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Musicking Shakespeare

Musicking Shakespeare: A Conflict of Theatres

Copyright Date: 2007
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 332
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  • Book Info
    Musicking Shakespeare
    Book Description:

    In this book, Daniel Albright, one of today's most intrepid and vividly communicative explorers of the border territory between literature and music, offers insights into how composers of genius can help us to understand Shakespeare. Musicking Shakespeare demonstrates how four composers -- Purcell, Berlioz, Verdi, and Britten -- respond to the distinctive features of Shakespeare's plays: their unwieldiness, their refusal to fit into interpretive boxes, their ranting quality, their arbitrary bursts of gorgeousness. The four composers break the normal forms of opera -- of music altogether -- in order to come to terms with the challenges that Shakespeare presents to the music dramatist. Musicking Shakespeare begins with an analysis of Shakespeare's play The Tempest/ as an imaginary Jacobean opera and as a real Restoration opera. It then discusses works that respond with wit and sophistication to Shakespeare's irony, obscurity, contortion, and heft: Berlioz's Roméo et Juliette, Verdi's Macbeth, Purcell's The Fairy Queen, and Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream. These works are problematic in the ways that Shakespeare's plays are problematic. Shakespeare's favorite dramatic device is to juxtapose two kinds of theatres within a single play, such as the formal masque and the loose Elizabethan stage. The four composers studied here respond to this aspect of Shakespeare's art by going beyond the comfort zone of the operatic medium. The music dramas they devise call opera into question. Daniel Albright is the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature at Harvard University.

    eISBN: 978-1-58046-692-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Music

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-30)

    Shakespeare did not overvalue music. It is true that he sometimes wrote about music in his loftiest, most chryselephantine manner:

    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.

    Sit, Jessica. Look how the floor of heaven

    Is thick inlaid with patens of bright gold.

    There’s not the smallest orb which thou behold’st

    But in his motion like an angel sings,

    Still quiring to the young-ey’d cherubins;

    Such harmony is in immortal souls,

    But whilst this...

  5. Part 1: Romeo and Juliet

    • Introduction to Part 1
      (pp. 33-34)

      Every opera is a transgression against itself. Music always ends by both reinforcing and contradicting the verbal text that it tries to set; for music is far more rich in interrelations, far more semantically replete than spoken drama. The thrill is always a mixture of the right thrill and the wrong thrill. The best libretti leave a great deal of room for misunderstanding why a character is moved to sing.

      Shakespeare’sRomeo and Julietlooks like the ideal play for an opera, full of all sorts of possibilities for transgression: the rebellion of love against authority, the rebellion of giddy...

    • Chapter One The Veronese Social Code
      (pp. 35-44)

      The plot concerns three families and two codes of conduct. Everyone remembers the Capulets and the Montagues, but it is important to remember that there is another family as well, the family that comprises Prince Escalus, Mercutio, and Paris (3.1.145; 5.3.75,295); we’ll see soon that the kinship of these three disparate men is significant. Similarly, everyone remembers that there is a code that governs the behavior of the elders of the play, but it is important to remember that there is another code, the code of Romeo and Juliet, which assaults the first code. The code of the young lovers...

    • Chapter Two The Code of Love
      (pp. 45-54)

      When we turn to the lovers themselves, we enter a different universe. Self-conscious civilizedness, nippy verbal precisions, continual deference or self-assertion based on hierarchies of control — the whole Veronese social code — must yield to the love code, according to which society exists only as a form of spatial extension into which the beloved can be removed and thus lost. The first account we have of the new rules by which lovers live can be found in Benvolio’s account of how Romeo has shunned all his friends in favor of solitary walks before dawn among the sycamores, and in Montague’s response:...

    • Chapter Three Love against Language
      (pp. 55-62)

      To leave the conventions of Verona and enter the conventions of love entails many sorts of confusions, reversals, and definitions. Language itself must be reinvented: instead of a language suitable for condemning or challenging, the lovers need a language suitable for kissing. Arthur Brooke made this clear in a charming couplet—perhaps the only charming couplet—inRomeus and Juliet: “A thousand times she kissed, and him unkissed again, /Ne could she speak a word to him, though would she ne’er so fain” (ll. 843–44). But Shakespeare couldn’t think of presenting on stage a wedding night that consisted of...

