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.