'There are few discs I expect to enjoy half as much in this year's listening. Very enjoyable, unpretentious music; a disc very well worth trying' (Gramophone)
'One of the most unexpected delights I've had for a long time' (BBC Record Review)
'This charming ode shows [Linley] sharing with Mozart something of that barely definable but unmistakable gift of melodic genius. The music is as beautiful as the text is absurd, full of shapely tunes that once heard linger hauntingly in the memory' (BBC Music Magazine Top 1000 CDs Guide)
Overture Part 2: Minuetto [1'55]
The complex of artistic and social ideas that we call the ‘Romantic’ movement originated in mid-eighteenth-century England. English artists and poets began to concern themselves with nature in the raw, with exoticism, and with the remote past; architects, obsessed with notions of the picturesque, began to revive the Gothic style; novelists created the Gothic novel. Shakespeare’s plays were crucial texts for the early Romantics; Romeo and Juliet was the perfect expression of hopeless love; Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream catered for the new interest in the supernatural, in its demonic and benign forms; Hamlet became the model for a generation of moody rebels in literature, particularly in the German Sturm und Drang movement.
Shakespeare’s plays had never entirely dropped out of the theatrical repertory in England, except for during the Civil War and Commonwealth period when the theatres were closed. After the Restoration some of them were revived, though they were mostly turned into spectacular operatic shows (Purcell’s The Fairy Queen, a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is a good example), and the texts were made to conform to Augustan ideas of order, symmetry and propriety. In the 1740s David Garrick created a new interest in Shakespeare with a revolutionary naturalistic style of acting. He corrected some of the more glaring corruptions in the texts of the plays, and began to develop the notion of Shakespeare as England’s national bard. The ‘Shakespeare industry’ effectively came into being during the bizarre three-day Shakespeare Jubilee at Stratford in 1769, devised and organized by Garrick. A strange feature of this event, and others that followed it, was that effusive poetic tributes to Shakespeare were preferred to the bard’s own words. Another was that the proceedings were musical rather than thespian. Thomas Arne played a leading role in the 1769 festival, and composed an Ode to Shakespeare with choruses, airs and ‘spoken recitatives’ (which Garrick declaimed to orchestral music); there was also a performance of Arne’s oratorio Judith, which had no Shakespearean connections.
Thomas Linley’s ‘Shakespeare Ode’ was written in the wake of the frenzy of ‘bardolatry’ provoked by the 1769 Jubilee. The text was a youthful essay by French Lawrence (1757–1809), later Professor of Civil Law at Oxford. It was first written at Winchester in 1773 as a school exercise, and was set by Linley in a revised and extended form. Lawrence was a native of Bath, where he presumably got to know the Linley family. Thomas Linley senior – singing teacher, concert organizer and composer – was the son of a Gloucestershire carpenter who settled in the city in the 1740s. Thomas’s prodigiously talented children were soon playing a prominent role in Bath’s musical life. Elizabeth Ann, Mary and Maria were accomplished singers and actresses in their teens (Mary and Maria sang in the original performance of the ‘Shakespeare Ode’), while young Tom was playing violin concertos at the age of seven and was an accomplished composer by his early teens; he studied with William Boyce, and then with Nardini in Florence (where he met Mozart) from 1768 to 1771.
On his return, Thomas junior rapidly established himself as a leading figure in London’s musical life, becoming leader of the Drury Lane orchestra in 1773; his father had begun to write for the theatre in 1767 and became its musical director in 1774. Young Thomas wrote some remarkable music in the next few years, including a large-scale anthem for the Three Choirs Festival, an oratorio (The Song of Moses), and incidental music for The Tempest and Sheridan’s The Duenna. The only known contemporary performance of the ‘Shakespeare Ode’ was given at Drury Lane on 20 March 1776, and received an excellent review in The Morning Chronicle the next day. The reviewer thought that the piece ‘must be allowed to be an extraordinary effort of genius in so young a man’, and added: ‘From the general and sincere applause with which the Ode was received, we may venture to pronounce that if Mr Linley, jun pursues his studies he will one day stand foremost in the list of modern composers.’ Not surprisingly, therefore, his death in a boating accident on 5 August 1778 at the age of twenty-two came as a considerable shock to England’s musicians. As The Morning Chronicle put it: ‘This accident has deprived the profession to which he belonged of one of its principal ornaments, and society of a very accomplished and valuable member.’
Lawrence’s text for the ‘Shakespeare Ode’ is an evocation of the supernatural element in Shakespeare’s plays, more concerned with the creation of wild, pre-Romantic atmospheres than with precise meaning. Nevertheless, a ‘plot’ of sorts can be discerned. The chorus begins by addressing the ‘guardian of that sacred land Where Avon’s wood-crown’d waters stray’. In turn, this Spirit of Avon summons Fancy who describes how Jove entrusted the infant Shakespeare to her care. Shakespeare’s youth ‘in old Arden’s inmost shade’ is described, and then the poet embarks on an evocation of the fairy atmosphere of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, conducted with phraseology derived more from Milton than from Shakespeare.
In Part 2 the skies suddenly darken, and attention shifts to the Gothic horror of Macbeth; the bass acts as a fearful but questioning observer to the ‘deeds without a name’ of the witches. The day dawns, and with it rationalism; in the clear light of the eighteenth century, the poet seems to say, elves have ceased to chase ‘with printless pace’, and Ariel no longer sails ‘along the sky’ (his flight memorably portrayed in an air with oboe obbligato, first cousin to one given to Ariel in Linley’s Tempest music). The problem, the sopranos sing in their duet, is that no one can ‘wield like Shakespeare’s skilful hand That magic wand, whose potent sway The elves of earth, of air, and sea obey’. The chorus ends the work by calling upon Fancy to ‘give another Shakespeare to our isle’.
Like much English music of the period, the ‘Shakespeare Ode’ is eclectic in style. The first two movements of the overture are in the archaic French Baroque pattern, a dotted introduction followed by a fine extended fugue (which the reviewer thought ‘masterly’); then comes a minuet with prominent writing for oboes and horns in the modern German symphonic style. In the succeeding airs and choruses Linley’s music has echoes of Purcell (in the first and last choruses), Handel (in a number of the airs), Thomas Arne (notably in the duet ‘For who can wield?’), and J C Bach (the exquisite airs ‘There in old Arden’s inmost shade’ and ‘Ariel, who sees thee now?’). Yet Linley’s own compositional voice is never swamped by his musical heritage, and in the chorus ‘What howling whirlwinds!’ he produced an astonishing evocation of early Romanticism that looks forward to Weber, Mendelssohn and even Berlioz. The reviewer thought it ‘finely expressive of sentiment’. We have added trombones to the lower vocal lines in this movement, for they are known to have featured in the original performance, though no parts for them survive; trombones were nearly always associated with the supernatural in eighteenth-century orchestral music.
The last word can be left to a writer in A Dictionary of Musicians dating from 1824: ‘Neither Purcell nor Mozart ever gave stronger proofs of original genius than could be traced in this charming ode. The rich variety of contrast in the witch and fairy music, the wild solemnity of the one, and the sportive exuberance of the other, keep the attention alive from the first bar of the overture to the close of the ode.’
Peter Holman © 1992
Other albums in this series
Dibdin: Ephesian Matron, Brickdust Man & Grenadier