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Shakespeare: The Tragedies “Music oft hath such a charm” [5&1 Classical Playlist #14]

Music oft hath such a charm To make bad good, and good provoke to harm. — Measure for Measure, Act 4, Scene 1

Music was crucial to Shakespeare’s plays throughout his career—not just to keep the groundlings (the standing-room-only ticket-holders) amused, but also to propel plots, capture moods, or heighten intensity. He understood, as Duke Vincent observes in this line from Measure for Measure, that music has extraordinary, even dangerous, power to affect us. Few modern productions would consider doing without some sort of musical accompaniment.

So perhaps it is no surprise, then, that the Bard has inspired composers and musicians ever since. The surprise is how universal that has been: this very brief list features only one English composer. The rest are Italian, Czech, German, French, and Russian.

The convention is to split his output into three main categories (although there is inevitably some overlap): Tragedies, Comedies and Histories. So, since there is just so much, let’s restrict this list to merely homing in on the first. It will then become clear that music might equally be the food of cathartic tears, despairing cries, and vented spleens.


“Fuggi regal fantasima” Act 3, Sc 2 (Macbeth, 1847)

“Patria Oppressa!” Act 4, Sc 1

  • Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901, Italian)

  • Sherill Milnes (Macbeth), Ambrosian Opera Chorus, New Philharmonia Orchestra, Riccardo Muti (cond.)

The “Scottish Play” has it all: Witches and Ghosts! Hallucinations and Night Terrors! Treason and Regicide! Justice and Revenge! It was the perfect gift to that great Maestro of Italian opera, Giuseppe Verdi. Macbeth would be the first of several Shakespearean plays he converted into operas and the result is a rather glorious (if perhaps unlikely) convergence of the wintry and rugged landscape of mediaeval Scotland with fiery Mediterranean temperaments. Even though it is not the most famous of Verdi’s operas, it was my first, helped by the fact that I had studied the play at school. It does help to have some idea of what’s going on, especially when everyone sings in a foreign language!

We drop in with Act 3, with Macbeth on the throne but now terrified by the ghosts of Banquo and his successors, the eight future kings of Scotland. “Away, royal phantom! You remind me of Banquo…” he sings. We feel his shudders, even before the witches chime in with their gloating.

Then fast forward to early in Act 4, with Scottish refugees singing of their plight as they gather near the English border. “Oppressed land of ours! You cannot have the sweet name of mother now that you have become a tomb for your sons…” We weep with them, rather as audiences did five years before in the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves in Verdi’s opera about Nebuchadnezzar and the Exile, Nabucco.


Full Fathom Five; The Cloud-Capp’d Towers (from Three Shakespeare Songs)

  • Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958, English)

  • National Youth Choir of Great Britain, Ben Parry (cond.)

The Tempest is one of those late plays that doesn’t quite fit with the trio of categories mentioned above. But it certainly has its tragic elements, as these two settings for unaccompanied choir by Vaughan-Williams demonstrate. They were written in 1951 for The Festival of Britain, an event designed to lift the country’s spirits after the horrors of World War II (much of London was still in ruins and most food rationing would continue until 1954). The lines are spoken by two of Shakespeare’s eeriest characters, Ariel and Prospero, respectively.

Full Fathom Five is addressed by Ariel to Ferdinand about his father Alonso, presumed shipwrecked and drowned. Vaughan-Williams’s setting is mysterious, other-worldly, as if evoking through voices the murky, bluey-green depths far below the ocean’s surface. Deep down, a bell tolls for Alonso, perhaps from some long-past submerged church (like that of Dunwich not far from where I grew up—its drowned bells, according to legend, can still be heard…).

Prospero’s announcement of the end of the play within the play is performed to celebrate his daughter Miranda’s wedding to Ferdinand. Note the word ‘globe:’ the theatre company has evoked the whole world through their art; but they have done so within The Globe Theatre where this was first performed. As with any performance, once the revels end, these conjured realities evaporate into nothingness. The stage has gone dark.

Our revels now are ended. These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits and Are melted into air, into thin air; And like the baseless fabric of this vision, The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve, And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep. —Act 4, Scene 1


Othello overture (Op. 93, 1892)

  • Antonín Dvořák (1841-1904, Czech)

  • Berlin Philharmonic, Claudio Abbado (cond.)

