Musical Notes

Welcome to the archive

August 1, 2014

Ever since the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre opened in 1879, music has been an integral part of the productions in Stratford-upon-Avon.

page from a Vaughan Williams scoreOver the years, the materials from these productions, including music scores, have been gathered together and archived with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Some of the great names of British music over the last century have written for us, including Ralph Vaughan Williams. His scores show evidence of haste – not unusual for a theatre composer.

I've been very interested in the archive since I first worked here, because it's a snapshot of British musical life over the last century and more.

Every RSC production has new music commissioned specifically for that production; we are one of the biggest and most successful generators of contemporary music.

Earlier in the 20th Century, before the granting of the Royal Charter, pre-existing music would sometimes be arranged and performed for the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre productions. All the scores, parts and materials from shows, then and now, whether arrangements or newly composed scores, would be packed up together and delivered to the Shakespeare's Birthplace Trust. This has happened after every show since 1900 - or it should have!

Sheet of old music manuscript signed by Everard AshtonThere are inevitably some holes in the collection. I wonder what might have been lost in the fire in 1926; occasionally there is a note in the archive that the composer took the manuscript home. Sometimes, a part may be missing; often there are contradictory duplicates. Pretty often there is a complete labelled set showing who the composer, copyist and music director were; often, players make marks of their own on individual parts. So the archive is a time capsule of the people who worked on RSC music, and also of changing trends in our music over the years, and how we have presented it in the shows. It's a fascinating resource which has only partly been explored.

The vast collection of music at the Birthplace archive is full of fascinating stories; who was Everard Ashton? (watch this space…..). We have been looking through it with a variety of projects upcoming in mind, and have come across forgotten careers that its great fun to find the time to research and resurrect. With more than 100 years of music, there are plenty of stories to choose from.

The Tempest script with notesWe first presented a concert of music from our archive in 2007, an event which opened our eyes to our own history. Also, we are now intending to make a CD of the music for each of or Shakespeare productions over the next 10 years, as we explore the entire canon. Each CD will include tracks from the archive, so the series will build both a resource of contemporary theatre music and snapshots of what RSC Music has been.

I will be blogging about our exploration of the music archive, and sharing some of the stories that we uncover along the way concerning the women, men, and music that have all contributed to a tradition and legacy of theatre music in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Occasionally there is an unexplained document. Brian Priestman was a Music Director here from 1960-1963, when the Company was granted its Royal charter. Brian and his work will be the subject of a subsequent blog, but I love the letter below. Anyone have any ideas what the RSC/Billy Smart's Circus collaboration involved?

Letter to the theatre from Billy Sart's circus

by Richard Sandland  |  4 comments

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Aug 5, 8:35am
Splanglegroit the Third, Esq.

*with a variety of upcoming projects

RE Billy Smart's Circus: elephants as crowd extras?

Aug 9, 4:16pm
Comfrey the Bunny

Perhaps Billy Smart's Circus thought they could help to upscale "Taming of the Shrew" -(RSC at the Aldwych Theatre, Autumn 1961) in a REALLY big way!? :)

Aug 25, 5:27pm
Sylvia Morris

This is a fantastic series of posts on a much-neglected subject, and I look forward to many more. A post mentioning this series will go up on The Shakespeare blog ( towards the end of September!

Sep 25, 11:40am
Jonathan Evans

Delighted that you've already released Edward Gregson's wonderful 'Henry IV' score, but could I put in a request for some Ilona Sekacz, particularly her music for 'Much Ado About Nothing' with Roger Allam and Susan Fleetwood in the late eighties?

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