There was a lot of Shakespeare around yesterday - extravaganzas at the Globe, the Southbank, Stratford-upon-Avon live on TV (incidentally, if you were watching that you will have seen our fabulous novel-concert violinist partner, David Le Page, leading the Orchestra of the Swan behind all those great actors). I felt privileged to be able to make a small contribution to the celebrations, giving a pre-concert talk at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, where the young conductor Lahav Shani was at the helm for a programme of three different versions of Romeo and Juliet.
As a fun Long Read for Sunday, here's the text of my talk.
JD's Talk for the CBSO, 23 April 2016
Happy Shakespeare's Birthday! I think everyone has a Shakespeare concert tonight. There’s all manner of readings and music in almost every venue I can think of. Everywhere we look, people are celebrating his birthday and marking the 400th anniversary of his death, and really, for an author who walked amongst us so many centuries ago, this is simply amazing and wonderful.
And why not, when Shakespeare’s works are full to bursting with music? It's not only in the sound and flow of his language, which is full of the richness, the variety and the colour of music in its own right. There are songs in almost every play, serving many different purposes – from Desdemona’s Willow Song in Othello, which is a premonition of her own doom, to the high spirits of It was a lover and his Lass in As You Like It and the pain of unrequited love in Twelfth Night’s Come Away, Come Away Death. There are dances to close, masques, balls and general fun to music in many of them. And there's music in the text, too: Lorenzo and Jessica sit upon the moonlit grass to hear sweet music in The Merchant of Venice and discuss how it moves them; Prospero’s Isle in The Tempest is full of noises; and of course Orsino in Twelfth Night starts the play with the line “If music be the food of love, play on”.
Shakespeare has inspired more composers than any other single author, indeed probably more than anything extramusical except the Bible: over 300 works, from Purcell’s The Fairy Queen right through to Thomas Ades’s opera The Tempest. Let’s not forget how far Shakespeare travels in space as well as time. Ghosts of The Tempest haunt Mozart's opera The Magic Flute. In Paris Berlioz was in thrall to Shakespeare; Mendelssohn was too, in Germany; and later Korngold in Vienna and Hollywood. Verdi in Italy wrote three magnificent Shakespearean operas, Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff. And some of the greatest Shakespearean music comes from Russia and is by Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Shostakovich.
The other day I was talking to a Russian conductor about the way Shakespeare has inspired composers. Growing up in Russia, he had got to know the plays in translation – notably from the fine mid-20th-century versions by the poet Boris Pasternak, the author of Dr Zhivago. Exploring the different translations available, he had been interested to see the way every era coloured Shakespeare in its own way. The 19th-century translations were, he remarked, almost too beautiful. They played up the romanticism, smoothing out the earthy elements. He felt that it was only in the 20th-century that the translators really began to understand the full scale and complexity and variety in Shakespeare - the way the boundaries between what we think of as his genres are blurred, for instance; the comedies are often potentially tragedies that end well, and the tragedies offer plenty of comic elements along the way.
So: Shakespeare in translation is filtered through a mediator, and that mediator’s time and place, and what reaches the audience or the reader is therefore a personal vision, an interpretation. This sounds like something second-hand – yet if you think about it, that’s also how the plays reach us in the theatre, through the interpretation of a director and actors. The amazing thing about Shakespeare is that he can be reinvented time after time, and he’s so strong that he always comes out on top.
If every translator filters Shakespeare through the style and preoccupations of his or her own day, so does every composer. Translating Shakespeare into music is a huge challenge as well as an inspiration, and every person will choose something different to respond to as the creative cogs begin to whirr. Not only the time, place and personality of the composer are involved, but also the purpose of that particular work.
Therefore what we have in tonight’s concert is incredibly varied, even though all three pieces are inspired by the same story: Romeo and Juliet.
I'm sure you know the story, but in case, let's recap quickly. The Montagus and the Capulets, two distinguished families, are mortal enemies, though we never learn why (which is clever: Shakespeare doesn't let us take sides). They kill each other in swordfights on the streets of Verona. Romeo is the Montagus' son. Juliet is the 14-year-old daughter of the Capulets. Romeo and his friends Mercutio and Benvolio gatecrash the Capulets’ ball; there Romeo meets Juliet and they fall in love. Later Romeo talks to her while she’s on her balcony and they plan to go to Friar Lawrence and get married in secret. Friar Lawrence complies, hoping this will end the traditional enmity. But immediately afterwards, Mercutio and Juliet’s cousin Tybalt start fighting again. Romeo tries to stop them, but Tybalt kills Mercutio, Mercutio blames Romeo for getting in the way and proclaims "A plague on both your houses," as he dies. Romeo kills Tybalt. The Duke of Verona banishes Romeo. He spends one night with Juliet, then must leave. Friar Lawrence gives Juliet a potion that will make her appear dead. She will be entombed in the family vault. He’ll summon Romeo, who’ll come back, she’ll wake up and they’ll run away together. But the message doesn’t reach Romeo – instead, he hears that Juliet is dead, and he goes to her tomb and takes poison. Juliet wakes to find him dead and stabs herself. Over their lifeless bodies, the families are reconciled at last.
|A portrait of Tchaikovsky (photo: Wikipedia)|
It’s an eternal human story. It’s about crazy love and senseless hatred, about adolescence and the complexity of guiding young people, about friendship and loyalty, and nuances of human emotion are explored on every single page. The theme of love goes through it all – not only love between the star-crossed young pair. Love of different types and degrees exists between the young friends, between parents and children, between Juliet and her nurse, between Romeo and his teacher, Friar Lawrence, and even – especially in the ballet – between the implicitly youthful Lady Capulet and her nephew Tybalt.