    • Chapter Four The Afterlife of Romeo and Juliet
      (pp. 63-68)

      Shakespeare’s theatres became bare ruined choirs in 1642, because of the English Civil War; and when the theatres reopened, in 1660, after an eighteen-year absence, Shakespeare’s plays began a long reassimilation into the cultural consciousness of England. Juliet, who died a boy in Shakespeare’s day, awoke and found herself transsexualized into a woman—for now actresses were permitted on stage, on a stage itself much changed, for the bare platform of the old theatre had been replaced by a stage with a proscenium arch and elaborate backdrops. And Shakespeare’s words also started to mutate in their Restoration afterlife, as they...

    • Chapter Five La lance branlée: French Opinions of Shakespeare
      (pp. 69-73)

      As Romeo and Juliet developed in time, changing from figments derived from lyric poetry into sentimental adolescents, they also migrated through space, returning to the Romance languages from which they came. Shakespeare had found the characters and plot in a long, edifying poem by Arthur Brooke, who in turn had inherited the story from a number of French and Italian sources; but when, in the eighteenth century, Romeo and Juliet returned to their native lands, they came speaking an English accent, at once familiar and strange.

      For the most influential Continental critic of the eighteenth century, Voltaire, Shakespeare was the...

    • Chapter Six Berlioz in the Plural
      (pp. 74-79)

      One of the striking features of Berlioz’sMémoiresis the indiscriminateness of his literary imagination. In 1827,Romeo and Julietinfused in Berlioz a dream of Italy, an ideal domain where the heaviness of the commonplace fumes away into sheer volatility of voluptuousness; and four years later Berlioz was allowed to visit Italy—in fact, he was compelled to live there against his will, for winners of the Prix de Rome, the best route to success for a young French artist, were required to live in Rome. By 1831 Italy meant, to Berlioz, not amorous adventure but the absence of...

    • Chapter Seven Roméo et Juliette: Introduction
      (pp. 80-90)

      When Berlioz came to writeRoméo et Juliette, he therefore faced a twin problem: first, to tell an exciting story; second, to untell the story, to move into a region beyond narrative and drama. He read Shakespeare’s play (in French translation, and haltingly in the original) in order to seek clues for achieving the peculiar dramatic rhythm he sought; and he may have pondered a number of operas on the Romeo and Juliet theme, by Daniel Steibelt (1793), Nicolas-Marie Dalayrac (1792), Niccolò Zingarelli (1796), Nicola Vaccai (1825), and, of course, Bellini (1830). (We know that Berlioz had heard Bellini’s opera...

    • Chapter Eight Roméo et Juliette: The Symphony
      (pp. 91-106)

      Now we begin the symphony proper, with a long movement calledRoméo seulthat, like many first movements of symphonies in the tradition of Haydn and Mozart and Beethoven, starts with a slow introduction,Andante malinconico e sostenuto. But the theme of the introduction is untraditional: an immensely long line, sparsely accompanied, not so much an intelligible melody as a pitch-contour suitable for shading and expressive shaping—a sort of naked expressivity purged of easily interpreted expressive devices, astile mollenot quite certain exactly what form of melancholy it wants to take (see ex. 5). It is difficult to...

    • Chapter Nine Roméo et Juliette: The Opera Resumes
      (pp. 107-114)

      At the end of Berlioz’s section 1, we had not yet come to the end of Shakespeare’s first act; Berlioz’s exposition of the plot corresponds to Shakespeare’s prologue sonnet, and is wholly anticipatory in character. As section 5 begins, we are already in the domain of the last act. The whole inner drama ofRomeo and Julietoccurs in the symphonic sections 2, 3, and 4—another reason for believing that the adagio corresponds not just to the balcony scene, but to every intimate scene between the lovers.

      We are in the domain of the last act—but Garrick’s last...

  6. Part 2: Macbeth

    • Chapter Ten Shakespeare’s Random
      (pp. 117-120)

      Part of the power of Shakespeare’s tragedies lies in their goofiness. Shakespeare often seems to begin with some premise straight out of an actors’ workshop, some casual improvisatory game, and then to erect some magnificent structure of rhetoric upon a foundation of sand—or no foundation at all. When I was a boy, I often attended a comedy club in Chicago called Second City, in which the actors asked the audience to call out suggestions for a skit (“Peeling an apple with a chainsaw!” “An astronaut in a spacesuit peeling an apple with a chainsaw!”). The premise ofMacbethseems...

