This year marks the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare (1561-1616). Many arts organizations across the globe are marking this milepost, presenting concerts, ballets, operas, and art exhibitions inspired by the Bard’s words. William Walton’s regal music for Laurence Olivier’s film of Henry V will be interspersed with spoken excerpts from the play. Haydn’s delightful “Drumroll” Symphony—the 11th of 12 such works written for London performances—opens the concert.
Franz Joseph Haydn
(Born 31 March 1732 in Rohrau, Austria; Died 31 May 1809 in Vienna, Austria)
Premiere: 2 March 1795; London
Last MSO Performance: January 1997; Marek Janowski
Instrumentation: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani, strings
Approximate Duration: 27 minutes
Often cited, with some justice, as the father of the symphony and the string quartet, the Austrian composer Franz Joseph Haydn saw both from their beginning to a high level of sophistication and artistic accomplishment. Even though he did not originate these genres, his work paved the way for the larger musical structures of Beethoven and later composers. Highly prolific, the Classical master wrote oratorios (including The Creation), sacred choral music, songs and solo cantatas, over a dozen operas, numerous string quartets and other chamber music, c50 keyboard sonatas, and 104 symphonies.
Haydn’s penultimate symphony takes its nickname from the timpani strokes that open the work. Penned in 1794-95 while the composer was in London, it had its premiere at the King’s Theatre there on 2 March 1795 as part of a Monday-evening series called the Opera Concerts.
A slow introduction follows the opening drumroll, but soon gives way to a vibrant Allegro con spirito (“fast, with spirt”) that is all smiles—zest for life cast in sonata form. There’s a brief reprise of the opening material before the final race to the end. Two folk melodies—allegedly Croatian—provide the melodic material for the second movement. The first tune is in C minor, the second in C major, and each is subjected to an imaginative pair of variations. The boisterous minuet makes effective use of the brass and timpani, and features a distinctive short-long rhythmic motif. Winds and softly intoned horns add color to its gentle trio.
A pair of unaccompanied horns opens the brilliant Finale. The violins offer a sprightly tune and the horn call is repeated quietly. That’s basically all the thematic material Haydn needs to fashion a movement of remarkable variety—melodically, harmonically, rhythmically, contrapuntally, and timbrally.
Recommended Recording: Adam Fischer, Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra (Brilliant Classics)
(Born 29 March 1902 in Oldham, England; Died 8 March 1983 in Ischia)
Premiere: October 1990; London
Last MSO Performance: MSO Premiere
Instrumentation: 3 flutes, (2nd and 3rd doubling piccolo), 3 oboes, (3rd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets, (3rd doubling bass clarinet), 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, chimes, crotale, cymbals, glockenspiel, rattle, 2 snare drums, tabor, tam tam, tambourine, tenor drum, triangle, xylophone), celeste, harpsichord, piano, 2 harps, strings
Approximate Duration: 53 minutes
The British composer William Walton is best remembered for his choral cantata Belshazzar’s Feast (1931), and for the coronation marches Crown Imperial (1937, George VI) and Orb and Scepter (1953, Elizabeth II). His generous catalogue of works encompasses choral music, solo vocal music, chamber music, ballets, an opera, orchestral music (including two symphonies), and—as evidenced in today’s program—film music.
Henry V (1944) was the first of Laurence Olivier’s three Shakespeare films. (Hamlet (1947) and Richard III (1955) were the other two.) Walton and Olivier collaborated on all three, with Henry V generally deemed the finest. For the most part, Walton did not need to set aside his usual compositional voice. To add a splash of period color, though, he utilized a few outside sources: a keyboard piece by Giles Farnaby (c1563-1640); a drinking song called “Watkin’s Ale;” three melodies from Joseph Canteloube’s (1879-1951) Chants d’Auvergne; and two old French tunes, including the well-known “Agincourt Song.”
“William [Walton] knocked out the most fantastic score for Henry V,” asserted Olivier in his autobiography, Confessions of an Actor. “Why he never achieved any Oscars for this or any of my Shakespeare films must remain a prime example of the miasmically mysterious conclusions reached by the award-giving institutions.” (Hugo Friedhofer’s music for director Billy Wilder’s The Best Years of Our Lives beat out Walton’s score for Henry V.) “For me,” explained the great actor, “the music actually made the film; otherwise it would have been a nightmare. For instance, the charge scene at Agincourt… is really made by William’s music.”
