Nineteenth-Century Shakespeare

By Nancy Leonard, Bard College

Written for the concert Shakespeare! Romanticism and Music performed on Sep 26, 1993 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

An old science-fiction story has William Shakespeare traveling mysteriously through time to register at a major American university for a course in “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.” He flunks the course. Despite the obviousness of the anti-academic satire, the story tells a home truth. Shakespeare has somehow become “Shakespeare,” a word nearly impossible to define. How the dramatist became so unrecognizable to himself (and to his teacher!) is a strange tale in its own right. So many ideas, phrases, character traits and experiences have been identified with Shakespeare that his actual life and work seem to recede into the distance. The jumble is so confused, the distance so great, that Gary Taylor, the leading recent historian of Shakespeare as a cultural Fixture, calls the result a “black hole”:

Shakespeare no longer transmits invisible light; his stellar energies have been trapped within the gravity well of his own reputation… And it is no use pretending that some uniquely clever, honest, and disciplined critic can find a technique, an angle, that will enable us to lead a mass escape from this trap. If Shakespeare is a literary black hole, then nothing that I, or anyone else, can say will make a difference. His accreting disk will go on spinning, sucking, growing.

The “gravity well” of Shakespeare’s reputation persists through the very process by which we try to overcome it: the prodigious number of times and ways we recall Shakespeare, through performances and films and programs and courses and phrases dropped to friends. Asking if Shakespeare really was Shakespeare (rather than an alias for Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford) is simply another way of participating in all this, which we might call using his name to say things about our world. It is a process that began, really, in nineteenth-century England, France and Germany, as part of the great cultural upheaval known as European Romanticism.

The starting point is sheer admiration. In 1835, for instance, the French novelist Victor Hugo explained his exaltation of Shakespeare like this:

Admirable power of genius! He make’s things higher than us which live like us. Hamlet, for instance, is as true as any of us and greater. Hamlet is colossal and yet real. For Hamlet is not you or I. He is every one of us. Hamlet is not a man; he is man.

(Over sixty years later, Sigmund Freud would similarly make Hamlet “every one of us” as the modern prototype of the Oedipus complex.) Shakespeare’s genius is repeatedly said to comprehend and summarize the whole human condition. For August Schlegel, the foremost Shakespearean critic and translator in Germany, Shakespeare “stood like a magician above the world, penetrating with one glance into all the depths, mysteries, and perplexities of human character.” Schlegel’s ideas were closely linked with those of the English poet Coleridge; their views did much to initiate the romantic Shakespeare of literature, music, drama and art of the last two hundred years. For Schlegel, Shakespeare is enabled “to act and speak in the name of every individual,” and he “gives us the history of minds”; for Coleridge Shakespeare’s characters “were at once true to nature, and fragments of the divine mind that drew them.” divinity, profundity, wisdom, character: the terms of admiration focus our attention on the rendering of character and the sublimity of thought.

The Romantic Shakespeare is especially identified with the figure of Hamlet. The painter Delacroix, though loudly contemptuous of the romantic school, fancied himself Hamlet; he would not “set his life at a pin’s fee” and judged the world to be “out of joint.” He painted his own portrait dressed in a black cape, with long flowing hair and somber looks; his vision of the play was conveyed in famous lithographs of Hamlet and Horatio; and he repeatedly bemoaned, in journals and letters, the insignificance of man. In Germany, philosophers were strongly drawn to Hamlet. Hegel and his school saw in the figure of Hamlet the principle of reflective thought, and read the play as demonstrating an optimistic synthesis of reflection with an antithetical principle of action. A very different philosophical view was that of the pessimist Schopenhauer, who saw Hamlet as forcefully recognizing the meaninglessness of life and sage-like in renouncing the will to live.

Few images of hold on the nineteenth-century imagination are as vivid as that of Hector Berlioz. Going beyond writers like Coleridge who had stressed Shakespeare’s divinity, his “omnipresent creativeness,” Berlioz let out all the stops:

Shakespeare! Thou art our father, thou who art in heaven, if any such place exists. God is stupid and atrocious in His infinite indifference, thou alone art the God who is kindly to the soul, of artists.

