William Shakespeare Op. 74, Overture to the incidental music
Overture to William Shakespeare
op. 74 (1825-26)
Born in Lower Saxony in 1786 into a family of German musicians, Friedrich Kuhlau is today considered one of the most important of all Danish composers. In 1810 he fled from Hamburg to Copenhagen in order to avoid conscription into Napoleon’s advancing troops. He then remained in Denmark, using Copenhagen as a base of operations for his many educational journeys and concert tours of Germany, Austria, and Scandinavia.
Though Kuhlau was appointed musician to the royal chamber in 1813 (his remuneration would only follow years later), this remarkably productive composer earned his livelihood by teaching, composing music on commission for German and Danish publishers, and functioning as a foreign correspondent for the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung. Success with the public only came with his first opera Røverborgen (The Robber’s Castle). His most popular work during his lifetime was his music for Elverhøj (The Elves’ Hill), a festive play composed for a royal wedding in 1828 and still heard frequently today. Outside of Denmark he is best known for his compositions for piano and for flute.
Another of Kuhlau’s most popular works is his incidental music to the play William Shakespeare by Caspar Johannes Boye, a writer also known for having translated several of Shakespeare’s works into Danish. This romantic play, based on a legend from Shakespeare’s youth and interspersed with a number of fairy scenes, was originally meant to be premièred in 1826 for the king’s birthday. In the event, the première took place two months later, on 28 March, in the Royal Theater in Copenhagen. Besides the overture, Kuhlau’s score also contained strophic songs and ballet scenes, among other things.
William Shakespeare was warmly acclaimed by the public and received more than twenty performances over the next two decades. Kuhlau himself was handsomely rewarded for his contribution. Ignaz Moscheles, who visited Copenhagen in 1829, was so taken by the score that he sought to have the play performed in London – or so we are informed by Jørgen Erichsen’s Kuhlau biography of 2011. In the event, the performance never took place.
Today Kuhlau’s incidental music to William Shakespeare is known only for its great symphonic Overture in C major, which has become independent of the play and the theater score and now numbers among his most frequently heard works. Gorm Busk, to whom we owe much of our biographical and musical information on Kuhlau as well as many editions and excerpts of his music, describes the style of the overture as not dissimilar to Beethoven’s in many respects. As a possible link, he mentions Kuhlau’s visit to the famous composer in Baden in 1825. (Beethoven’s conversation books, a surviving letter, and a number of canons exchanged between the two men bear witness to this brief meeting, which is said to have been a thoroughly tipsy experience.) Staccato runs, lyrical solo passages for horn, and repeated chordal hammerblows in the slow introduction, Busk maintains, suggest parallels with Beethoven’s symphonies, which were little-known in Copenhagen at the time. But in no way do they contradict Kuhlau’s own late-classical and early romantic idiom. His stage works of the 1820s were unquestionably pioneering achievements in Denmark’s high romanticism.
Translation: Bradford Robinson
For performance material please contact Verlag Neue Musik, Berlin. Reprint of a copy from the Musikabteilung der Leipziger Städtischen Bibliotheken, Leipzig.
210 x 297 mm