Thursday, October 20, 2011

Haydn's Setting of Shakespeare

This morning I used my site to reflect on a student recital of the vocal works of Haydn and Mozart given at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.  I began by observing that the program consisted of eighteen compositions by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and only one by Joseph Haydn and then went on to focus my attention on Mozart’s K. 476, “Das Veilchen,” drawing upon observations that I had previously posted on this site.  However, that one selection by Haydn is worth a bit of consideration on its own.  If the K. 476 was particularly “literary” for using a text by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the one Haydn song on the program (Hoboken XXVIa/34) distinguished itself with a passage from William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night:

She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm i’ the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek …
She sat like Patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief.

In a section on “Shakespeare and Music” in Shakespeare:  An Oxford Guide, John Gross observes that “Scholars have listed over 20,000 pieces of music associated with Shakespeare;”  but he does not go very deep when it comes to saying anything about the composers of all of that music.  He singles out a few reputable names, the earliest of which is that of Franz Schubert, who set German translations of both “Hark, hark, the lark” from Cymbeline (D. 889) and “Who is Sylvia?” from The Two Gentlemen of Verona (D. 891).  There is no mention of the fact that, as far as the Classical tradition is concerned, Haydn got there first.

“She never told her love” was the fourth of a second set of six “original canzonettas” with English texts that Haydn published in 1795 while in London.  He thought that source text for another of his songs, “The Spirit’s Song” (Hoboken XXVIa/4), was also by Shakespeare;  but he was mistaken on that one.  What is particularly interesting is that, while there are several songs included in Twelfth Night, “She never told her love” is not one of them.  The passage comes from a more serious scene between Viola and the Duke in Act II.  Haydn set it in a relatively unembellished manner, which makes for a nice setting of how it is usually delivered by Viola.  Only towards the end does he provide an opportunity for the singer to show off a bit.  Haydn may never have been particularly comfortable with English, but this song resonates with Shakespeare well enough that it deserves a bit more respect from the Shakespeare scholars!

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