    • Chapter Eleven Magic as Theft
      (pp. 121-122)

      Why does someone choose to follow the black arts? King James asks this very question, and answers it as follows: “Curiositie in great ingines: thrist of revenge, for some tortes deeply apprehended: or greedie appetite of geare, caused through great pouerty. As to the first of these, Curiosity, it is onelie the inticement ofMagiciens, orNecromanciers: and the other two are the allureres of the Sorcerers, orWitches.”¹ Greed and the thirst for revenge can be found in a scene of low comedy in Macbeth, when the first witch tells the story of how she asked a “rump-fed ronyon”...

    • Chapter Twelve Prophesying
      (pp. 123-125)

      King James claims that witches are driven by greed and envy, sorcerers by curiosity. The witches ofMacbethseem so knowing, so intimate with dark powers, that they have little curiosity; they seem less like crabby old women in Satan’s thrall than like avatars of Satan himself. But Macbeth is consumed by curiosity—after the witches provoke curiosity in him, by riddling him with oracles that seem to offer open predicates of identity. (Marjorie Garber has noted, quite correctly, that many of the traditional attributes of witches are “displaced onto the ‘real’ figure of Lady Macbeth”;¹ I think it is...

    • Chapter Thirteen Squinting at Consequences
      (pp. 126-128)

      As soon as Macbeth colludes with sorcery, he is troubled by the difficulty of reading the future. As a loyal thane, Macbeth could let others worry about the scatter from the future’s riddle; but in a state of disobedience, Macbeth must learn to haruspicate or scry for himself, in order to ponder the means against the ends.

      Do the ends justify the means? If a German man had killed Hitler in 1933, could he have defended his act? The assassin might argue that Hitler’s policies would lead to the extermination of Europe’s Jews, the death of millions of soldiers, and...

    • Chapter Fourteen Macbeth’s Children
      (pp. 129-132)

      Macbethis a drama obsessed with children, in a peculiarly anguished, throttled manner. Launcelot Gobbo, inThe Merchant of Venice, remarks that “it is a wise father that knows his own child” (2.2.76–77 ); and throughoutMacbeththe characters in the play, and we in the audience, are frustrated in the attempt to make sense of paternal and filial relationships. In healthy families, kinship is clear—we know that Malcolm is the son of Duncan, and that Fleance is the son of Banquo. And in a healthy state, feudal obligations are clear, in that lord and vassal are defined,...

    • Chapter Fifteen Macbeth as an Actor
      (pp. 133-136)

      Like many of Shakespeare’s unhappier characters, Macbeth is, in some respects, an incompetent actor—he perishes, in a sense, because he chooses to live his life according to a script that he’s underqualified to perform. With his reasonable, literal, dogged mind, he’s ill-equipped to live in a world ofson et lumière—he’s quickly lost in the witches’ funhouse, in the realm of ambiguity conjured by his efforts to trace tangled chains of contingencies into the future. He is richly imaginative, but incapable of dissembling what he imagines. Again and again, Shakespeare emphasizes Macbeth’s overtness, his inability to conceal himself,...

    • Chapter Sixteen Two Theatres
      (pp. 137-141)

      Much of the play can be seen as the conflict between two theatres: (1 ) the Macbeths’ theatre of concealment and aggrandizement; and (2 ) the other character’s forensic theatre, the theatre of exposure and trial. Of course, the more the Macbeths struggle to seize the management of the stage, the more strongly do secret counterpressures compel the opposite result.

      Lady Macbeth has an extraordinarily sophisticated technique for assuming control of the action: she presents herself explicitly as a scenarist and a stage director, instead of a conspirator in murder. She has an aesthetic eye, and continually tries to demote...

    • Chapter Seventeen Witches Amok
      (pp. 142-160)

      The stage history ofMacbethis a horror story in which the role of the witches keeps expanding, and frantic attempts are made to restrain their magic power. Even by the time ofMacbeth’s first publication, in the First Folio of 1623 (seven years after Shakespeare’s death), someone seems to have spliced into Shakespeare’s text a new witch, or witchmaster, Hecate (3.5 and 4.1.39–43 ). In both her scenes, Hecate is associated with music: the stage directions instruct the witches to perform songs,Come awayat the end of 3.5, andBlack spiritsat 4.1.43. The folio doesn’t...

