Howard Blake’s music for Shakespeare in performance

Howard Blake

Howard Blake

This Friday, 6 June, Stratford-upon-Avon’s Orchestra of the Swan’s celebration of the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth reaches its climax with a concert of music inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Three of the four concerts in the series have featured pieces by the composer Howard Blake, best known for the song Walking in the Air that was used in the animated film of The Snowman, memorably covered by the young Aled Jones in 1985. In a long career Blake has written much else, including film music and choral and orchestral work. He has also written a number of pieces for theatre: the first was for the 1984 RSC production of Henry V that launched the young Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearean career. This was played at the second concert in which the theme was “Rosemary for Remembrance”. In the programme note he explains that in between the scenes of war, he decided to “have a harpist playing variations quietly live on stage whenever there was peace in the land. The harpist would be placed on-stage in period costume…The “theme-tune” of the production was an unaccompanied song on Shakespeare’s words”:

A scene from the 1984 Henry V with Kenneth Branagh

A scene from the 1984 Henry V with Kenneth Branagh

And sword and shield in bloody field Doth win immortal fame.
Would I were in an ale-house in London; If wishes would prevail with me,
My purpose should not fail with me;
But thither would I hie,
But thither would I hie.

Tanya Houghton was the performer at the Orchestra of the Swan concert, but the original soloist was Vanessa Sundstrup, then just beginning her career. She has recently put her own recording of this piece on YouTube. She recalls “The harp was featured as a solo instrument as a symbol of peace and was actually on stage”. I well remember her gentle playing of Blake’s music while the audience was assembling, becoming, sadly, less and less audible as the auditorium filled up. Blake’s music is beautifully melodic and I particularly like the way that you can hear the wistful words of the song “But thither would I hie” in the music.

Blake became associated with Adrian Noble’s productions, writing the songs for his As You Like It in 1985 which have also been sung in this concert series. The first concert featured another Shakespeare commission by the distinguished ex-RSC director Bill Alexander, (who also directed the stage version of The Snowman), for a student production of Twelfth Night. Blake’s version of O Mistress Mine was not actually used in the production so the concert on 16 May was its first performance.

Poster for Adrian Noble's film of A Midsummer Night's Dream

Poster for Adrian Noble’s film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

In Friday’s concert the Orchestra will play a suite of Howard Blake’s music based on that which he wrote for the film version of Adrian Noble’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This will be the first performance of this suite which Blake has created specially for the 2014 anniversary. In the programme note Blake comments “Since Adrian’s production included a motor-bike for the Mechanicals and a forest consisting of light bulbs, the score did not have to be set in a conventional “mock-Tudor” style and the character of Bottom, for instance, is conveyed by a jazzy solo trombone”. And “A solo violin begins the work announcing the main theme, redolent of fairies flying through midnight skies and enchanted happenings”. Theatre and film music can be overwhelmed by the visuals, so on this occasion it’s going to be great for the music to get the attention it deserves.  This series of concerts has been a delight and I’d like to thank conductor David Curtis for the opportunity to hear so much Shakespeare-related music in concert, and not just the obvious pieces.

As a bit of fun to celebrate Shakespeare’s birthday, the Guardian posted its suggestions of the best Shakespeare-inspired pieces of music. Several of the pieces that have featured in the Orchestra of the Swan concerts are included: Walton’s music for Olivier’s Henry V film, and Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music which we will hear on the 6th. And nobody would argue with Bernstein’s West Side Story or Verdi’s Falstaff, but The Boys from Syracuse and The Lion King – really???? Even more oddly the selection consisted of pictures, with no links to any of the music. Sadly it’s too late to vote for any of the striking but lower-profile music like Howard Blake’s that’s been specifically written for Shakespeare on stage.

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