Monday, April 25, 2016
Musical Explanation 4/25 The Music of Shakespeare
Genius, true genius, comes from a place so deep that nothing is any longer what it seems. We call many people geniuses who are 'merely' brilliant. Brilliance suggests illumination. A brilliant person can suggest possibilities we've never thought of in our lives, open our minds and hearts and souls to possibilities undreamt. Such a gift should never be dismissed and always celebrated, but genius doesn't just suggest possibilities, it brings those possibilities into reality, fully formed and totally plausible. A genius doesn't just open us up to places, but to entire worlds and universes. The root of the word 'genius' antedates Latin and even Greek, it comes from the ancient Arabic concept of the al-Jinn, familiar of course to anyone who's dabbled in the Arabian Nights (and distantly to anyone who's seen the Disney version...), it has the same linguistic root as words like Genie and Genesis. It suggests not just illumination, but the very fabric of creation itself.
The theater of Shakespeare can take us anywhere - from the realest human conditions to the most fantastical and supernal spheres. The music of Mozart can play with form with the infinite flexibility of snowflakes, and through it all he can suggest to us any emotional state - often simultaneously. Goya's paintings can suggest reality in all its forms - from the blissful to the horrible to the erotic - yet also scenes of our deepest dreams and nightmares. Genius doesn't just transport us to distant places, genius transports us everywhere.
In these infinitely complex and fertile minds, irrationality and rationality intermingle. We don't just see the rational and irrational, but the irrational within the rational and the rational within the irrational. We see with perfect clarity how irrationality can lead Othello to madness, how supernatural events make hash of a brilliant mind like Hamlet's, how a superb executive like Macb*th can be slave to metaphysical forces of fate, how the irrationalities of age cloud the mind of a tyrant like Lear, and then invade his kingdom.
In some arguable geniuses like Milton or Wagner, we can see a majestically distant view of these universes, because they can show how universal, mythical, ecstatic truth forms the world for eons hence. But neither Milton nor Wagner are truly capable of zooming in upon the individual, small human, and showing us his or her beating heart within their breathtaking cosmos with their hopes and dreams in a chaotic universe full of teemingly diverse life. But in a Shakespeare play or Mozart opera, we can take in that totality from infinitely great to infinitesimally small - and because we can see the small within their work with such clarity, the great cosmos of their work can seem infinitely greater.
Worthy of the genius label as Mozart was, he still was not the Bard. Perhaps, had Mozart lived another fifteen years, he would be as dominant in the musical canon as Shakespeare is in our literary canon. One might be able to draw parallels in the plots between Midsummer Night's Dream and the Marriage of Figaro, or between Twelfth Night and The Magic Flute, perhaps had he lived a bit longer one could find parallel operatic works to Hamlet and King Lear, but it's still more than a bit of a stretch to make these leaps.
I wonder, is there something about the abstraction of music that makes it immune to portraying the rational in any meaningful sense? A romantic art-song or piano ballad can portray a disembodied emotion, but is there anything about it that can possibly be more subjective to it than what it makes us feel? Of course, Stravinsky and his acolytes would reply that emotion itself is subjective, and that there is nothing in music but notes, symbols, and vibratory frequencies. Nevertheless, even in a purely objective way, that is incorrect. It discounts how those frequencies affect the listener. Without some scientific sense of music's affective power, the possibilities of which are by no means guaranteed to ever be learned, we can never hope to get a sense of what music objectively is.
And since there are so many impediments to understanding music in the manner we understand more representational arts like literature or pictorial art, music will have a particular edge on the other arts in the portrayal of the irrational. Music and poetry have similarities, but music, the most romantic of all artforms, has little common ground with literature, the most realistic. Musical representations of the literary are always try to find a poetic truth in the literature they set, but you cannot render the banal details of life in music because the banal has little if any place within music. The great musical adaptations of Shakespeare elevate themselves to eternal quality by finding those irrational elements within Shakespeare plays and exaggerating them. The mature tragedies seem almost music-proof. No great work of music was ever made from Hamlet or King Lear. Verdi struggled his entire career with finding an appropriate way to dramatize King Lear, and though he lived to nearly 90, he never found it.