    • Chapter Eighteen Sortileges of Speech
      (pp. 161-166)

      The bite of a vampire can turn the victim into another vampire; and similarly Verdi’s witches exert a field of force that turns others into witches—especially (as we shall see) Lady Macbeth, who has no direct contact with them. Even the witches’ oracular rhetoric is strangely contagious: the great Act I scene and duet for Macbeth and his wife occurs not long after the scene with Macbeth and the witches, and it is remarkable how much both the protagonists start to sound like witches. They start to talk to one another in epigrams.

      Just as the witches could hardly...

    • Chapter Nineteen Lady Macbeth as Witch
      (pp. 167-175)

      In some ways theGrand scena e Duettoof Act I is far more of a black sabbath than anything found in the witches’ own music. At the beginning, Verdi notes in the score that the singers must sing in a hushed and dark voice, unless instructed otherwise. Verdi wanted something that was, as far as I know, unprecedented in the domain of nineteenth-century Italian opera, a set-piece that was melodically intense—not recitative—and yet took place in some boundary region between speech and song. A letter of Verdi’s to the baritone who created the role of Macbeth, Felice...

    • Chapter Twenty Time Slips
      (pp. 176-181)

      In the third act, Verdi intended to promote the witches from the first act’s gossipy coven of hags into sublime beings. But triviality stubbornly clings to the witches: they remain mixed creatures. Verdi so strongly emphasizes the contrivance, the artificiality of their magic show that they become charlatans; as often in Verdi (and in Shakespeare), those who manufacture spectacles tend to lose authority and authenticity. Indeed, self-consciously moral or immoral behavior often feels inauthentic, as if Verdi distrusted people who act except according to primary appetite.

      The central prop of this act is the cauldron, appropriately enough, for the whole...

    • Chapter Twenty-One La Sonnambula
      (pp. 182-192)

      The center ofMacbethis theGran scena del sonnambulismo, a scena without an aria—perhaps it could be called an anti-aria, indeed an anti-mad-scene, in the way that Mary Ann Smart has spoken of Azucena’s music as an anti-mad-scene.¹ As Verdi advised the first Lady, Marianna Barbieri-Nini, on 31 January 1847:

      the sleepwalking scene . . . so far as the dramatic situation is concerned, is one of the most sublime [più alte] theatrical creations. Bear in mind that every word has a meaning, and that it is absolutely essential to express it both with the voice and with...

  7. Part 3: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

    • Chapter Twenty-Two Cosmicomedy
      (pp. 195-204)

      A Midsummer Night’s Dreamis a fairy play. But what, exactly, are fairies? According to one line of speculation, the fairies are pagan gods that have dwindled, after the triumph of Christianity, into furtive, mischievous nature-sprites; and vestiges of their ancient power cling to them. Shakespeare borrowed the name Oberon from the French romanceHuon de Bordeaux, in which Oberon is a sort of glorified lubber fiend, a helpful elf king who makes impossible tasks possible for his human friends; but the German form of the nameOberon is Alberich, the dwarf king whose black greed troubles the human race...

    • Chapter Twenty-Three The Picture of Cupid
      (pp. 205-209)

      A Midsummer Night’s Dreamis a stratified play, a lamination of planes: from bottom to top, the plane of Bottom and the mechanicals; the plane of the Athenian lovers; the plane of Theseus and Hippolyta; and the plane of Oberon and the fairies. Above the top plane there lies a single manipulating presence, a cosmic mechanism for generating randomness: not Fortuna; not her sister Fame; but Cupid. Indeed, the whole fairy plane behaves as a complicated surface for inscribing and explaining the will of Cupid, whose vagrant cupidity plays everywhere.

      Cupid was a powerful literary presence in Shakespeare’s time, especially...

    • Chapter Twenty-Four Depictorializing Cupid
      (pp. 210-213)

      First, Shakespeare limns the traditional picture of Cupid, blindfolded, winged, dimpled, with bow in hand; then Shakespeare dislimns Cupid, turns him into a sort of gleam or libido that can flash from any eye, or into some high shapelessness. In Ibsen’sPeer Gynt(1867 ), Peer runs into the Bøyg, an insubstantial, incomprehensible presence that bars his way—“neither dead nor alive . . . mist . . . and slime. Shapeless, too . . . it’s like running into a nest of sleepy bears.” As Cupid loses his normal iconography, he begins to grow runny, gluey, shadowed, more mood...

