5&1, Part 22: Over Hill, Over Dale (Shakespeare’s Comedies)

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So we come to our third foray into the Bard’s musical legacy, taking the categories used in the First Folio of his plays published just a few years after his death (1623).

Now, many come away disappointed from their initial experience of Shakespeare’s Comedies for one simple reason. Quite frankly, they’re not that funny. Not in a Saturday Night Live or Monty Python sense, let alone the sophisticated brilliance of Tom Stoppard’s plays. But that, of course, is to make a category mistake. To describe these plays as ‘comedies’ is to take a cue from the ancient Greeks, with the difference between comedy and tragedy being primarily one of trajectory. The former end well while the latter end badly for the protagonist(s). This is not to say that Shakespeare is unfunny; there are some wonderful moments of laugh-out-loud humour and they’re not restricted to the Comedies. The tensions resulting from Macbeth’s regicide, for example, are superbly released immediately by the drunk doorkeeper. Shakespeare is always breaking dramatic boundaries and so even some of the plays in today’s list defy strict categorisation.

So long as expectations are reordered, there is so much to love and relish in these plays. No wonder composers have been creatively inspired by them.

1. A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act 1: #1-#3 (Op. 60, 1960)

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976, English)
Alfred Deller (countertenor), Elizabeth Harwood (soprano), Choir of Downside School etc, Benjamin Britten (conductor), London Symphony Orchestra

Fitting to start here having enjoyed Midsummer in the northern hemisphere just last week. A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a weird play, full of relationships gone awry and gender politics, set around various weddings in the Dukedom of Athens (ruled by Duke Theseus who is about to marry his fiancée Hippolyta). It’s a world that seems curiously like Tudor England (funny that). But with fairies. Not necessarily the kinds of fairies you might expect, mind you, because they’re ruled by King Oberon, aided and abetted by his impish sidekick Puck. He’s got his own domestic difficulties with Queen Titania, so for all the chaos he and Puck bring to the human world, he rather has his own house to set in order.

Britten was one of the 20th century masters of opera (we have already heard a couple of excerpts from his Peter Grimes). His setting of Shakespeare’s play seeks to convey the alienness and threats of fairy meddling in the affairs of men. We can hear that in the eerie slides in the orchestra’s introduction and especially in his decision to make Oberon the central character and sung by a countertenor (an adult man who sings falsetto). Countertenors were common in Handel’s time and were regularly used in choral music, but they had largely fallen out of fashion. Britten’s opera was instrumental in resurrecting interest in opera in the 1960s. This recording, conducted by Britten himself, features the great Alfred Deller as Oberon. It was for him that the part was specifically written and he sings it with a strange majesty, here giving orders to Puck and the other sprites.

2. Up and Down, Up and Down (from Such Sweet Thunder, 1957)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

—Duke Ellington (1899-1974, American)
Duke Ellington & His Orchestra

Puck is the character in the Duke’s mind in this track. We heard Hank Cinq in the History Plays list. The mood here feels quite similar, putting one in mind of the confident Sprite-about-town. Puck is up to his old tricks but he’s invulnerable, safe in the knowledge that he’s doing his king’s bidding. After all, who can possibly take on a fairy monarch and win? Though, to be strictly accurate, Titania is no pushover and is certainly a heady match for her husband.

Ellington is not particularly concerned for the eeriness of the fairy realm here, but he’s certainly out to catch the swagger. Puck might be other-worldly but he’s also mischievous and that is here in dollops.

3. Serenade to Music (1938)

The Merchant of Venice

Ralph Vaughan-Williams (1872-1958, English)
Carla Huhtanen (soprano), Emily D’angelo (mezzo), Lawrence Wiliford (tenor), Tyler Duncan (baritone), Peter Oundjian (conductor), Elmer Iseler Singers, Toronto Symphony Orchestra

A different play now, and one that isn’t an obvious candidate for comedy, even by Greek standards (but this is how it was placed in the First Folio). I don’t really know it at all, having never read it through nor seen it performed. I just know the odd purple passage. But it’s included here because of this piece of choral brilliance.

