Classical music concerts mark 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death

Fourth Choir

Fourth Choir - Credit: Archant

If there was ever a meaningful connection between Shakespeare and these parts of north west London I don’t know of it.

Crouch End Festival Chorus. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Crouch End Festival Chorus. Picture: Nigel Sutton - Credit: Nigel Sutton

But Shakespeare and music is another matter: the connections are endless.

And as this month brings the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death – a conspicuous event that will be celebrated internationally on April 23 – it’s worth taking note of a few of the musical commemorations happening around the day itself.

A fact to know upfront is that every Shakespeare play except one – King John – calls for music in the course of the text.

And given the circumstances of their original performance, that’s hardly surprising: on a bare stage without scenery or lighting, what was there to signal atmosphere, mood, passing time, but music?


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Irritatingly, the Bard was vague about the kind of music he required.

And none of it survives. But it would broadly have been fanfares, jigs and songs (performed by boys).

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And many of these songs have texts embedded in the play itself: O Mistress Mine, It was a Lover and his Lass, Full Fathom Five …there are some fifty famous ones.

At first these texts would probably have been performed to pre-existing ballad music that the audience already knew. But over time, composers have been drawn to them repeatedly with settings of their own.

Brahms, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Vaughan Williams, Shostakovich…most of the great names at some time or another turn to Shakespeare.

There’s no single author in world history who has been so regularly plundered for the concert stage. And you can hear choral examples on the 23rd when two leading amateur choirs give all-Shakespeare concerts.

One is Chantage (sometime winners of the BBC Choir of the Year Competition), singing at St James’s Piccadilly. And the other (maybe more exciting given the venue) is the Fourth Choir, which appears in Middle Temple Hall: the only surviving Tudor building that Shakespeare knew and worked in, and location for the first ever performance of Twelfth Night.

More extensively, there’s no shortage of composers who have turned whole Shakespeare plays into opera – or at least written quantities of incidental music for large-scale stagings.

And both those responses feature in a Shakespeare 400 gala at the Festival Hall, also on the 23rd.

Compered by Simon Callow, with the LPO and vocal stars like Dame Felicity Palmer, Simon Keenlyside and Iestyn Davies, the programme starts with Verdi whose operatic adaptations of Macbeth, Othello and Falstaff bear out his claim that Shakespeare had been in his hands and head ‘since my earliest youth’ and been ‘read and re-read’ ever after.

There are extracts from Britten’s magical Midsummer Night’s Dream – in which the key role of Tytania was written for St John’s Wood/Hampstead-based soprano Jennifer Vyvyan – and Thomas Ades’s more recent The Tempest.

But there’s also Vaughan Williams’s beautiful if impractical Serenade to Music - a setting of passages from The Merchant of Venice that in its original version requires no less than sixteen solo voices, although done here in the composer’s own adaptation for mixed choir – and William Walton’s rousing score for the famous wartime film of Henry V starring Laurence Olivier.

In advance of the anniversary day, you might want to try another LPO concert tomorrow night, April 15, that has excerpts from Prokofiev’s finest ballet Romeo and Juliet: a reminder that Shakesperian narratives end up in dance as well as song.

As for me, I’ll be observing the anniversary at Stratford-upon-Avon (where else?) in the church where he was baptised and is buried. There’s to be a concert beside Shakespeare’s grave on the night of the 22nd, given by the best secular choir I can think of outside London, the Birmingham-based Ex Cathedral, involving a re-enactment of the Ode that David Garrick wrote for the 1769 ShakespeareJubilee (music by Thomas Arne), together with a new Ode for our own times, written by the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy with composer Sally Beamish.

Don’t look for escape from Shakespeare in the coming weeks: there isn’t any. Just sit back and take it, and remember his advice on music as the food of love. Play on.

Prokofiev’s Romeo & Juliet excerpts: Festival Hall, 15th Apr, 7.30pm. Shakespeare Gala, Festival Hall, Apr 23rd 7.30pm. Details: southbankcentre.co.uk . Chantage: St James,Piccadilly, Apr 23rd, 7.30pm. Details: chantage.org. Fourth Choir: Middle Temple Hall, Apr 23rd, 7.30pm. Details here.

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