Bard lines


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Pinpointing the dates of Shakespeare’s birth and death has always involved a margin of error, but arts communities all over the world will be using tomorrow, April 23, as a focal point of reverence for the English playwright and poet, whose passing is generally reckoned to have occurred on this date in 1616. As part of the 400th anniversary of that event, we dip into the Naxos discography to help sketch the role music played in The Bard’s output; and how much a part he himself has played in inspiring composers to pick up their own pens.

We’ll bypass the great classical scores that have sustained such characters as Romeo and Juliet, and such stories as A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They deserve and receive enough limelight without the need for another candle to be lit for them. Rather, we’ll bring a few relatively unknown characters stage front to take a quick bow. There are vocal settings of Shakespeare’s verses, and then there are instrumental portraits. We’ll start with a composer who produced both. Lots of them.

mario-castelnuovo-tedesco1Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895–1968) was an Italian composer who was forced to flee his homeland in 1938 in the wake of Mussolini’s anti-Jewish edicts; he arrived in New York the following year, the transition made easier by the friendship and help he received from two musical luminaries, the conductor Arturo Toscanini and the virtuoso violinist Jascha Heifetz. Shakespeare was a constantly fascinating figure for Castelnuovo-Tedesco, who wrote no fewer than eleven Shakespeare Overtures (8.572500, 8.572501). The first, La bisbetica domata (The Taming of the Shrew), had been written in 1930, and Toscanini honoured it with a performance just months after the composer landed in the US. Here’s the overture’s opening, which handily demonstrates Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s colourful handling of orchestral resources.

Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s fixation on Shakespeare continued with two operas, The Merchant of Venice (1956) and All’s Well That Ends Well (1957). Earlier in his career, he had set to music 33 songs from the plays (8.223729) as well as 35 sonnets. All in all, I think that constitutes a fan club! Before we move on, let’s hear his setting of Take, O take those lips away, from the play Measure to Measure.

ned-rorem1After Reading Shakespeare (8.559316) by Ned Rorem (b. 1923)  is a 9-movement suite for solo cello, written in 1981. Four of the movements are titled:

  • Lear
  • Titania and Oberon
  • Portia
  • Iago and Othello

Can you pair up each title appropriately with one of the following audio clips?:

Extract 1
Extract 2
Extract 3
Extract 4

einojuhani-rautavaara1The Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (b. 1928) in part described his Three Sonnets of Shakespeare (ODE1085-2) as follows:

“I recall that the influence of Benjamin Britten, particularly his Michelangelo Sonnets, lay behind my Three Sonnets of Shakespeare, written in 1951 when I was already a student at the Sibelius Academy but not yet a composition student…In the third sonnet, “Shall I compare”, I consciously set out to prove that it was possible to write solo songs that were not the slow and melancholy images of nature that (I felt) the previous generation of composers had always and exclusively produced.”

Here’s that last orchestral song in its entirety.

And so to the time of Shakespeare himself. Music played an important role in the Renaissance theatre and Shakespeare brought a new integration and subtlety to its use. In a theatre without lights and sets, it fell to music to underline mood, whether for magic, comedy, feasting or pathos. The Bard exercised control of this element so that his use of music wasn’t merely an occasional diversion to the action. Little direct evidence of the particulars of music used in Shakespeare’s theatres survives, but it’s very likely he had the good fortune to enjoy a particularly close collaboration with two distinguished composers of the time, Robert Johnson (c.1583–c.1633) and Thomas Morley (c.1557–1602).

robert-johnson1Johnson was indentured to the patron of Shakespeare’s company of players, so it’s almost certain that his settings of Shakespeare’s texts that have survived would have been used in early performances. Here’s an example, Where the bee sucks (8.570708) from The Tempest.

thomas-morley-book1Thomas Morley also left us a conduit to Shakespeare’s world in the song It Was a Lover and His Lass (8.570708) from As You Like It. It seems that the musician and the playwright were neighbours for a while. Morley was organist at St Paul’s Cathedral, an important music theorist, composer and publisher. That his reputation was equal to Shakespeare’s isn’t in doubt. Here’s the first stanza of It Was a Lover.

Before we sign off for this week, how did you get on with matching titles and audio clips earlier on? The answers are:

Extract 1 – Titania and Oberon
Extract 2 – Lear
Extract 3 – Iago and Othello
Extract 4 – Portia

cole-porter1We started with Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s take on The Taming of the Shrew. Let’s end with a clip from Cole Porter’s music for the revision of the play, Kiss Me Kate (8.120788), premièred in 1948. What better choice than Brush up your Shakespeare?!

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