I suspect it’s not quite to everybody’s taste. Vaughan-Williams is laying it on thick: the musical equivalent of triple layers of double cream, meringue and large drifts of icing sugar. But I am unashamed. I just love it. It is a serenade to music after all. These are the opening words:

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

—”Serenade to Music,” Ralph Vaughan-Williams

Vaughan-Williams took various lines from Act V of the play, setting them to music for full orchestra with sixteen (yes, 16!!) solo singers. It was written as a tribute to Sir Henry Wood, on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of his first Promenade concert (which continue to this day in the Royal Albert Hall as the BBC Proms, the world’s largest music festival). Composer and conductor together chose the soloists from the cream of 1930s British music to perform the premiere. However, since assembling such a group is no small challenge, RV-W made another arrangement for four soloists, which is the version here.

4. Prospero’s Magic (1991, for Peter Greenaway’s film Prospero’s Books)

The Tempest

Michael Nyman (1944- , English)
Michael Nyman Band

Michael Nyman is much more than a film composer and yet, to many, he’s best known for the soundtracks to Jane Campion’s Oscar-winning The Piano, and many of Peter Greenaway’s visually arresting and stunning but, frankly, pretty disturbing films. But you can admire Nyman’s music without having to love the films (and naturally, vice-versa). Prospero’s Books is Greenaway’s version of The Tempest, another of the First Folio’s comedies (although it is far too complex for that). It’s a deeply fascinating play and one of my favourites. I’ll never forget an amazing RSC (Royal Shakespeare Company) production in the 90s with the much-missed Ian ‘Bilbo’ Holm as Prospero and a surprising Simon Russell-Beale as Ariel.

Greenaway cast the aging John Gielgud as Prospero (who had a lifelong ambition to film the play) and it was to be his final cinematic appearance. It was also to prove Nyman’s last collaboration with the director and he drew on several cues written for previous films. His style is minimalist (akin to the Philip Glass and John Adams tracks from previous 5&1s) but there is a grandeur to this piece. He creates a neo-Baroque soundworld, which seems vaguely fitting. But it is unsettling too, as befits a narrative about an inscrutable magus with magical powers.

5. The Tempest Overture (Op. 109)

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957, Finnish)
Jukka-Pekka Saraste (conductor), Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra

Sibelius is the composer par excellence to capture vast, frigid landscapes and the terrors of wild weather. This is on brilliant display in the overture to his incidental music for a 1926 production in Copenhagen. It would prove to be one of his very last compositions despite living for another three decades (dying in 1957 at 92).

The storms that led to the shipwrecks on Prospero’s island are vivid and thus prove the perfect way to open the play. The unpredictability of the winds and waves are hard to miss.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Op. 21, 1826; Op. 61, 1842)

—Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy(1809-1847, German)
Judi Dench (narrator), Kathleen Battle (soprano), Frederica von Stade (mezzo), Seiji Ozawa (conductor), Tanglewood Festival Chorus, Boston Symphony Orchestra

We come full-circle to the most famous setting of Midsummer, by a composer whose first 5&1 nod this is. That is a little awkward since Mendelssohn was prodigious and brilliant (as was his sister Fanny, an accomplished composer and performer in her own right). It is quite possible that without him, the modern obsession with J. S. Bach would never have come about, since it was his performances of a ‘rediscovered’ St. Matthew Passion and other masterpieces that rescued Bach from cruel obscurity.

Be that as it may, Mendelssohn originally wrote an overture inspired by Shakespeare’s play aged only 17, although it was not intended for a specific production. It was an instant hit and contributed to his growing international fame. Sixteen years later he returned to the play on a special commission from King Frederick William IV of Prussia to write incidental music to accompany a production of the play.

If Britten captures the sinister chills of the fairy world, and Duke Ellington conveys its mischievous swagger, then Mendelssohn’s fairies are impish but fun. But of course, the play is about so much more than fairies, which is why the incidental music captures so many other moods and narrative developments.

Several numbers have become popular as standalone pieces, including the Wedding March (which has now become almost too clichéd, although that’s hardly Mendelssohn’s fault). So, it is interesting to hear a recording of the whole work with every section in its right context. This performance is precisely that, complete with readings by the incomparable Shakespearean Judi Dench. This is music of unalloyed vivacity and joie-de-vivre; you won’t hear much darkness in Mendelssohn unlike with his Romantic era contemporaries. That is one reason for some unfairly dismissing his music as light and lightweight; either that or it is plain old anti-Semitism that lies behind it. No, we all need injections of joy, perhaps now more than ever, for which Mendelssohn is an ever-reliable envoy.

Click here to listen on Spotify and here to listen on Apple Music.


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