Movement 1: Prelude: Allegro moderato e marcato
Movement 2: Marche funèbre: Andante
Movement 3: Entr'acte – Voces populi: Allegro moderato, molto marcato
It is a strange play for a Shakespearean swan-song; a problem play from which no one of significance emerges unscathed, the soldierly Coriolanus carrying his pride and injured nobility to the point of vengeful betrayal of his own city of Rome, though he had been its saviour. But for Rome’s easily swayed citizens he has a soldier’s contempt rather than a statesman’s respect, and for this he is banished from the city, only to join forces with his and Rome’s arch-enemy, Aufidius. When Coriolanus is prevailed upon by his mother, wife and son to relent, he knows it will cost him his life. Aufidius, eclipsed by Coriolanus, uses the abandonment of their joint siege of Rome as an excuse for the murder of Coriolanus, and then instantly regrets the act. The play ends with a ‘dead march’.
Mackenzie quotes Irving commenting to him, ‘As if we were not all sent into the world to fight’, and adds, ‘The strains of the Funeral March to which Coriolanus had been carried … were next heard when the great actor’s coffin was lowered to its resting-place in Westminster Abbey on October 20, 1905.’
Both Irving and Mackenzie had been through many a struggle, both personal and artistic. They knew well enough what it was like to put yourself on the line for vast audiences drawn from the citizens of an even more powerful Empire than that of Rome. However, though Coriolanus was no statesman, Mackenzie was a consummate one and, as a recently appointed knight of the realm, he was conscious of his role. The music itself is generous-hearted and statesmanlike. Irving had also been knighted, and the sets were designed by a third knight, Alma-Tadema. This music, then, has a peculiarly significant place in British cultural history. Mackenzie quotes, ‘The cynical utterance of a tired stage-hand at rehearsal to a pal “Three knights! that’s about all I’ll give it”’—but the production ran for thirty-seven nights, though the play has never been popular. The orchestra was a sore trial to the composer who was used to the days when Irving could command the best, the brass being the worst in a work in which the brass naturally predominate.
Three movements from the suite are here recorded. Following a dark opening, the Prelude expands into a beautiful second subject and the exposition ends joyously. An excitable development leads eventually to the return of the second subject with harp (Irving’s favourite instrument). The coda is triumphant.
The Marche funèbre is a masterpiece of nobility, celebrating all that was finest in Coriolanus, infused with the regret and admiration of Aufidius, moved by the power of a great communal grief. Irving could not have been buried to a finer expression of public mourning, which deserves to be as well known as the Dead March from Saul which had accompanied Irving’s coffin into the Abbey. Mackenzie’s disposition of the string parts is masterly, as is all his orchestration. The overall restraint only adds to the impressive shadow which it casts.
It may not be without significance that Mackenzie concludes the suite with an Entr’acte titled ‘Voices of the People’. In Coriolanus’s eyes they are a sweaty and unworthy crowd; in Shakespeare’s they are a disturbing presence which cannot be ignored. Mackenzie’s music gathers them together from different quarters of the city, shouts out their acclamations, and evokes their excited corporate energy. But above all it gives them their own dignity, thereby justifying their part in the workings of the state and enriching a dimension in the play necessarily restricted by production economies in the size of the crowd. He allowed this number to be performed on its own ‘as it has more variety, and is the most effective for the general public’.
from notes by John Purser © 1995