We’re hearing three versions tonight, by Tchaikovsky, Bernstein and Prokofiev, but there are absolutely heaps of others. Berlioz’s is part opera, part incidental music, part oratorio. There’s an opera by Gounod – in which Juliette wakes up in time to sing a duet with Romeo before he dies. The soundtrack of Zeffirelli's film of the play is by Nino Rota and celebrated in its own right. There was even a fine song by Dire Straits back in the 80s. And, less well known, the slow movement of Beethoven’s first string quartet, Op.18 No.1, was reputedly inspired by the tomb scene.
Each work from a different composer in a different era transforms the play into something new and personal. Tchaikovsky, as a young man in Moscow in 1869, produces a so-called Overture – though a tone-poem might be a better description of it. Prokofiev, in soviet Moscow in the 1930s and 40s, created a score specifically to be danced, and found all manner of demands being placed on him to that end – of which more in a moment. And Leonard Bernstein in New York in 1955, working with his dramatist Arthur Laurents, the lyricist Stephen Sondheim and the choreographer Jerome Robbins, created in West Side Story something more than a musical, a work for the people in which all the creative team gave their very best work.
First, Tchaikovsky. It’s an early work, suggested to Tchaikovsky by the composer and frequent mentor to that generation of composers, Balakirev. The premiere was a flop. Balakirev suggested changes, Tchaikovsky more or less obeyed, and it was...still a flop. It wasn't until 1886 that a final rethink by the now much more experienced composer provided it with its title fantasy-overture and its splendid coda.
Tchaikovsky would have known the play from one of those comparatively naïve, prettified translations. I think he must have identified deeply with the notion of star-crossed love; it wasn’t easy to be gay in 19th-century Russia and he suffered terrific internal struggles over this all his life. Perhaps an identification with the subject matter might enhance the work's intensity, but actually I suspect that this work's runaway success in our times is 99 per cent down to sheer hard graft. He finds in Romeo and Juliet’s story an almost classic Sonata form, with a substantial introduction and that coda. The whole notion of sonata form is conflict – and likewise with drama. In the standard pattern of sonata form, two principal themes contrast with one another, aided and abetted by a few others, and their potential is selectively explored in a central episode known as the Development. Tchaikovsky creates these two themes in, first of all, pugnacious fighting music that represents the enmity of the Montagues and the Capulets, and secondly the gorgeous melody that represents the lovers. The wealth of detail is amazing: listen out for the irregular accents in the fighting music which could almost depict clashing swords, and in the love music the glimmers of harp which could suggest the glint of moonlight. The development centres on the music of conflict and rather than mingling it with the love theme, Tchaikovsky brings in the other important musical idea: the one we hear at the very beginning; it feels as if it could have been modelled on the unaccompanied choirs of the Russian orthodox church.
This theme represents Friar Lawrence and his attempts to calm the conflict by bringing Romeo and Juliet together. It provides the introduction, the coda and some of the middle too, sounding strongly through the fighting in the development, as if reminding us of the context in which Romeo kills Tybalt. The coda begins with a funeral march and as the work comes to its close the chorale, smoothing things, extrapolating good from tragedy, gives way to the love theme turned more or less upside down and the final chords are from the fight theme, in reconciliation. In short, Tchaikovsky takes the very essence of the story, turns it into pure musical structure and imbues it with his own time and place firstly with his intense romanticsm and also by bringing in the Russian orthodox flavour, which you wouldn’t have found in 15th-century Verona or Stratford upon Avon.
Nor would you have found much of it in Stalin’s Russia. In 1935, Prokofiev was living safely abroad. Stalin, it seems, was eager to lure him back to Moscow, and Prokofiev was not so difficult to lure. He liked the idea of writing accessible, enjoyable music that could be appreciated by a wide audience, he felt out of step with the avant-garde contemporary music of Europe, notably serialism, and the rise of the Nazis was doing nothing to encourage him to stay in the west. Offered the tempting bait of creating a ballet of Romeo and Juliet for the great Bolshoi, he took it. He returned to live in Russia and began work on a scenario with the dramatist Sergei Radlov. They reformatted the story on quasi-revolutionary lines, concentrating on the struggle between generations more than the family rivalry. Quite incredibly, they planned a happy ending! Prokofiev even wrote it. It was unearthed and performed about eight years ago and apparently it contained a lot of C major chords.
