Measure for measure

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The Chandos Portrait of William Shakespeare.
The Chandos Portrait of William Shakespeare.

Last night I was browsing through my well-thumbed reference book The Art of Music Engraving and Processing. It was written in 1970 by Ted Ross and it’s one of a handful of rather technical books which are essential reading for those involved in the writing, production or printing of music. Of course, back in the 1970s we didn’t have computers to do the job, though music typewriters were being developed. Generally they produced pretty awful results and they didn’t catch on.

In the 1970s, commercially printed music was usually produced by manually engraving a reverse image of the music on to a pewter plate. Every page required its own plate and the notes and other musical signs were produced with punches hit with a small hammer. It was a slow and laborious business preceded by a process known as “casting off” during which the number of staves and measures to a page would be decided.

An instrumental part in which the number of beats changes in every measure.
An instrumental part in which the number of beats changes in every measure.

You probably know that most printed music is divided into what Americans call measures and the British call bars. Their main purpose is a visual aid to the performer because they divide the printed music into small manageable chunks.  Each measure contains a specified number of beats and the measures are divided by vertical lines known as “bar lines”. The number of beats per measure (known as a time signature) is shown at the start of the music. Much 20th century music contains different numbers of beats in each measure so that extra time signatures are added as necessary.

My musing about measures reminded me of the Shakespeare play of the same name which is thought to have been written in 1603 or 1604. By the oddest of coincidences, I discovered that he was baptized on 26 April 1564. No one is certain in what year Shakespeare was born for much of his life is surrounded by mystery. We don’t even know what he looked like. The so-called Chandos Portrait is the one most often reproduced in books, but no one knows who painted it nor whether it really depicts Shakespeare. Even so, his thirty-seven plays have inspired countless musical works including over three hundred operas. In recent years musicologists have discovered that there are over two thousand musical compositions linked to Shakespeare’s works.

Peter Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture. Thai Youth Orchestra cond. Paye Akkrawat Srinarong (Duration: 21:13; Video: 1080p HD)

During Shakespeare’s lifetime, Romeo and Juliet was one of his most popular plays and even today it’s performed more frequently than the others. It was written early in his career, probably between 1591 and 1595 though it drew heavily on earlier historical sources. Many composers have written music inspired by this play and the stand-alone overture by Tchaikovsky and the full-length ballet by Prokofiev are two of the best-known. The play has been adapted numerous times for stage and film, perhaps most notably as the basis of the 1957 musical West Side Story. At least twenty-four operas have been based on the play.

Tchaikovsky was profoundly inspired by the works of Shakespeare, whose work was well-known in19th-century Russia. The idea of using the Romeo and Juliet story as the basis for an orchestral work came from Tchaikovsky’s older colleague, the composer Balakirev. Tchaikovsky produced three versions of the work, not all of them successful and the one usually heard today is the final version completed in 1880. Even if you don’t know the work, the famous “love theme” (08:22) will probably sound familiar.

This performance was recorded last August at the Thai Cultural Centre by the Thai Youth Orchestra which was founded in 1986.

Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953): Romeo and Juliet Suite. Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France cond. Myung-Whun Chung (Duration: 24:25; Video: 720p)

Prokofiev wrote the score for a full-length ballet based on the play in 1935. As so often happens, Prokofiev later reworked music from the ballet to form three orchestral suites and a solo piano work. If you haven’t got two-and-a-half hours necessary to watch the entire ballet, this suite is a delightful sampler. It is typical of Prokofiev’s tuneful, sometimes angular, spiky music. It is also one of the few classical orchestral scores that include a tenor saxophone. There’s some lovely music here and if you are new to Prokofiev, this is a splendid place to start.