Dvořák was a versatile composer, just a few years younger than Johannes Brahms. But the older man helped to give his junior some helpful nudges at the start and the two became firm friends. Their music shares many affinities despite each having a unique genius. By the time Dvořák wrote this overture, he was fully established and had, in fact, been invited to the United States to become the second director of the recently established National Conservatory of Music in New York. This is a standalone orchestral work inspired by the tragedy of The Moor of Venice, so is naturally full of high drama and pathos and culminates in an arresting but grand finale. The only disappointment is that the curtains do not then part to launch a whole opera! But fear not. The Italians had already got there, twice as it happens: Rossini’s Otello in 1816 and then Verdi’s masterpiece just five years before Dvořák’s overture.

If you are familiar with it, you will certainly hear some similarities with his glorious 9th Symphony “From the New World” (Op. 95)—more about which at a later date—written at roughly the same time as this, together with his Cello Concerto.


5 Ophelia lieder (W. 22, 1873)

  • Johannes Brahms (1833-1897, German)

  • Jessye Norman (soprano), Daniel Barenboim (piano)

  1. Wie erkenn’ ich dein Treublieb? (How should I know your true love?)

  2. Sein Leichenhemd weiss wie Schnee. (White his shroud as the mountain snow.)

  3. Auf morgen ist Sankt Valentins Tag. (Tomorrow is St Valentine’s Day.)

  4. Sie trugen ihn auf der Bahre bloss. (They bore him bare-faced on the bier)

  5. Und kommt er nicht mehr zurück? (And will he not come again?)

Poor Ophelia. Dad (Polonius) was a bit of a dolt; brother (Laertes) has skedaddled off to France just when he’s needed most; while love interest (Hamlet) seems completely off his trolley. She didn’t really have a chance. So, when it happens, Ophelia’s decline is rapid, witnessed by Queen Gertrude (Hamlet’s mother) and her new husband and ex-brother-in-law, King Claudius (Act IV Sc 5). Shakespeare’s device for portraying her disintegration is a sequence of miniature songs and these form the basis of Brahms’ exquisite, filigree-light collection. He composed them for an 1873 production of Hamlet in Prague, but they would only get published thirty years later, after his death.

Blink and you’ll miss them because together they only last six minutes. Brahms composes them as very simple, concise folk songs, but they are as stunning as they are agonised. For example, in the fourth, the constantly falling lines, suddenly interrupted by the terse ending, are heart-breaking. As we heard last week, here again is the great Jessye Norman.


Fanfare-Ouverture and Le Sommeil de Lear, incidental music from Le Roi Lear (L.116, 1904)

  • Claude Debussy (1862-1918, French)

  • City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sir Simon Rattle (cond.)

Debussy is not a composer most readily identified with Shakespeare, not least because he seemed the epitome of Gallic sophistication. But he did find momentary inspiration from the plays and planned to write a sequence of incidental pieces to accompany a production of King Lear. In the end, he never finished, completing only two movements and leaving the rest to be filled out and orchestrated by a student. The Fanfare Overture feels a little derivative but the second piece, Lear’s Dream is mysterious and beguiling; it’s vintage Debussy, in other words. It wonderfully transports us to that netherworld between dreamless sleep and consciousness.


Highlights from Romeo & Juliet Suites 1 & 2 (Op. 64, 1938)

  • Sergei Sergeyevich Prokofiev (1891-1953, Soviet/Russian)

  • Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Riccardo Muti (cond.)

Prokofiev wrote a complete ballet based on the Shakespeare play in 1935, but the early years of its existence were fraught. Politics and rivalries, as well as deep-seated fears within the artistic community under Stalin’s regime, meant that it took some time before it could be performed in the USSR. Sections were heard in Moscow and New York; even stranger is that rejected Shakespeare’s original in favour of a happy ending! The whole would not be premiered until 1938, in Brno in Czechoslovakia. Prokofiev fully revised it further after this, so that the Soviet première in the form that it is best known today took place in 1940 in Leningrad.

Some of the big themes are familiar no doubt, even though not everyone is able to identify their origins. It is scored for an orchestra on a grand scale and even if not a ballet fan, it is worth tracking the events of the drama along with each section. It is every bit as rollercoasterish as the original play.

The selection of highlights on this recording goes as follows (reordered for a live performance to make more musical sense than it does narrative sense!).

13. Dance of the Knights (Montagues and Capulets) 10. Juliet as a young girl 16. Madrigal 11. Arrival of Guests 12. Masks 38. Romeo and Juliet 35. Romeo decides to avenge Mercutio’s death 28. Romeo at Friar Laurence’s 39. Romeo and Juliet Before Parting 50. Romeo and Juliet’s Grave


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