Two bright Englishmen—conductor Neville Marriner and music author and orchestrator Christopher Palmer—came up with the idea of structuring Walton’s score as a piece for speaker, orchestra, and chorus. This Scenario contains about 90 percent of the complete music, and includes recited excerpts, rearranged in various places, from the play. (For the march that opens “Embarkation,” Palmer used music Walton wrote for a projected, but never-made, ABC-TV series in 1959.) The descriptive text that follows is excerpted from Mr. Palmer’s program notes.
At the Globe Playhouse, a trumpet call announces that the Theatre is in session; a theatre orchestra in the gallery plays an Overture. The Chorus enters and introduces the play: whereupon the music resumes, this time engaging women’s and children’s voices (Farnaby’s “Rosa Solis”). The scene concludes with a fortissimo restatement of the Overture.
Interlude: At the Boar’s Head
Pistol’s bassoon theme leads into “Watkin’s Ale,” now a sombre passacaglia whose slowly repetitive inexorability marvelously represents the oncoming of death. Falstaff, delirious (attended by Mistress Quickly), remembers his last encounter with Prince Hal, who brutally repudiated him. He sinks back onto the pillow, fumbling convulsively with the sheets.
The martial allegro impetus of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples excites all to arms. The fleet sets sail from Southampton: sea-music churns and foams (a rough crossing, evidently); a few bars of the March return as coda.
Interlude: “Touch Her Soft Lips and Part”
In front of the Boar’s Head, after Falstaff death, Pistol and his companions bid farewell to Mistress Quickly; Pistol quotes some interpolated lines from Marlowe’s Tamburlaine.
The English storm Harfleur Beach; soldiers haul cannons ashore. Henry exhorts his men to assume a warlike and terrible demeanor. Cannons explode, walls of masonry come tumbling down.
The Night Watch
The French and English armies encamp for the night. Tense calm; sunny night-noises. The music warms and glows (the “Spirit of England” theme with its basso ostinato) as it depicts the King walking through the tents, dispensing hope and comfort to all. Henry reflects on the vanity of kingship (two symbols of which—the “crown imperial” and the “scepter and the ball” have a specifically Waltonian resonance) and prays for courage for his men in the trial that awaits them.
Day breaks, to music of a festive sunshine glitter. The French are in good spirits. Henry climbs onto a cart and delivers the St. Crispian’s day speech, his army clustered around him; the orchestra roars its approval. Preparations for the battle begin (“Reveillez-vous Piccars”); Henry dismisses Montjoy, ambassador for the Constable of France, who has come to demand a ransom in lieu of battle
The French drummers beat their drums, the English archers draw their bows and await the signal; the harpsichord sets its armor-plated ostinato in motion, and the music matches the accelerating tempi of the charge—trot, canter, gallop, full-tilt charge. Henry slashes down with his sword, the archers fire—and the airborne swish of the arrows is heard as a musical effect, as part of the composition. Heavy fighting ensues, the first climax showing the French advances over a hilltop. As they charge through a wood, English infantrymen jump down on them from the branches of the trees. The “Spirit of England” theme (brass) signals the turning point; an eerie calm succeeds the biggest climax (percussion crash). The next music we hear is the “Agincourt Song” (high violins, pianissimo) as Henry names the battle after the nearby castle of Agincourt. The men walk in procession to Agincourt village, and a fuller orchestral statement of the “Song” ends the movement.
Interlude: At the French Court
The great hall of the Louvre Palace, the Duke of Burgundy sues for peace; King Henry woos Princess Katherine, both successfully. In treating his selection of Canteloube’s folksongs from the Auvergne, Walton employs the apple-cheeked timbres of girls’ and boys’ voices to exquisite effect.
The King of France give the daughter’s hand to Henry in marriage; bells peal, chorus and orchestra sing the epithalamion (after Canteloube). We return to the Globe Playhouse (reprise of the Overture). The Chorus takes his leave, and, as the credit titles start, voices and orchestra launch into a formal rendering of the “Agincourt Song.” A final majestic statement of the “Spirit of England” theme is adroitly timed to coincide with the very last title of all:
The music by WILLIAM WALTON
Long shot of London, 1600. Fade in the sky above the city, fade out, THE END.
(Excerpts from Christopher Palmer’s notes for the Chandos CD recording © 1990)
Recommended Recording: Christopher Plummer; Neville Marriner, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields (Chandos)
Program notes by J. Mark Baker.