    • Chapter Twenty-Five Cupid’s Wax
      (pp. 214-220)

      Where Cupid reigns, he creates his subjects in his own image: blind, juvenile, capricious, pricking, and unable to confine themselves to a single form, a single identity. The four Athenian lovers manifest the misshaping and transfiguring power of love in many ways. On one hand they hold to a fervent claim that love is stabilizing, fixative; they are eager to make eternal vows of fidelity. On the other hand, the actual texts of their oaths seem to mock the swearer: Hermia affirms to Lysander, “I swear to thee by Cupid’s strongest bow” (1.1.169 ), but to mention Cupid seems to...

    • Chapter Twenty-Six The Tedious Brief Scene
      (pp. 221-232)

      The arithmetical chaos of the four Athenian lovers ends happily. After they explore most of the permutations possible within their little system, Fate allows them to save-to-disc the one that affords the most general satisfaction. The happy end seems deserved in that it happens after a thorough examination of the possibilities for unhappiness.

      But this local rectitude appears to be won at the expense of some larger messiness. One of the tasks of twentieth-century science was to reconcile biology with entropy: how is it possible that living things seem to violate the second law of thermodynamics by constantly increasing the...

    • Chapter Twenty-Seven Other Dreams in Other Summers: The Aesthetic of the Masque
      (pp. 233-239)

      A Midsummer Night’s Dreamwas a popular play, published in quarto in 1600 and 1619, and revived when the theatres reopened during the restoration of the monarchy. But the revival required the most strenuous manhandling and rewriting, because Shakespeare’s oddly shaped play simply could not be shoved into the sort of theatre that existed at the end of the seventeenth century.

      In the whole Elizabethan repertoire there is no other play that illustrates so well the peculiar nature of the Elizabethan stage, because there is no other play that so exuberantly takes advantage of that stage’s possibilities. Shakespeare felt at...

    • Chapter Twenty-Eight Purcell’s The Fairy Queen
      (pp. 240-256)

      When the public theatres reopened after the Restoration, they inherited the dramaturgy of the court masque, not the dramaturgy of the Globe. Some of the folks who had assisted in producing Caroline court masques in the early 1630 s were still around in the 1650s to help to devise a people’s entertainment—for example, Inigo Jones’s last chief assistant, John Webb, designed the set for Davenant’sThe Siege of Rhodes(1656 ), by some accounts the first English opera and the first occasion when female actors appeared on the English public stage. On the other hand, the texts of court...

    • Chapter Twenty-Nine Lampe’s Pyramus and Thisbe
      (pp. 257-261)

      I wonder whether the development of an English opera was thwarted because the problem was approached backwards. In Italy, opera grew organically out of the recitative, which quickened into arioso or choral dance at moments of unusual tension or relaxation; but in seventeenth-century England, composers tended to restrict music-drama to undramatical or extradramatical sorts of situations: incidental divertissements, or static depictions of splendor, as if music were simply another machine from which the gods could dangle. It was not easy to find a way of bending these stiff spectacles into a fluent, sensitive medium for drama. The early history of...

    • Chapter Thirty Experimenters: Mendelssohn and Korngold
      (pp. 262-264)

      The great paradox of the performance history ofA Midsummer Night’s Dreamis that a play written to take full advantage of an empty stage has enticed producers into spending enormous sums of money to supply the most expensive forms of magic. Lampe’sPyramus and Thisbe, a modest entertainment, is an exception; but Christopher Rich’s company spent £3,000 to produce Purcell’sThe Fairy Queen; Felix Mendelssohn wrote his famous incidental music forEin Sommernachtstraumfor a production financed by the King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm IV (1843 , partly based on his 1827 overture); and Erich Wolfgang Korngold provided about...

    • Chapter Thirty-One Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream
      (pp. 265-296)

      Korngold achieved a pseudo-opera by force-feeding a soundtrack with Mendelssohn, in the manner of a Strasbourg goose. But Korngold wasn’t the only twentieth-century composer intrigued by the possibilities for recycling the older music forA Midsummer Night’s Dream. Benjamin Britten, the foremost Purcellian of the age, devised (with Peter Pears’s help) a version ofThe Fairy Queenfor modern orchestra and voices, first performed in 1967. Whereas Korngold was diligent in relating all the music to Shakespeare’s play, Britten’s long, lean cantata dispenses with all Shakespeare, dispenses with a good deal of Purcell as well. It has four parts: the...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 297-306)
  9. Bibliography
    (pp. 307-310)
  10. Index
    (pp. 311-318)
  11. Back Matter
    (pp. 319-323)