Thursday, February 18, 2010

Shakespeare and polyphony

Last weekend's concert at Handel and Haydn, "Zest for Love" (which I gave a quick rave to here) was that rarity - a performance that opened up for me a new window onto Shakespeare. The evening was a kind of salon of instrumental music, madrigals, and spoken text (all from the Bard, delivered by actors from the Huntington) - an unusual, polyglot form that was nevertheless only reviewed by music critics, as basically a musical concert with the occasional poem. It hinted, however, at pan-cultural themes, rather in the way that Boston Baroque's Acis and Galatea - which paired visual and musical art - did last fall.

Of course such efforts inevitably are hobbled by the mania for critical specialization that has infected our discourse. Music critics in particular are almost mad to demonstrate technical expertise rather than insight or vision. This of course makes "criticism" easy in one sense, because frankly we're surrounded by stunning musical talent in Boston; in technical terms, most local professional concerts are superb.

But this critical tunnel vision means that the whole point of efforts like "Zest" and Acis is easily missed; the Globe review of "Zest," for instance, offered as one of its few critical ideas that "More solo pieces would have provided a change of texture, and illustrated where madrigals were heading at the end of this period, toward the solo aria." This is true - Monteverdi led the way from the madrigal to the aria - but it assumes that this salon must have "really" been about its music, and doesn't actually address the form of the performance, or what kind of artistic statements could be made by that form. As for the intriguing sense of intimacy that Handel and Haydn achieved - with conductor Laurence Cummings conducting, singing, and playing keyboards while vocalists wandered the theatre and instrumentalists came and went - this too has gone un-discussed in the print press. I remember being struck by a similar kind of blindness at Acis and Galatea. "What's with those paintings?" the puzzled musical aficionados around me sniffed, before getting down to haggling over tempi and dynamics, which are, as we all know, what opera is really all about.

Now I wouldn't say that "Zest for Love" was actually some kind of triumphant synthesis; but in its pairing of Monteverdi, English madrigals, and Shakespeare, I felt (as I almost never do) that something of the actual zeitgeist of their period was in the air. When I say "period," I'm speaking roughly: many of the vocal selections sung were from Monteverdi's famous "Eighth Book" of madrigals, which was only published about twenty years after Shakespeare's death. But of course madrigals had suffused the English scene by then for decades. And one of the most intriguing of the Monteverdi madrigals performed, Lamento della Ninfa, felt almost like a madrigal-opera, with dramatic solo lines breaking free from the generally polyphonic structure.

It was hard at moments like this not to think of the Bard, and of his heroes and heroines wandering through their own densely contrapuntal thematic landscapes - and even, perhaps, of a transference of cultural ideas between one art form and another. For one of the things that makes Shakespeare unique, of course, is the "thickness" of his plays. Most of the greatest push the idea of "main plot" and "sub-plot" so far that they're really more like braided statements, in which a single theme is repeated in a lower key, or inverted, or even played in reverse - the whole repertoire of musical counterpoint is apparent in Shakespeare's structures, which is what gives his relatively short texts a breadth and depth rivalling even the greatest novels. (The only other dramatist to get close to this intertwined complexity is probably Chekhov.) And in this way they're quite similar to the musical format of the madrigal, which takes a poetic text and develops it musically via "polyphony," or the interweaving of several musical voices.

The standard critical approach to the Bard, of course, is a literary one - he derives from Marlowe, who invented the dramatic form of iambic pentameter that the upstart from Stratford then took to town. Only Shakespeare's plays don't really feel much like the gorgeous pageants of Marlowe. They feel somehow utterly distinct, as if they're operating in some other sphere. And I began to wonder - could the madrigal have been as great an influence on him as his dramatic mentor? Was one of Shakespeare's most original achievements the creation of a form of dramatic polyphony? Is part of what makes him special that sense of musical denseness we get from great Monteverdi? In short, are the plays a dramatic representation of the madrigal?

It was hard, after seeing "Zest for Love," not to feel that something like that might be the case. And that this kind of musical salon might be the only format in which to explore such questions.

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