“What was his surprize, when the Thunder ceasing to roll, a full strain of melodious Music sounded in the air.”

Posted by Emma McEvoy on May 26, 2011 in Dr Emma McEvoy, Guest Blog tagged with ,

Wildhorn’s Jekyll and Hyde last month, Lloyd Webber’s Love Never Dies last week – I’ve been experiencing the contemporary Gothic musical lately.   Whilst thinking about the ways in which music may be presented as Gothic, I started wondering how they did it in eighteenth-century theatre.  As I was going to the British Library anyway, I decided to see what I could find out from their archives about the music of Matthew Lewis’s The Castle Spectre.  This seemed the most obvious work to start investigating, for whilst reading the play I had noticed the prominence given to the name of the composer, Michael Kelly.  I also had a dim memory of reading in Paul Ranger’s Terror and Pity reign in every Breast, a description of the play as a drama “of a mingled nature, Operatic, Comical and Tragical” (from the St James Chronicle).

Lewis’s ventures into drama were often closely associated with noteworthy music and at least three of plays were specifically presented as melo-dramas (song-dramas).  Incidents in The Monk had been turned into a “grand ballet pantomime” (music by Charles Farley) performed at the Theatre-Royal, Covent Garden.   (He even wrote music himself:  in 1808 a collection of his ballads was issued, “the Words and Music by M. G.  Lewis”. )

Unfortunately I could find no record of a performing score for The Castle Spectre amongst the holdings of the BL (or the Theatre Museum) but I did turn up something which promised to be interesting.   It was a kind of eighteenth-century equivalent of the CD of the show: some sheet music, its title page festooned with flourishes and flamboyant writing.

Its title page reads:

The Castle Spectre

as now performing with unbounded applause

at the

Theatre Royal Drury Lane

The Words by G.M. Lewis Esqr

The Music by

Michael Kelly

The price was two shillings.  Its contents are: the glee “Megan oh oh Megan ee” (“The Favorite”); an eight-bar lullaby entitled “The Spectre Song”; the “Music from the Oratory while the Ghost appears” by “Iomelli”; and a four-bar “Jubilate” (so commonplace it seemed to me hardly worth their transcribing).   It is bound with some other works of the period, which look equally intriguing: amongst them, settings of “When shall we three meet again” and “The Red Cross Knight”.  I had to go and sit at a special desk to look through the volume and they took my ticket hostage whilst it was in my care.

This was a good find although there was a lot that it didn’t tell.  It didn’t indicate original orchestration for the most part, or give evidence of any further incidental music.  It gave no indication of sound effects either.  (Paul Ranger gives an entertaining account of some of the means used in the theatres of the time to achieve different sea sounds, massive thunder claps, castle sieges, ship’s distress signals etc..)  What it did have was the show’s greatest hits transcribed for home performance.  However, it got me thinking – in a limited way of course for my knowledge of late eighteenth-century theatre music is minimal.

What I suppose I was looking for was some sign of the music being conceived of as Gothic.  Perhaps this might be indicated through the use of a kind of pastiche historicism.   As I wrote in my last post, Beckford, also a keen musician, had music which suggested “antient Catholic times” played for his Fonthill festivities.  Perhaps the Gothic mode might be indicated through particular instrumentation.  There might be emphasis on martial trumpet sounds.  (There are numerous references to trumpets in The Mysteries of Udolpho and at one point Emily realizes that the “fierce trumpet and the shrill fife were the only instruments she had heard, since her arrival at Udolpho.”  (vol. II chapter XI)).  There might be evidence of use of an eerie-sounding instrument.  Mervyn Heard mentions the use of the Glass Armonica for Robertson’s Paris Phantasmagoria.

Here’s a Glass Armonica being played

Benjamin Franklin's Glass Armonica

Perhaps the music would employ tell-tale musical idioms, eighteenth-century equivalents of Psycho’s high strings or early cinema’s diminished seventh chords.

[jwplayer mediaid=”7544″]

I turned my attention to the sheet music.  The short lullaby of studied artlessness didn’t seem to reveal much (and wasn’t up to much either).  However, “Megan oh oh Megan ee” was a different matter.  It is a glee, composed by the celebrated Irish tenor, Michael Kelly who by this point, and after long experience on the Continent, was well established at Drury Lane.   I’ve been reading quite a few references to glees and catches lately and have found them an interesting phenomenon.  They are unaccompanied part songs.  A catch is a kind of round, a glee is a song for three or more voices singing different parts.  Glees became especially popular in the eighteenth century and glee and catch clubs provided a lively form of male sociability: Boswell, trying to establish himself in a suitable London scene, mentions going to the Noblemen and Gentlemen’s Catch Club with his rather disreputable friend, Lord Eglinton in 1763.  Increasingly, towards the end of the century women were invited as guests and to sing soprano parts.

