Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

'When the Power of Harmony Prevails': Jeremy Collier and the 1700 Measure for Measure

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

'When the Power of Harmony Prevails': Jeremy Collier and the 1700 Measure for Measure

Article excerpt

It is generally known that about half of Shakespeare's plays were re-written for theatrical, political or critical reasons after the Restoration, although nowadays these adaptations are rarely read.1 One feature of these stage versions, in common with original drama at the time, is the interpolation of musical effects and particularly of songs-whose words are both revealing and often overlooked in modern discussion of the plays, although in their own time they were reckoned to be of significant importance. This paper offers an account of how one playwright took a manifest, if ambiguous, part in what is generally referred to as the Collier controversy of the late 1690s, and it takes a literary-historical, rather than a specifically musicological approach.2 A very brisk introduction to contemporary arguments about music, and specifically stage music, is here followed by a closer examination of the deployment of song in Charles Gildon's version of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure of 1700.

Firstly, then, it was of course understood by theorists that music could have a profoundly moving spiritual effect but also, in practical terms, music seems to have rung out everywhere for church- and theatre-goers after the Puritan interregnum, while domestic music continued to flourish, and public concerts were inaugurated in 1672. Music was not new in the theatres, of course, but with substantial curtain music, music between the acts, and internal songs, dances and masques there was now plenty of scope for composers and librettists to respond to the taste for it.

Shakespeare's plays were not exempt from this enthusiasm: between 1662 and 1682 at least ten contained new musical moments in texts adapted more generally in many ways, although in the decade that followed his plays were hardly touched by adapters. This was a decade marked by change, with the union of the two monopoly theatres in 1682, and radical upheaval in political affairs with Charles's death in 1685 and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. From the 1690s, with the decline of a court elite dictating theatrical taste, with competition from increasingly advertised concerts, and with the formation of a second theatrical troupe in 1695, adapters turned to Shakespeare again-and laced their versions with more elaborate musical interpolation than his plays had seen since The Tempest of 1674 and Timon of 1678.3

From the early years of the 1690s there were, however, beginning to be anxious rumblings about the role of music in drama, an aspect of more general anxiety about the theatres as deleterious to public morals.4 In his acerbic antitheatrical polemic of 1698 Jeremy Collier expressed the view that music is a great art debased by service to the stage; playwrights 'work up their Lewdness with Verse, and Musick, [which] makes it more portable and at Hand, and drives it stronger upon Fancy and Practice [he wrote]; I'm sorry to see Art so meanly Prostituted: Atheism ought to have nothing Charming in its Retinue. 'Tis a great Pity Debauchery should have the Assistance of a fine Hand, to whet the Appetite'.5 The composition may not be vicious, he goes on to say, but insofar as it is deployed to 'refresh the Ideas of the Action, to keep Time with the Poem, and be true to the Subject' the tunes are contrived 'to excite a sportive Humour' and thus to

banish all Gravity and Scruple, and lay Thinking and Reflection asleep. This sort of Musick warms the Passions, and unlocks the Fancy, and makes it open to Pleasure like a Flower to the Sun. It helps a Luscious Sentence to slide, drowns the discords of Atheism, and keeps off the Aversions of Conscience. It throws a Man off his Guard, makes way for an ill Impression, and is most Commodiously planted to do Mischief. A lewd Play with good Musick is like a Loadstone Arm'd, it draws much stronger than before.6

He considers music to be almost as dangerous as gunpowder, perhaps even warranting a controlling statute; he cites the social and psychological caution of Plato and Cicero over music's powers, and then concludes that, whatever advantage the English may have in instrumental music, they lose it in the irreligious 'flaming Excess' of their rampantly lewd songs which are the 'very Spirit and Essence of Vice drawn off strong scented'. …

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