Berlioz wrote this passage while musing on his failed marriage to the actress Harriet Smithson, with whom he had fallen in love on seeing her play Juliet and Ophelia. His idealization of the woman could not survive his life with her; his idolization of Shakespeare could and did.

But what purposes did such idolization serve? The phenomenon has never been systematically studied, so we can only speculate. Perhaps by turning Shakespeare into a kindly deity and all-knowing seer, nineteenth-century artists and critics set up a model for their own role in society. Shakespeare’s accomplishment could justify the later artists’ ambitions, which were large indeed, embracing both spiritual and worldly knowledge. Perhaps, too, a cult of genius helped to justify the existence of the artist in an increasingly commercial world in which traditional structures of patronage were rapidly eroding.

One thing, however, is certain. In keeping with the unprecedented preoccupation with individuality in the nineteenth century, many people thought of Shakespeare as a source of universally valid images of self. To know oneself, one had to know Shakespeare. As Coleridge put it, “In the plays of Shakespeare every man sees himself,” or, better discovers himself:

“[Shakespeare] makes visible what we should not otherwise have seen” in ourselves. Similarly, the critic William Hazlitt claimed that Shakespeare “was all that others were, or that they could become . . . . He was like the genius [guiding spirit] of humanity, changing places with all of us at pleasure.” So literally did the nineteenth century take statements like these, its “mental science,” the forerunner of modern psychiatry, often resorted to clinical case studies of Shakespeare’s characters.

This process of taking one’s identity from Shakespeare was enhanced by the availability of anthologies of bits and pieces from the plays- -Beauties,” as they were called-that could be assembled as the reader liked. A Shakespeare made up of favorite passages could be infinitely individualized. In our own day, by contrast, we seem to value Shakespeare for restoring a lost sense of romantic collectivity. Witness not just Renaissance fairs and summer Shakespeare festivals, but also the popular films of Kenneth Branagh. This summer’s Much Ado About Nothing, for instance, symbolizes social life with a scene Shakespeare somehow left out: a spa-like romp in which attractive young men and women bathe, rub down, and dress (but only loosely).

As today’s program should illustrate, concert music participated strongly in the nineteenth-century imagination of Shakespeare. Composers, no less than philosophers and critics, sought ways to grasp human character in the sublime and universal, and the sublime and universal in human character.

“The Tempest,” Symphonic Poem, Op. 31 (1876)

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Shakespeare! Romanticism and Music performed on Sep 26, 1993 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

John Knowles Paine is perhaps best known for being the first incumbent of a professorial chair in music at Harvard University. He studied in Germany and had the privilege of playing for Clara Schumann. By all accounts he became a pivotal member of the Boston and Cambridge community that included Longfellow, William and Henry James, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He was, among other things, the college organist. It is therefore entirely appropriate that the music building at Harvard is named for him. The early music by John Knowles Paine is truly conservative in its rejection of Wagnerian harmonic practice. In recent years some of Paine’s music has returned to the concert stage. Gunther Schuller recorded the St. Peter Oratorio in 1989. A wonderful Shakespeare overture to As You Like It from 1876, along with the first two symphonies in C minor and A major, were recorded by Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic. Another fine work that recently has resurfaced is the overture to Sophocles’ Oedipus the King entitled Oedipus Tyrannus. Paine’s intimate involvement with Harvard led him naturally to participate in the active theatrical life associated with the university. Paine wrote music not only for Sophocles but also for a production of Aristophanes’ The Birds.

This symphonic poem was written at the same time As You Like It was composed. It is in four interconnected movements, some of which contain a variety of characters and events. The first allegro section describes the storm. A transition is made to an F-major adagio section depicting a “calm and happy scene before Prospero’s cell.” That is followed by on elegiac recitative, an adagio entitled “Ariel” that in turn moves gracefully into Prospero’s tale, which constitutes the third section. The last part of the work depicts three events: the love of Ferdinand for Miranda; Caliban, who is represented by the bassoon; and finally the triumph of Prospero.

