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Review from The Times
Monday, December 31, 1888.
 
SIR ARTHUR SULLIVAN’S “MACBETH” MUSIC

Before judging of the abstract merits of the music written by Sir Arthur Sullivan for the Lyceum revival of Macbeth, some people will be inclined to question the raison d’être of that music altogether. In the minds of the older generation of playgoers this drama is so intimately connected with the songs and choruses by Matthew Lock that any modern treatment, however fine, jars with their early associations. We think Mr. Irving has been right in disregarding such sentimental scruples, for they are no more. Lock – provided always he was the composer of the music, which has also been attributed to Purcell and other masters – lived in the age of the Restoration, which, although little removed from Shakespeare by length of time, knew less of his spirit than does the 19th century. The melodies and harmonies, the instrumentation and the vocal writing do not lack a certain rugged force, but they are wanting in those subtleties of workmanship and of emotion which are the birthright of the modern composer. Moreover, the words Lock set were not Shakespeare’s at all; they were borrowed for the greater part by Davenant from an earlier tragic-comedy, The Witch, by Middleton, and are little better than doggerel. Lock’s music, in brief, is quite in accord with the rough and ready style in which our forefathers used to mount Shakespeare’s plays.

At the Lyceum, where historical accuracy and pictorial effect are studied with the utmost care, something more elaborate, more in keeping with the spirit of the drama was required. Neither would it have been easy to find any one more fit for such a task than Sir Arthur Sullivan among English composers – and what a foreign composer, even of genius, would be likely to make of Macbeth those who know Verdi’s opera of that name are well aware. It should always be remembered that writing an opera is very different from writing incidental music for a spoken drama, where, after all, the play is the thing, and where music has to be satisfied with such chances as now and then offer themselves in the course of the action. Self-restraint, subordination, and assimilation to a higher purpose become in such circumstances almost as important as creative genius; and these virtues Sir Arthur Sullivan has had every opportunity of practicing during his long association with Mr. Gilbert. His music to Macbeth, in consequence, if not very profound or intensely dramatic, is singularly appropriate. It is never in the way when not wanted, never out of the way when required; and the composer deserves praise for what he has left undone no less than for what he has accomplished.

Let us cite a case in point. It has been said that some poems are so musical in themselves that they do not require, and, indeed, lose much of their beauty by, the addition of actual melody. Such a poem is the sleep-walking scene as conceived by Miss Ellen Terry – a presentment, pathetic, almost tender, in its beauty, in spite of the undercurrent of terrible memories. An aspiring composer might here have discovered one of the chances aforementioned, and would probably have spoiled the impression by some “slow music” of the approved pattern. Sir Arthur Sullivan knows better than this; not a sound is heard in the orchestra, and the voice of the actress is the only music which breaks the silence.

Another matter in which the composer has shown much, perhaps too much, discretion is the almost total absence of what is called local colour. Whether he shares the opinion of those who hold that the Scotch tunes we know are of comparatively recent date and were brought from the sunny south by Rizzio, Chastelard, and other followers of Queen Mary, or whether he merely reflected that local colour, if laid on too thickly is apt to pall, certain it is that there is in his music very little to remind us that the scene of the play is laid north of the Tweed. A few exceptions to this rule might be cited, but barring these Sir Arthur Sullivan has been intent upon giving emotional emphasis rather than a local habitation to the action by musical means; and we are inclined to think that here also he has acted wisely.

The most important, or, at least, most continuous orchestral number of the score is the overture – a finely conceived and effectively instrumented piece of music, steering a kind of middle course between the classical form and the prelude in the modern sense of the word. For, although the themes are worked out according to rule, their dramatic significance is duly insisted upon, and a successful attempt at evolving a “leit motive” for the witches and the baneful influence they represent can clearly be recognized. There is no slow introduction; the overture starts boldly with an allegro non troppo vivace in the sombre key of C minor. A second subject enters in due course and gives rise to interesting and varied combinations. Note, also, the anticipation of the chorus of spirits with its tripping accompaniment of demi-semiquavers in the muted strings. It is by such means as these that the keynote of the events to follow is struck, and the true mission of an overture accomplished. The work could well bear a separate performance and will no doubt be heard on the concert platform before long.

After a very brief introduction to the first act proper, the curtain rises, and the weird sisters are seen on the wind-swept heath near Forres. It has become apparent at once on what principle the composer chiefly relied throughout the piece. He uses the melodrama or spoken dialogue with orchestral accompaniment extensively and in the happiest manner. The witches declaim, they do not sing, and their voices in juxtaposition and contrast with the musical sound are of the wildest and uncanniest effect. Later on, we may here remark, the melodrama is frequently accompanied by the harp – an instrument well adapted for that purpose. The rhythmical dance or step of the witches should specially be noted. This takes the form of a kind of danse grave in common time. Very ingenious is the manner in which the rhythm is taken up by the drum in the distance, marking as it were the inter-connexion of supernatural and natural events.

It remains to mention in this act the suave and beautiful music which accompanies King Duncan’s arrival at Inverness and his reception by Lady Macbeth, and which, to use the words of the play, “nimbly and sweetly recommends itself unto our gentle senses.” Of the treachery underlying the words of welcome no warning note rises from the strings of the harp which accompany the dialogue to the close.

The introduction to the second act (according to the division of Mr. Irving’s acting version) is reminiscent of the overture and does not call for detailed notice; that to the third takes its character from the feast so rudely interrupted by the appearance of Banquo’s ghost. It is a broadly developed melody in G major given out by the strings.

By far the most important scene in a musical sense is, of course, Macbeth’s visit to the witches’ cavern, which, in the present version, occupies the fourth act. The incantation is introduced by an andante maestoso of a singularly weird character, and that character is well sustained throughout the scene. As each apparition rises from the cauldron the strains of the orchestra emphasize its nature in an individual striking manner. Of the first chorus it will be sufficient to say that it is cast in the mould of the prologue to the Golden Legend; of course minus the bells. Unfortunately, this impressive episode ends in an anti-climax, for which the composer is not solely responsible. Just as the curtain is about to fall the chorus of spirits is presented to the eye – in our opinion a concession to stage routine destroying the mystery of the scene which is its essence.

Yielding to the same spirit the composer in his final chorus becomes loud and operatic, evil-tongued persons might say “Pinaforean.” The fault is in both cases a solitary one, but is felt all the more for that reason. It is needless to add that the piece, being very noisy, brought down the house and led to a call for Sir Arthur Sullivan.

From the remainder of the score we need only point out the idyllic piece which introduces the opening scene of the fifth act, laid, it will be remembered, in an English country lane. Played well throughout, Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music materially contributed to the success of one of the most memorable revivals witnessed on the London stage for many years past.

To while away the “waits” between two of the acts the “Water Music” and “March” from the same composer’s incidental music to Henry VIII were played. These, being quite out of character, spoiled the general effect and should be omitted without hesitation.


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