But in 1936 everything changed: Stalin’s purges were reaching their height, and the chairman of the newly created Committee on Arts Affairs, which enforced Soviet ideology, dissolved the entire administration of the Bolshoi. Romeo and Juliet was postponed, then shelved. Next, it was agreed that it would be performed at the Kirov in St Petersburg in 1940. Then: more trouble. The choreographer Leonid Lavrovsky wanted more dances in order to show off his company and Prokofiev was forced to rewrite and rejig swathes of it, creating plenty of short showpiece numbers, making the orchestration denser to sound more ‘socialist realist’ and restoring the original tragic ending, apparently on Stalin’s demand. Which is perhaps surprising coming from Stalin. It was finally performed at the Bolshoi in 1946, with the specific aim of sending Churchill a signal about Russia’s cultural involvement with Britain and its Immortal Bard. Ironic that such a masterpiece as this is actually not what Prokofiev had envisioned at all.
But that is our gain, because Prokofiev, creating an entire ballet, could explore the aspects Tchaikovsky's short piece could not: there are bustling street scenes, full of life and humour; there’s Juliet’s nurse, with whom Romeo and his friends flirt fabulously; there are masses of dances, dances at the ball, dances for the townsfolk, dances for Juliet’s friends. Prokofiev might not have wanted to create them, but they’re wonderful and really true to Shakespeare’s spirit, adding verve, humour, life-force, and character too. There’s a particularly delightful moment which if you see the choreographer Kenneth Macmillan’s version with the Royal ballet, he gives to Romeo, Mercutio and Benvolio, in which they disguise themselves with much glee before going in to the ball. You feel their youth, their energy, their earthy humour and Romeo’s premonition that something extraordinary is about to happen.
The balcony scene is heavenly – of course, this being a ballet, Juliet doesn’t stay on her balcony very long, coming down to dance a pas de deux with Romeo instead. But Prokofiev, for all his glorious melodies, never slips towards the sentimental – even at its most tender there’s a dark undertone to this music and his personal harmonic language gives it a subtle, unstable and slightly astringent soundworld, typical of Prokofiev.
We have Balakirev to thank for Tchaikovsky's score, and a choreographer to thank for Prokofiev's. And we have another choreographer to thank for conceiving the idea that became West Side Story. It was Jerome Robbins, who suggested to Leonard Bernstein writing a musical based on Romeo and Juliet. Originally it was going to be East Side Story and the warring families were to have been respectively Catholic and Jewish. First mooted in 1949, it didn’t get off the ground. But the creative team – Bernstein, Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim – reconvened in 1955 to try again, discussing what was then called juvenile delinquency. They explored the idea of the gang replacing the family – young people joining violent gangs as a way of belonging to something – a scenario that's still very much with us now.
The scene moved to the Upper West Side, and the gangs became self-styled Americans on the one hand – the Jets, in which our hero Tony has been mixed up – versus the Puerto Rican immigrants of the Sharks, led by Bernardo, whose sister is our heroine, Maria. Of course, the twist is that the Americans who are warring against the immigrant Puerto Ricans are themselves the children of immigrants.
The creative team ditched the less plausible elements of Shakespeare, like the sleeping potion – and Maria does not die. Instead she delivers a powerful speech over Tony’s body; she takes a gun and declares that she, too, can kill now because she has learned how to hate. It’s a devastating moment, because it demonstrates so clearly how these cycles of violence are self-perpetuating.
Here’s a wonderful description by Laurents of the creative team's aims: “We all knew what we did not want. Neither formal poetry nor flat reportage; neither opera nor split-level musical comedy numbers; neither zippered-in ballets nor characterless dance routines. We didn't want newsreel acting, blue-jean costumes or garbage can scenery any more than we wanted soapbox pounding for our theme of young love destroyed by a violent world of prejudice. What we did want was to aim at a lyrically and theatrically sharpened illusion of reality…”
Musically, the scenario provided Bernstein with some choice material. The Puerto Rican aspect meant he could get his teeth into Latin American music in a big way – its rhythms permeate the song ‘America’ and the dance scene at the Gym, which we hear as the Symphonic Dances, with the famous Mambo. The Jets are represented at first by jazzy rhythms, finger-clicking, a cat-like prowling in the shadows. And the songs range from the anthem Somewhere to a brilliant bit of satirical comedy in Gee, Officer Krupky, when the Jets joke about telling the policeman that they’re good underneath and it’s their circumstances that have made them delinquents – one of them says “I’m depraved on account I’m deprived!” Set bang on in its creators' own era and city, its verve, poetry, earthiness, raw passion and violence is actually incredibly true to the spirit of Shakespeare's original.
It’s fascinating to see that now West Side Story is undergoing a metamorphosis. It's starting to cross in earnest from the Broadway theatre to the opera house. I’m off to Salzburg in a few weeks’ time to see Cecilia Bartoli as Maria. And I think it’s going to be done at Glyndebourne. I think that's great. This top quality work deserves that top quality treatment.
One last thought. I think the question of filters – such as a translator’s Shakespeare, a composer’s Shakespeare, teamwork Shakespeare – is pertinent in many areas. What we see in the media, from Facebook to the national news, is always someone’s interpretation. We have to remember that what we take as information from other people is rarely pure fact. There’s a filter of time, place and perspective on almost everything. Take that home and have a think. And enjoy the concert. Thank you very much.