesar’s career and the vain masterfulness of his nature, as portrayed by Shakespeare, rather than actual scenes from the play. The fact of Caesar’s assassination is turned around by a coda in the major. Some have said that this piece could be about any tragic hero; how does it evoke Caesar or Ancient Rome, Circa 44BC?!
Track One: Julius Caesar (Robert Schumann)
Perhaps he should have called it A Hero’s Life, and thus confounded our more literal-minded critics! This is a very German Caesar - a Rhineland Caesar. Though never of the extreme Nationalist tendency, Schumann was very conscious of his Germanness and desired to make German music. For the rest, as in all his character studies, he identified with the figure portrayed. Here, in its monumental but unWagner-like scoring - some tricky parts for valved brass instruments and violins, a warm, glowing woodwind palette softening their effects - a strong bass and stubborn dotted rhythms - Schumann created a kaleidoscopic work of nobility and real determination - well worthy of Shakespeare, or Caesar!
Julius Caesar has been described as magnificently aggressive! Schumann was forty-one when he wrote it, starting out on a new career as Kapellmeister at Dusseldorf. His first year in his position - from 1850-1 was successful; this piece was written with his work with the orchestra in mind. In music, he could feel with a conqueror: in life...it was not to be.
When a patient at Endenich, the Overture may have been the last music that he played with another - the young Brahms visited and they performed it together in its piano-duet-arrangement. Poignantly, Brahms remarked later that Schumann confessed to being out of practice.
This is Classical Break and Somer Valley Radio, and I’m Mike Burrows. We’re hearing music inspired by the plays of Shakespeare.
For our second piece I have chosen music by the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius, born in 1865, who again came to Shakespeare surprizingly late in his career, most substantially when he was asked to write incidental music for a prestigious Copenhagen production of The Tempest. Overall, this music seems to me quite possibly the greatest expression in music of Shakespeare’s magic and romance. As the entire score lasts just under an hour, it was extremely difficult to choose a number from it; many of them last under two minutes, some only a matter of a few seconds, but all are miracles of economical expression and character. Others have written striking music to The Tempest, composers as diverse in time and style as Purcell, Tchaikovsky and Frank Martin, but to me, Sibelius simply comes closest to realising the Shakespearian interplay between the magic of elementals and the warmth of human love and anger. My excerpt comes from Scene Two Act Two, The Oak Tree: the Spirit of the Air contemplates the punishment of being imprisoned in an oak tree as threatened by his master, Prospero the magician. Sibelius wrote extensively for symbolist plays by Finnish, Swedish and French dramatists and writes here in a similar, infinitely subtle, terse and uncanny strain.
Track Two: The Oak Tree (Sibelius)
My next piece is the song from As you like it: It was a lover and his lass, and this was the work of Thomas Morley, whose dates are 1557-1602. He was the organist at St Paul’s Cathedral and a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal. He and Shakespeare were neighbours for a time and his would have been the tune used in contemporary performances of the play.
Track Three: It was a lover and his lass (Morley)
Now we move on to the music of Sir Edward Elgar, who lived from 1857-1934 and was born and died in Worcestershire. Falstaff, A Symphonic Study, dates from 1913. This tone poem portrays the famous character from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V as opposed to the Falstaff of the Merry Wives of Windsor. A complexly comic figure, this man, a Knight, has lived out the end of his life in the stews of London trying to maintain a riotous pace in the company of the young Prince Hal and his more fashionable companion, Poins, and the common folk of the tavern, figures such as Mistress Quickly, Bardolph, Nym and Pistol.
Like Shakespeare’s prose, Elgar makes the most of his larger-than-life personality. Latter Spring, All-hallown Summer. We shall hear the death-bed scene at the very end of a highly eventful score.
The old King has died; his son, whom Falstaff thought his friend is now Henry the Fifth, and has banished Falstaff and his Eastcheapers, commanding them sharply never again to come near his person on pain of death. We are with the old Knight - perhaps we are he - in his last, slowly lapsing moments when, stricken by flux, ‘he babbles o’ green fields’, drifting in and out of consciousness, the thematic material not merely pathetically descriptive of his state but recalling former times. The violin-slide at the start is like a bed-curtain lifted. We hear him stirring, his deep, unsteady voice rising out of the murk he feels about him. A soft music seems like echoes of the orchard or childhood. Mistress Quickly is recognised dimly, he hears her, not so shrilly as during the rest of the tone-poem... Softly, very fondly, there is a full statement of the Prince’s theme, the strings leading it. All seems to drift away. Falstaff tries to respond, but sinks deeper. At last, listen for the clarinet - beautifully despairing and swooning, a brass C-major cadence - and a leap, brazen and with side-drum - the old man starts up for the King, all Hal’s humanity has been purged away, his title, perhaps, is a last cry - before a still more abrupt, pianissimo, pizzicato chord tells us that he falls back, dead. A terrible war was about to change Elgar and the world forever.