I suppose it's arguable that Verdi's Macb*th and Otello are great Shakespeare adaptations. I certainly love them, but I doubt anyone would call them great in any manner that resembles Shakespeare. They're great Italian Opera, great Verdi, perhaps even great music and art. But what particularly makes Otello great is that Verdi circumvents the rational psychology Shakespeare establishes for Iago, and in its place portrays a character more like a nihlist out of Dostoevsky. Iago is not simply a smug mustache-twirling villain - though he's often portrayed as that by hammy baritones, and that's certainly better than no acting at all - Iago is a pure nihilist who mission in life is to serve cruelty. It is precisely the sort of evil that makes for the best possible portrayal in music - an ecstatic, seething evil that cannot be intellectually understood, but can be lived through our emotional consciousness. Perhaps the only musical work that truly does justice to Shakespeare is Verdi's Falstaff, which is arguably a much greater opera than Merry Wives of Windsor is a play. Shakespeare is far too nuanced and rational a thinker for most of his plays to come to life in music without severe alteration. And yet Verdi finds a way to make The Merry Wives of Windsor work gorgeously - it's a play in which the magical final scene takes place in an enchanted forest... except the forrest is not enchanted at all, it's a practical joke being played by hundreds upon one character. It's the perfect middle-ground melding of rational and irrational where a brilliant musician can portray a literary setting. Ralph Vaughan Williams (more on him later), also wrote a good opera based on Merry Wives called Sir John in Love. The opera itself is a solid effort by a great composer, but distinctly second-rate Vaughan Williams. What is extraordinary in Sir John in Love is his settings of folk melodies to Shakespeare's poetry: Fair and Fair and Twice so Fair, the Episode, Sigh No More, and of course, Alas My Love You Do Me Wrong, which is better known in its instrumental form as Vaughan Williams's famous setting of Greensleeves.
Some Shakespeare plays lend themselves quite well to music. There are three which are particularly obvious in this regard. Perhaps the most obvious among them is the most romantic of Shakespeare plays (in both,... or all three,... senses of the word), Romeo and Juliet. Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet is an orgy of musical sex and violence, conveying the theatrical immediacy of the play, but no sense of its subtleties. Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette is an oratorical tribute to the the story by setting the most theatrically vivid theatrical scenes in the play to music in the same manner that Bach's St. Matthew Passion pays tribute to the crucifixion through the Stations of the Cross. Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet is like a silent movie, it simply takes this most romantic of the world's stories, and lets the action play silently while he conjures the appropriate musical gesture to fit each moment.
The other two plays that seem to lend themselves particularly well are far more supernatural than simply Romantic. Very few composers could ever improve on Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream, which brings out not only the magic of Shakespeare's forrest, but also the comedy, a combination which only this most rational of romantic composers could draw out. Stretching long before Mendelssohn, the great late 17th century composer Henry Purcell wrote The Fairie Queen - the title of which obviously comes from the Edmund Spencer poem from which Shakespeare drew so much of his inspiration for this play. The opera itself is a melange of Shakespeare, Spenser, opera, ballet, restoration comedy, and low vaudevillesque antics. The music for it works because it is of that particular nature which the Baroque era brought out in spades, a rawness and viperous danger existing right beneath the refined courtly trappings - a sense of danger that is often lost in the later refinements of modern style. A second great Midsummer opera came to us in the form of Britten's operatic version of A Midsummer Night's Dream. If Mendelssohn brings out Midsummer's humane comedy, Britten brings out its perverse eroticism - a subject upon which Britten may or may not have been an expert...
But The Tempest, Shakespeare's final play of which he was sole author, was perhaps the most musical play of them all. There's ample evidence that significant parts The Tempest were intended to be sung, as though Shakespeare was pioneering Opera in London just as Monteverdi did the same in Venice. Indeed, The Tempest alone probably gave us more great music than any other Shakespeare. In his final romances, Shakespeare relinquishes his inquiries into rationality and focuses almost purely on irrational forces of human, and superhuman, nature.
