Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth Title - Macbeth

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Henry Irving
Henry Irving

Sullivan accepted a proposal to write incidental music to Henry Irving’s forthcoming production of Macbeth on 2 June 1888 and on 13 July fixed the remuneration at five guineas a night. Henry Irving’s company, with Ellen Terry as his leading lady, had been established in the Lyceum for a decade and was famous for his prestigious and lavish productions. That Sullivan was prepared to undertake the commission for such modest remuneration suggests he was intending to use the music to produce a suite suitable for inclusion in orchestral programmes. Sullivan began composition in November, completing the scoring on Boxing Day. Hermann Klein claimed credit for persuading Irving that not only music for the play itself should be commissioned, but also an overture - despite Irving’s feelings that ‘overtures to tragedies’ had become obsolete.

In an undated note from Irving to Sullivan. Irving describes the kind of military signals required in the play , presumably confirming what had evidently been already under discussion.

Trumpets and drums are the King’s (Duncan’s) behind scenes.
Entrance of Macbeth only drum. (‘A drum, a drum, Macbeth doth come.)
Distant march would be good for Macbeth’s exit in 3 rd scene - or a drum and trumpets as you suggest.
In the last act there will be several flourishes of trumpets. (‘Make all our trumpets speak,’ etc.,) and roll of drums sometimes.
Really anything you can give of a stirring sort can be brought in.
As you say, you can dot these down at rehearsals - but one player would be good to tootle-tootle, so that we could get the exact time.

As well as the overture and music to cover the action of the play, Sullivan also composed preludes to Acts I, III, IV, and VI, and ‘melodrama’ ( music as background to speech). In the witches’ cavern (Act IV) there were also choral settings for female voices of ‘Black spirits and white’ and ‘Come away, come away’.

The opening of Macbeth on 29 December was as crammed and excited an occasion as an Irving first night was bound to be. Two days earlier, Sullivan had written to his old friend Arthur Cecil:

I have not dared write to you about Macbeth on Saturday for I have tried fruitlessly to get you stalls. Irving of course has his own clientèle for first nights as we do at the Savoy, and all stalls were promised. The only thing he has been able to do is give me a box - it is not on the Grand Tier but just above it and it is an excellent one. I accepted it at once and if I were you I would take it and come to the first performance. I have obtained a promise from Bram Stoker that if four stalls should be returned I am to have them. Let me know whether you will accept the box ( a Christmas box from me).

[Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula (1897), was Henry Irving's Company Manager at this time.]

His nephew was with Sullivan when he drove to the Lyceum - where he was to conduct the opening night himself, having supervised the rehearsals of the orchestra and chorus. After the first night performance, Sullivan wrote in his diary:

We left at 7.15 for
The production of Macbeth at the Lyceum Theatre
Words by Shakespeare.
Music by Sullivan.
Produced by Irving.
Great Success!
Author, composer and stage-manager called enthusiastically.
Only the latter two responded.

The music received a long review in The Daily Telegraph of 3 January 1889 in which the reviewer praised the ‘appropriate charm’ of the score and its ‘quaint, old-world flavour’ at certain suitable points. “Speaking generally, we must say of Sir Arthur Sullivan’s Macbeth music that it ranks with the best of his efforts in the same line.”

As Arthur Jacobs pointed out, since his last such ‘effort’ had been Henry VIII (produced in 1877 - further back than Pinafore!) this was not the most rapturous acclaim. Performing opposite Irving, Ellen Terry showed (according to a heavily ironical notice in the Standard) that ‘Lady Macbeth can be metamorphosed into a model of womanly sweetness and charm’.

It was expected that the whole of the Macbeth music would be published in piano score, but for some reason it was not. The overture alone was printed five years later in orchestral score and also appeared in an arrangement for military band.

Arthur Jacobs wrote of the overture:

Though the opening of the overture suggests a tragic tone, with its hammer-like succession of three identical minor chords, Sullivan chose not to anticipate in his overture the outcome of the play: the piece ends in a major key with the recurrence of a theme of festive pomp. The original presentation of this theme strongly recalls the appearance of the ‘Tower’ theme in the overture to Yeomen. The overture to the play is more ‘motivic’ (that is, using short thematic cells rather than whole tunes) and in harmonic respects may also be considered the more advanced, but of the two it is significantly the Yeomen overture that remains memorable.

Percy Young, after stating that the overture was uneven in inspiration goes on to say that it has some passages with an austerity unusual in Sullivan, while the manner in which the musical argument is conducted in the development of thematic material has a tragic sense not otherwise found in his works. He continues:

So far as motif material is concerned there is enough to furnish the framework of an opera. After three bars of peremptory tonic chords á la Beethoven in C minor, Sullivan introduces a ‘tragic’ motif which in recapitulation is shown in A minor against a pulsating viola figure. The most striking motive in the first subject group, however, is one which suggests a northern landscape, and that for once Sullivan had allowed the deep-seated pessimism evident in some of his letters to come to the surface. This motive is heard in dramatic guise at the beginning of the development section, after the pageantry of the second subject themes in the warmer climates of E flat major and B flat major has passed. These themes represent ‘martial’ ardour (used again for Act 1, Scenes 3 and 4, and for battle scenes in the last act of Irving’s production), and ‘gracious Duncan’. The exposition of the Overture ends in the distance, and as the last chord dies away the grimmer aspects of life are revealed in terms later used by Sibelius. After this, the tonality of E minor is established, in which there is a witches dance.

Macbeth shows facets of Sullivan’s music that are least generally known, and how, perhaps, he could have succeeded in the field of serious opera if he had lived in the right kind of climate. One other remarkable passage in the exposition is the appearance of a motive to delineate the ghost of Banquo (this was introduced into the Prelude to Act 2). The violas linger on the dominant E flat, and there then supervenes a tremulous passage in which the first violins and flute transmute the first subject.

Henry Irving had neither required nor expected music of such complexity, and the more recondite parts of the score show an appreciation of nervous tension that was alien to any concept of production by Irving. Taking into account all Sullivan’s incidental music to the plays, it is to be regretted that no one thought of encouraging him to undertake a Shakespearian libretto.

Robin Gordon-Powell has issued a new full orchestral/conducting score of Sullivan's incidental music to Macbeth. Complete orchestral material is also available.

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