Track Four: Falstaff (Elgar)
And now, we're going to hear Watchman’s Song by Edvard Grieg, who was born in Bergen in Norway in 1843 and died in hospital in Oslo in 1907. Watchman’s Song comes from the first book of Lyric Pieces for piano. He wrote ten books of these genre pieces. They were extremely popular in the Nineteenth Century and more than once, Grieg bewailed the popularity of his simple music for amateur performance, on one occasion, writing that itwasn’t his fault that his music was played in third-rate restaurants and by schoolgirls. It was his misfortune, no-one else’s, it has to be said. Every time he mailed the later books, his publishers, on receipt, raised a flag on top of their buildings! This music was written in Copenhagen, not long after he had left the Leipzig Conservatoire. It owes much to the character pieces of Schumann. The watchman is the porter in Macbeth. The central section, comprised chiefly of little scale figures perhaps suggests the man’s superstition and...things that go bump in the night. For such a short piece, Watchman’s Song is very effective and memorable.
Track Five: Watchman’s Song (Grieg)
That was Watchman’s Song. At the age of three I listened as my mum played it. Either you grow up with music like this or it grows up with you. Grieg loved his country’s folk-tunes but was also one of the most exciting harmonists in Nineteenth Century music. Throughout his career showed that it was possible to use harmony to create a size in music alike to Wagner on a miniature scale. It may be because of this and because he was extraordinarily gifted at paring back his style that he remains one of the more consistently fresh voices in music.
Our next piece is an overture to The Taming of the Shrew by the Liverpool composer, Alfred Reynolds, who was born in 1884, and died as recently as 1969. This work is about as far as you can imagine from Kiss Me Kate and belongs to what is known as the British Light Music tradition - which in practice often used to mean warmed-over Sullivan. This is much much better than that! It is a lively, brightly-scored piece and has a poignant humour about it that makes me wish it were much better known. It was composed for a 1927 production at the Lyric Theatre. Reynolds worked chiefly as a conductor and composer for the theatres of London.
Track Six: Overture, The Taming of the Shrew (Reynolds)
Gerald Finzi was born in 1901 and died in 1956. He was a musician quite different from Reynolds. One of the more self-critical and anxious of composers, he wrote in the traditions of the folksong/pastoral school of British music. Like all the best of such composers he was not over-indebted to existing melodies. Like many driven artists, he had other interests to fall back on. Besides building a wonderful library of contemporary poetry - he was a superb song-writer - he planted an orchard of rare strains of British apple in the garden of his farmhouse at Ashmansworth in Berkshire. He refused to make his living from professional music-making or, for most of his career, from teaching. He did not solicit commissions, either, believing that inspired music was the only music worth writing. Inspiration was fitful and it was only towards the end of his life that he produced works on a large scale. Here is a song from the cycle Let Us Garlands Bring, which was written between 1929 and 1942, the year in which he wrote O Mistress Mine, from Twelth Night.
Track Seven: O Mistress Mine (Finzi)
Back to Sibelius: a setting of Come Away, Death (from Cymbeline) in Swedish translation. It is one of two settings of songs from Shakespeare, the other being When that I was and a little tiny boy. Sibelius wrote these two songs at the age of forty-four and living with the threat of throat cancer. On this recording the soloist is the great and versatile soprano, Kirsten Flagstad. Her performances of Sibelius songs with orchestral accompaniment date from near the close of her long career. The music looks forward to the mysteriousness, rich technique and emotional appeal of the music for The Tempest.
We return to The Tempest for a part-song by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), whose gift for ‘magic’ ranks with that of Sibelius. Of the Three Shakespeare Songs we are going to hear Full Fathom Five. This was written to a commission associated with the Festival of Britain in 1951. Vaughan Williams - it was always Vaughan Williams, not Williams - refused the commission, then changed his mind. He sent them these songs with the words “Here are the three Shakespeare settings, do what you like with them.” This wasn’t the spleen of a famous composer put on the spot but his habitual attitude of modesty towards his own productions. You may remember that he said of his devastating Fourth Symphony that he wasn’t sure he liked it, but it was what he had meant at the time!
Track Eight: Full Fathom Five (Vaughan Williams)
Vaughan Williams wrote a piece for brass band descriptive of the Battle of Agincourt. In it he employed two of the tunes that were used also by Sir William Walton in his soundtrack for Sir Laurence Olivier’s film of Henry V. This music, written in the middle of a war whose outcome was becoming more certain and on which far more depended than it had on Henry V and his band of brothers, is one of the finest achievements in not only patriotic British music but also art-music as a whole. I choose to end this programme, then, with two pieces from the later stages of the film, the Battle of Agincourt and the Agincourt Song. The means of describing battle are little different from those of say, Prokofiev’s portrayal of Alexander Nevsky’s defeat of the Teutonic knights in the Battle on the Ice (also written for a film), but the music remains terse.
Track Nine: The Battle of Agincourt (Walton)
The Agincourt Song rises in full glory of choir, brass and strings in-filling. It is grandeur on the greatest scale, though within short duration. It has much to do with who we might be and nothing to do with football!
You have been listening to Classical Break from Somer Valley Radio, and this is Mike Burrows. Hope to have your company again, soon.
Track Ten: The Agincourt Song (Walton)
© Mike Burrows 2010