It goes without saying that Sibelius, the greatest of all nature composers, wrote naturalistic music to accompany the play whose intensity is bloodcurdling, even in its quiet moments. It was one of the last works he ever wrote, surrendering his pen around the time he turned sixty with thirty years of life left to him. Who knows? Perhaps this music was so intense that it spooked him... What is a bit more surprising is that Tchaikovsky, ever the Shakespearean, wrote perhaps his most underrated work in his overture to The Tempest, a work which seems far further from his sensibilities than Romeo and Juliet. This score predates even his much more famous treatment of R&J. Like just about everything Tchaikovsky writes, it justifies its bombast with its gorgeousness and excitement. Though it may or may not be apocryphal, Beethoven's famed (and famously unreliable) factotum Anton Schindler claimed that one of his greatest piano sonatas was in fact based on The Tempest.
But greater still are two composers who convey not only the violence of The Tempest and the excitement, but the metaphysical cosmos that lay behind them. Both are scandalously underrated, but one particularly.
The first, far better known of the two, is our dearest RVW. Vaughan Williams knew his Shakespeare as well as any musician, and when it came time to set a commission for the BBC in the late 30's, he culled a whole heap of disparate quotes about music from The Merchant of Venice. This is music that is precisely the opposite spirit of The Tempest: it begins with the line "How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank." This is the sweetly music of an untroubled landscape, written by an ageing master, newly in love with a younger women who would become his second wife, and possibly having good sex for the first time in his life (his first wife was an extremely severe arthritic).
That the Serenade to Music can come from the same composer who would write the Three Shakespeare Songs in his dotage is extraordinary. One can understand how a great composer can conceive music like Sir John in Love or The Serenade to Music, but the Three Shakespeare Songs are not music of this world. They come to us from a place that is utterly unlike any we know. Just as the elderly master painters (it's a long list...) can create a whole city of meaning a few strokes of the brush, there are a few old master composers (and far less than painters, composers seem to die sooner...) who can do the same with just a few simple chords: Verdi, Haydn, Monteverdi, Richard Strauss... who else but RVW?
The elderly Ralph Vaughan Williams, an almost morbidly overweight man in his late seventies, surely knew that he was nearing his end. As it happened, he had another seven years, and they were arguably the happiest of his life, but the closer we all get to the end, the relatively easier it should be to put all things in life, tragic and comic, within the context of time's passage. Even as far back as the Sea Symphony and the miraculous Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Vaughan Williams always had an extraordinary otherworldliness within his makeup. But he was unfairly best known to the public for his easiest access work: like his arrangement of Greensleeves, and The Lark Ascending or the first Norfolk Rhapsody, which, while extraordinary in their small way, are minor league compared to his ocean of talent that could take in at least a very British segment of the entire Cosmos (a musical colonialist?). Works like The Lark Ascending are wonderful, but they paint a picture of him as a Neo-Romantic, unable to express anything much deeper than the pastoral landscapes such pieces conjure - far too small to realize the extent of his brilliance. Music history still gives the stench of condescension to his work - he was no Neo-Romantic, he was folkloric composer who used his brilliance plumbing the music of the Earth. He was to English isles what Bartok was to the Balkans, what Stravinsky was to the Russian Orthodox lands, what Janacek was to Moravia. But working as Vaughan Williams did in Western Europe, his incorporation of folk melodies yielded a somewhat less bizarre (though by no means unbizarre) harmonic and rhythmic language, because the musical language of Western European folk was already incorporated into Classical Music.
When you hear his two-minute setting of The Cloud Capp'd Towers, you hear the cries, the laughs, the achievements and frustrations of generations, epochs, whole eons. An entire beyond seems to be illuminated that had never occurred to us before hearing it. All things of this life suddenly seem utterly insignificant. This may be the greatest, most spirit-inhabiting of all Shakespeare settings.
Save two settings by one other composer, whom I hope to write about tomorrow...
... hopefully more then...