“Macbeth”, Symphonic Poem, Op. 23 (1888)

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Shakespeare! Romanticism and Music performed on Sep 26, 1993 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

During the 1880s the enormously gifted young Richard Strauss underwent a musical transformation that drew him away from the more classical traditions favored by his father, the great French horn player, toward what often has been termed the “New German” movement. This school of composition took its inspiration from Liszt and Wagner. The individual most responsible for Strauss’s new direction was Alexander Ritter, a musician and composer who became a kind of second father to Richard Strauss. The result was that after writing two symphonies, Strauss turned to the medium of the symphonic poem in direct emulation of Franz Liszt. The most famous of the tone poems that date from the late 1880s and early 1890s are, of course, Don Juan, Death and Transfiguration, and Till Eulenspiegel. Strauss’s first foray into this new and different kind of symphonic music was Aus Italian. The second venture was Macbeth. Macbeth gave the composer the most trouble in terms of its composition, and it has remained the least-performed of Strauss’s tone poems. Hans von Bülow criticized the first version because it ended without any musical or dramatic reference to the tragedy of Macbeth. Rather, it celebrated the triumph of MacDuff. But this dispute about the ending was merely a reflection of what Strauss articulated to von Bülow in the summer of 1888, when he wrote that there was “an ever-increasing conflict between the musical poetic content that I want to convey and the three-part sonata form that has come down to us from the classical composers.” This statement, written while Strauss was struggling with the composition of Macbeth, mirrors the contradictions between the demands inherent in Liszt’s vision of music (which called on music to follow poetic and dramatic logic) and the seemingly purely musical structure inherent in the work of Mozart and Brahms. As James Hepokowski has argued in a recent article on Strauss’s Macbeth, Strauss viewed Macbeth as a musical statement of independence– a modernist “manifesto” that asserted the primacy of the literary and dramatic logic aver the formal, classical compositional strategies. However, matching the story line of Macbeth and the musical content of the tone poem has proven difficult. There have been widely divergent claims. Hepokowski finally has found a way to reconcile the musical structure with the dramatic narrative of the play. This program note closely follows his argument. Macbeth opens in a way reminiscent of Wagner and Beethoven. The first sustained musical thought mirrors the idea of power and monarchy. The next section, which is the exposition, presents themes representing Macbeth, prophecy, ambition, Lady Macbeth, and her successful effort to persuade Macbeth to commit murder. The center section is divided into two episodes. In the first, many listeners have located a love motive, but Hepokowski considers this as a continuation of Lady Macbeth’s process of persuasion. In any event, the murder of Duncan is clearly marked in the first episode. The second episode, according to Hepokowski, signals the crowning of Macbeth. In musical terms one can hear in 3/4 time a B-flat-major march. Following these two sections there is a brilliant adaptation of sonata form. A recapitulation ensues, which actually describes the madness that overcomes Macbeth, who fails in his search for redemption. The end of this recapitulation depicts the final battle and the death of Macbeth. The tone poem ends with a coda, which reflects Strauss’s revision. In the original it ended with the music of Macduff’s fanfare, which is heard near the very end of this final version. The sense of triumph contained in Macduff’s music quickly dissolves into a musical reminder of the ambition, madness, and greatness that characterize Macbeth. The work closes with a flourish in D minor. When compared with its rival poems, this Strauss work sounds every bit as convincing It has been unjustly neglected in the concert hall.

