‘Music to hear’: Shakespeare and Rufus Wainwright

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To go into the Barbican concert hall and see the full forces of the BBC Symphony Orchestra ranged in tiers before you is to see a splendid sight. The auditorium, shaped like a great oyster shell, resembles that of The Olivier Theatre at The National. In both, visibility is excellent from any part of the house. The platform protrudes only slightly – it’s adjustable, I believe – so no members of the audience are disadvantaged by being too far to the side of the performers. The acoustics are splendid too.

Almost all the music in the performance I went to see and hear on Sunday had been inspired by Shakespeare. The Jewish Viennese composer Erich Korngold made most of his money and achieved his greatest fame after emigrating to America in 1938. There he embarked on an immensely successful career as a film composer, most famously for The Sea Hawk (1940), starring Errol Flynn. He also wrote much other music including a fine violin concerto which is often heard in the concert hall. But the Shakespeare music played in the concert I attended was composed when he was only in his early twenties.

Korngold had developed a passion for Shakespeare as a boy, and he composed incidental music for performances of Much Ado About Nothing when he was little more than twenty years old. It’s often played in an arrangement for violin and piano. Colourful, melodious, appropriately theatrical, it’s marvellously well suited to the play. Indeed I remember playing a movement from it to a friend without telling him anything about it and asking him which Shakespeare character it reminded him of. ‘Dogberry’, he said, after a few moments’ thought, and indeed Dogberry is the character whom Korngold was attempting, clearly with great success, to portray in musical terms.

After this came a selection from the far more angular and acerbic music that Serge Prokoviev wrote for a ballet based on Romeo and Juliet. It’s wonderfully vigorous music, also like Korngold’s vividly suggestive of the characters and event of the play. To see rather than simply to hear it performed adds an extra dimension to the experience. The young, highly promising conductor Rory MacDonald was immensely expressive and authoritative in his gestures, and the timpanist really had a ball, bashing away ferociously with both arms flailing in the music’s many percussive stretches.

Even though the evening’s programme centred on Shakespeare it must be admitted that this was not the attraction that caused tickets for the event, which was broadcast live on the radio, to be sold out almost as soon as it was advertised. After the interval, exceptionally, the voice of the announcer Petroc Trelawny filled the hall as he heralded the arrival on stage of Rufus Wainwright.

For some years now this popular and talented singer and composer has been performing and recording his own settings of some of Shakespeare’s sonnets. The entire second part of this concert was made up of only five of them, which seemed as if it could be short measure. But in the event it made an excellent climax to the evening.

I knew Rufus’s settings of some of the poems in their versions for voice and piano. But here he sang them with full orchestral accompaniment. And in addition each sonnet was read in advance by Sian Phillips, speaking with exemplary clarity and rhythmic sensitivity. I was especially interested by an unexpected emphasis in Sonnet 20, the one that begins ‘A woman’s face with nature’s own hand painted / Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion.’ I have always taken the words ‘as is false women’s fashion’ to imply, misogynistically, that all women are false. But by the way Sian Phillips inflected ‘false’ she suggested that the poet was referring not to the whole of the sex but only to those members of it who are false.

Many of Shakespeare’s sonnets do not lend themselves easily to musical setting. Indeed over the centuries, though the songs in the plays have inspired great settings by a wide range of composers, there have been few memorable songs based on the sonnets. They are so densely written, so finely nuanced, that music can add little to their effect. Perhaps this is why Rufus Wainwright felt that it would be helpful for us to hear them spoken in advance of his performances. But he sang them plangently, sometimes dramatically, deploying the full range of a voice which at times ascends almost into the range of the counter tenor but is capable also of declamatory impact. This was a star performance and it has to be said that in the end the evening’s star was Rufus, not Shakespeare.

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Author:Stanley Wells

Stanley Wells is Honorary President and a Life Trustee of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Emeritus Professor of Shakespeare Studies of the University of Birmingham, Honorary Emeritus Governor of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Follow Stanley on twitter @stanley_wells or visit his website
  • Linda Theil

    Three (sonnets 43, 20 and 10) of the 24 Shakespeare sonnets that Rufus Wainwright scored for Robert Wilson’s 2009 production of Sonnette are featured in Wainwright’s Decca CD All Days are Nights: Songs for Lulu  that was released in the US April 20, 2010. Wainwright’s rendering of Sonnet 29 , “When in disgrace . . .” was recorded in a 2002 EMI Classics album of Shakespeare quotes by various readers/singers titled When Love Speaks.

  • Paul Edmondson

    I really like Rufus’s setting of Sonnet 29, too, but it’s not part of the song cycle of 5 as he’s now performing them. Hope your class likes it as well.

  • http://twitter.com/shitcrit Tadz

    The best is “When in disgrace” – it’s absolutely beautiful. I’m playing it to my English class next week, actually!

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