Cleopatra’s needled?

Well, I think I might be if I knew that the three obelisks generally referred to as Cleopatra’s Needles, sited in London, Paris and New York, had nothing to do with me, perhaps the most famous queen of all time. Constructed a thousand years before Cleopatra’s lifetime, they at least stand as a popular memento to the Egyptian queen who certainly earned her place in history.

Shakespeare, of course, gave Cleopatra significant life support with his tragedy Antony and Cleopatra, written in 1606-07. And impressions of her supposed likeness can be readily found in the work of artists from the Renaissance onwards. So, how have classical composers contributed to this consolidation of her royal persona?

I’m going to start with the end of the story, the deaths of the protagonists by their own hands, and some sumptuous music by Samuel Barber. He wrote his opera Antony and Cleopatra in 1966. It was a disappointing failure, but two choruses that mark the suicidal events have survived. Anthony is the first to die in Act III, and Barber sets the following text in expression of Cleopatra’s grief:

Noblest of men, woo’t die?
Hast thou no care of me?
O see, my women,
The crown o’ the earth doth melt. My lord!
O withered is the garland of the war:
The soldier’s pole is fallen: young boys and girls
Are level now with men.

The odds is gone:
And there is nothing left remarkable
Beneath the visiting moon.

I dream’t there was an Emperor Antony.
O such another sleep, that I might see
But such another man!

His legs bestrid the ocean; his rear’d arm crested the world.
His delights were dolphin like, they showed his back
Above the element they lived in.

Think you there was, or might be, such a man
As this I dreamed of?

Gentle madam, no!

You lie, up to the hearing of the gods.
But if there be, or ever were one such,
It’s past the size of dreaming.

On the death of Anthony (8.559053)


Last month, this blog provided an introduction to the music of the French composer Florent Schmitt. We touch base with him again now through the incidental music he wrote for a production of Shakespeare’s play, initially performed as ballet scenes between the acts of a new production at the Paris Opéra in 1920. Schmitt subsequently assembled the scenes into two 3-movement orchestral suites. The second of these opens with a nocturne, Nuit au Palais de la Reine (Night in the Palace of the Queen), followed by Orgie et Danses (Orgy and Dances), portraying a night of sensual revelry. Any allusions to Stravinsky and Ravel the ear might experience in the festivities are incidental to Schmitt’s brilliant and distinctive scoring.

Orgie et Danses (8.573521)


Handel wrote his opera Giulio Cesare in Egitto in 1724. Caesar, of course, was integral to Cleopatra’s being declared Queen of Egypt and in Act I of Handel’s work he reviews his situation vis-à-vis Ptolemy, Cleopatra’s brother and co-ruler of Egypt (who’s dispatched later in the opera) of whom he is most distrustful:

Va tacito e nascosto,
quand’avido è di preda,
l’astuto cacciator.

E chi è mal far disposto,
non brama che si veda
l’inganno del suo cor.

(Translation: The wise hunter seeking prey goes silently and stealthily. And he who intends evil will not wish to show the deceit in his heart.)

The aria was originally intended for the character of Berenice, Cleopatra’s cousin, as she encouraged the queen to stalk Caesar and entrap his affections. Berenice was subsequently cut from Handel’s line-up, but not from this blog, so more of her later.

Va tacito e nascosto (C10213)


Hector Berlioz had five attempts to win the coveted Prix de Rome for composition. On the fifth attempt, in 1830, he succeeded. Ironically the score of that winning entry, La mort de Sardanaple, hasn’t survived. His fourth, failed attempt the previous year required him to set to music a scene describing the death of Cleopatra, the text supplied by the French poet and playwright Pierre-Ange Vieillard de Boismartin. Inspired by the subject matter, Berlioz gave full rein to his imagination, but his effective harmonies proved too much for the panel of judges, and certainly for the opera composer Boïeldieu who afterwards advised him to write something more soothing, a suggestion that Berlioz found ridiculous in the circumstances in which Cleopatra found herself. Here are the final four minutes of Berlioz’s twenty-minute cantata.

La mort de Cléopâtre (8.555810)


To play us out today, we return to Cleopatra’s cousin Berenice, who is betrothed to Amoun at the start of Arensky’s ballet Egyptian Nights. Inconveniently, Amoun falls instantly in love with the queen on first seeing her. Distraught, he fires an arrow at the tree under which Cleopatra is sheltering and flees. While the soldiers of the guard are in hot pursuit, it’s revealed that the arrow carries a message: “I love you.” Quickly captured, Amoun is brought before the queen and declares that he would gladly die for one royal kiss; his wish is granted, on the understanding that he must die by poison at the first light of day.

Fortunately, the poisoned chalice arrives benignly doctored by the High Priest of the Temple. By the time Cleopatra and Antony sail away in boats bedecked with garlands of roses, witnessed by a revived and contrite Amoun, Berenice has forgiven her beloved and the curtain falls with Arensky’s optimistic strains, even though Cleopatra certainly wasn’t going to live happily ever after.

Egyptian Nights (8.225028)


Leave a Reply