“Hamlet”, Overture-Fantasy, Op. 67a (1888)

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Shakespeare! Romanticism and Music performed on Sep 26, 1993 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Hamlet was the last of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poems based on Shakespeare and other literary sources. The idea of doing Hamlet first had been suggested in the early 1870s by the composer’s brother, Modest. At that time Tchaikovsky made effort to write a Hamlet symphonic poem but abandoned the task. He returned to the idea only after he had been asked in 1888 to write incidental music for a benefit performance of the play in St. Petersburg. Tchaikovsky finished the piece at the end of the summer in 1888, even though the scheduled performance of the play had been canceled. In the fall of 1888 the symphonic poem Hamlet received its premiere under the baton of the composer. Although Tchaikovsky had used two other Shakespeare plays as the basis for symphonic poems (Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest), Hamlet presented by far the most psychologically and philosophically daunting challenge. When Tchaikovsky came around to writing Hamlet, he no longer relied on his brother’s literary script. Interestingly, the symphonic poem presents both characters and ideas. One can hear Hamlet, depictions of fate, Ophelia (as many commentators have noted, set in a distinctly Russian manner), the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and Fortinbras. Although the symphonic poem possesses the outlines of what we associate with sonata form, there is really no development. One is tempted to hear in the work the evocation of a mix of psychological distress and despair with which Tchaikovsky himself identified. Of all the elements in the work it is perhaps the recurring motive of fate that gives the piece its overarching coherence. The work ends, appropriately, with a death march.

Shakespeare! Romanticism and Music

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Shakespeare! Romanticism and Music performed on Sep 26, 1993 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Concert-goers in today’s world are unaccustomed to imagining a time when there was no access to moving images graced with the power and illusion possessed by contemporary video and celluloid. The cliché that characterizes contemporary culture as dominated by television and film contains, after all, more than a grain of truth. The nineteenth-century audiences for whom the works on this program were written depended on the acts of reading and listening–particularly that of listening–to provide a sense of the imagined landscape and the visual sense of the passage of time along with its various events. The one arena that offered the audience a visual narrative was, of course, the theater. It will come as no surprise that during the nineteenth century, in many of the centers of Europe known to music lovers for their respective musical traditions (e.g. St. Petersburg, Vienna, Munich, Prague, London), the power, lure, and significance of the theater exceeded that of music.

The relationship between theater and music in the nineteenth century was an intimate one well beyond the realm of opera. In part, this was the result of the special affinity between listening to music, the inherent theatricality of performing and experiencing music (visible today less in classical concerts and more so in pop and rock concerts) and the world of the theater. Both writers and musicians have long been fascinated by the differences, the similarities, and the nearly competitive interplay displayed by sound and words as theatrical mediums. In nineteenth-century European culture, the theater was a crucial public forum in which covert and overt political discussion, satire, a sense of cultural tradition, and sheer entertainment and diversion could be found.

During the nineteenth century, it was customary to embellish theatrical performances, particularly of the classics, with incidental music and overtures. The experimental ideas of the 1850s regarding the use of literary programs in orchestral music encouraged composers to use fully the illustrative potential of the array of instruments in the orchestra. An alternative formal strategy, one different from the classical symphony, was argued for. These innovations, most frequently associated with Franz Liszt, inspired composers to use the orchestra to help evoke and depict the poetic and the dramatic in music without the help of words. The ambition was to try to convey in music something about character, events, and landscape within a dramatic and literary context–something evoked by a playwright through words and gesture. The essence and emotional allure of a play could be added to and communicated in a special manner through instrumental music.

Throughout the nineteenth century, in the era historians have become too content to describe with the term romanticism, in the intellectual and cultural life of continental Europe, no single author rivaled the place held by Shakespeare. For German-speaking Europe, Shakespeare had achieved the status of a German classic. The translations of Schlegel and Tieck were so successful that the idea that Shakespeare was actually “better” in German became a view only partially considered a joke. This nineteenth-century German cultural arrogance was not lost on German-speaking Europe’s Slavic neighbors. For Russians and Czechs, the translation of the English-language Shakespeare into their own language and the stage productions of Shakespeare in the Russian and Czech languages during the nineteenth century became overt acts of national self-assertion. It was not only the symbolic content and unmatched greatness of Shakespeare that kept interest in his work so high. By showing that Shakespeare in Czech and Russian was every bit as good as Shakespeare in German, the Czech and the Russian languages-as carriers of truth and beauty-demonstrated their equality with English and German. The presence of the American composer John Knowles Paine on this program (a composer very admiring of the continental European musical tradition) is indirectly a reminder of how important it was to nineteenth-century America to develop its own tradition of Shakespeare performance in order to show the equality of Americans with respect to the British in matters aesthetic, literary, and philosophical.

