Haunted by Shakespeare's witches?

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Matthew Guerrieri writes for The Boston Globe:

On Tuesday, Yellow Barn presents a free concert, a thank you to the residents of the chamber music center’s hometown of Putney, Vt. The concert includes an echo of a rather grimmer homecoming: Ludwig van Beethoven’s Piano Trio in D (Op. 70, No. 1), called the “Ghost” Trio because of the eerie nature of its slow movement — which, it has often (if not uncontroversially) been speculated, was originally created for an operatic adaptation of William Shakespeare’s “Macbeth,” an adaptation abandoned after Beethoven’s librettist begged off the project, put off by the story’s unremitting darkness. (In 2001, Beethoven’s few sketches were fashioned into a reconstructed “Macbeth” overture by Dutch composer Albert Willem Holsbergen.)

The play’s First Folio printing included indications for a few songs — probably numbers by Robert Johnson, who also wrote music for “The Tempest”; by the 1700s, “Macbeth” was performed with incidental music so common it was called the “Famous Music,” attributed to everyone from Matthew Locke to Henry Purcell, but most likely by a singer and composer named Richard Leveridge. But Shakespeare himself specified comparatively little music in the original script. Leveridge’s contributions date from the Restoration era; even Johnson’s songs were probably interpolated only some years after the play’s premiere, for a performance at court. Apart from some brief fanfares to establish royal and martial atmosphere, “Macbeth,” it seems, was conceived as a musically austere experience.

That music for the play proliferated around its most exotic characters — Johnson’s songs and Leveridge’s settings were in service of scenes featuring the three witches — is also significant. Music was a stand-by for Elizabethan scenes of witchcraft and sorcery, with awkward dancing and sudden, reedy instrumental blasts reinforcing witches’ unearthliness and melancholic menace. It may have been a later addition, but for a lean staging of “Macbeth” to suddenly erupt into a masque-like musical number would have been discontinuous and inappropriate in all the right ways.

Over time, the witches and their music came to be a pleasurable highlight rather than a disconcerting dissonance. Joseph Addison, writing in 1711, complained of some fellow audience members who chatted throughout the rest of “Macbeth” waiting only for the witches, who they complimented as “charming creatures” — a far cry from the infernal figures who promise to “charm the air to give a sound.” The “Ghost” Trio, perhaps, preserves a hint of that sorcery, but Beethoven’s version of Macbeth’s trumpets — “Those clamorous harbingers of blood and death” — was destined to remain unwritten.

Find out about Yellow Barn's free concert for the community on Tuesday, July 28