What I found particularly intriguing when reading up on the glee was the suggestion that its eighteenth-century resurgence might be linked with the cultural currents that produced in 1726 what came to be called the Academy of Ancient Music, which had a particular interest in the madrigal.   Certainly the fact that The Castle Spectre’s music lay bound with settings of “When shall we three meet again” and “The Red Cross Knight” in the British Library volume seemed to suggest that it was quite easy to think of the glee as an ancient form (despite the homophonic rather than contrapuntal nature of the eighteenth-century kind).  This seemed an interesting lead in the case of the Castle Spectre’s “Megan” which has both a sense of faux antiquity and a supposed folk naivety (though of course it’s employed very artfully at this moment in the play).  Here’s a sound file of the first section.  I haven’t been able to find anyone to sing it at such short notice, but here it is played on a keyboard.

[jwplayer config=”Out-of-the-Box_copy” mediaid=”7551″]

“Megan” has echoes of the next piece in the sheet music: the extract from a Chaconne by “Iomelli”.  Presumably Kelly advised on the use of this piece.  Above it, are the words “Music from the Oratory while the Ghost appears”.  This seemed promising.  Was this going to be the shock horror Ur-Gothic moment of the piece?  Was it going to be music which suggested “antient Catholic times”?

Niccolo Jommelli - artist unknown

No and yes.  Though Jommelli may have been Catholic he wasn’t particularly ancient but was an eighteenth-century Italian composer known for the dramatic flair of his work.  Kelly had probably heard a lot of his music whilst working in Italy.  However, there is a sense in which Jommelli’s piece just by virtue of being a chaconne – a form which by the 1790s had become outmoded – might have suggested a kind of relative ancientness.  (And numerous Gothic texts of the eighteenth century indicate that something need not be particularly distant in time to be presented as belonging to an ancient and outdated world.)

Here is the Jommelli, courtesy of youtube.  The extract used in The Castle Spectre is that which takes you up to 36 seconds.

The main difference between this clip and what the sheet music stipulates lies in the instrumentation.  It has been scored in the sheet music for Horns in E flat, clarinets and piano-forte.  (It’s interesting to note that Drury Lane Theatre had appointed an official pianist as early as 1770.)

By a stroke of luck I had Jeffrey Cox’s Seven Gothic Dramas open beside me and I looked down to see a reference to the very moment of the play when this music is heard: the moment when the ghost of the heroine’s mother appears.  (Lewis has a thing for mothers who come to the rescue.  The ghost of Angela’s mother isn’t the only one to manage to do it while she’s dead.  Zorayda in the comedy The East Indian is saved by her dead mother in the form of a portrait.)

Here is the relevant extract from Boaden’s Reminiscences of John Kemble (1825):

“The Drury Lane management was now at an end, when a lucky hit by Monk Lewis, as he was called from his romance, filled the treasury nightly.  I allude to his dramatic romance, called the Castle Spectre, acted for the first time (the last is not yet known) on the 14th of December, 1797.  But it is too strongly impressed upon the memories of all my readers to require in this place any detail of its story.  The precedent given by myself was followed with beautiful effect, and I yet bring before me, with delight, the waving form of Mrs. Powell, advancing from the suddenly illuminated chapel, and bending over Angela (Mrs. Jordan) in maternal benediction; during which slow and solemn action, the band played a few bars, or rather the full subject at all events, of Jomelli’s Chaconne, in his celebrated overture in three flats.  Pardon, my dear Kemble, the captivation of an unearthly music. I will attend upon Percy and yourself immediately.”

This then was the moment for that music.  And it had proved to be the most abiding moment of the play, still hallowed in memory more than twenty-five years later.  Although I had been looking for a Gothic music of terror, horror, dissonant ambiance, I had ended up with the music of transcendence, the music of what Robert Miles, who applies the term to Coleridge and Radcliffe, might call “spiritual Gothic”.

I found The Castle Spectre’s music intriguingly Radcliffean in some respects.  The glee is reminiscent of the music of merry peasants in the landscape, or of the beautiful heroines singing at their windows.  The extract from the Jommelli is the music of the sublime.

There is another sense, however, in which Lewis’s/Jommelli’s captivating “unearthly music” definitely isn’t Radcliffean.  In Udolpho, Emily, fearing her aunt’s murder, and thinking on her father’s death, recalls the unexplained “solemn music she had heard” the day before, and as she remembers “suddenly the notes of sweet music” again  “passed on the air.” (chapter 11 vol II).  Radcliffe impresses on us that it is “superstition” that makes Emily feel “as if her dead father had spoken to her in that strain”.   In Lewis’s play, of course, “that strain” accompanies the appearance of an actual ghost.

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