In the act of writing music to Shakespeare, all the composers on this program engaged three challenges characteristic of the nineteenth century. First, they grappled with the question of how to reconcile the classical expectations of musical logic with the opportunities suggested by the language and the dramatic structure of a play. Second, by setting Shakespeare to music in their own cultural contexts, they participated in a distinctly nationalist political project. Third and perhaps most important, by tackling the emotional power and unrivaled greatness of Shakespeare, they put themselves to the ultimate test with respect to the power of music. Could music, unaided by words, evoke in the listener an experience comparable to what Shakespeare inspired in the hearts and minds of theater audiences and those many nineteenth-century individuals who read Shakespeare in their homes with a close and intense affection? Both the theatergoer and the reader were asked implicitly by these composers to listen to an orchestral tone poem and recognize and remember their Shakespeare; to find in the act of listening some new dimension and experience (equal to the power of the plays) brought forward by the composer who used Shakespeare as a unique source of musical inspiration.

“Othello,” Concert Overture, Op. 93 (1892)

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Shakespeare! Romanticism and Music performed on Sep 26, 1993 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

When Antonin Dvorák came to the United States in 1892, he was hailed as the moral equivalent of Christopher Columbus. The second most distinguished European composer (after Brahms) had come to America to conquer it and establish a tradition of music-making through the vehicle of the National Conservatory in New York, of which Dvorák was the new Director. Shortly after his arrival he conducted a concert that featured a new work consisting of three overtures: In Nature’s Realm, Carnival, and Othello, Opp. 91-93 respectively. Of these three, only Carnival has achieved a regular place in the repertoire. Since we are used to hearing only the Carnival overture as a free-standing piece (a circumstance not dissimilar to the way we hove been accustomed to hearing Smetana’s Moldau, which itself is part of a larger work), we have lost sight of Dvorák intent to create a three-step narrative that led the listener from the appreciation of nature and its essence to the joys of life and then to the tragedy created by those emotions that threaten the equanimity of nature and the happy soul of the human being so ably depicted in the Carnival overture. The last part of this three-part work, the one that depicts how human beings ruin what nature and life have given them, is, of course, Othello. It was begun in December 1891 and completed a few months later. As did Tchaikovsky in Hamlet, Dvorák in Othello utilized sonata form as a starting point. Also like Tchaikovsky, Dvorák rapidly encountered the compositional problem of how to respond appropriately to the dramatic essence of Shakespeare’s play. Some commentators have tried to downplay the parallelisms to the play evident in this overture, citing that Dvorák thought about different titles, including Love and The Tragic. But John Clapham argues convincingly that Dvorák made pencil notations to indicate the parallels between the dramatic action in Shakespeare’s drama and the music. In fact, there are eleven such indications. Curiously, they begin to occur a little more than a third of the way into the piece. Jealousy provided the composer with the most obvious musical focus. There are, in addition, allusions to Wagner and a reference to the Requiem Mass, which Dvorák had completed just a year earlier, in 1890. In this overture Dvorák attempts a musical characterization of Othello and Desdemona; of love and the emotions that are central to the drama. A small but remarkable detail deserves mention with respect to the Othello overture. As is well known, Brahms was a great admirer of Dvorák. While in America, Dvorák resumed his business relationship with Simrock, who was also Brahms’s publisher. In order to facilitate the publication of Dvorák’s new music, Brahms offered to do the proof-reading and to correct the galleys. Othello is one of the works for which Brahms did the editing and which he singled out with particular admiration.