Did you know that Mily Balakirev composed brief fantasias to precede each of the five acts of King Lear?
Never heard of Mily Balakirev? Me neither, until yesterday. He was a mentor to Tchaichovsky, a partisan of the Russian nation, a hard-working nineteenth-century musician.
A music lover can download the King Lear suite on iTunes. (They refer to him as “Balakirew.” These pieces are on the same CD as some works of a 20th-century Armenian composer, but iTunes amazingly allows you to download just the Balakirew material for $4.95.) The music was performed by the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, I believe in the 1990’s.
Listening provokes many reflections…
Was Balakirev just mailing this in, or does the largely sanguine aura of the music express a profound insight into the play? Yes, King Lear is a bitter tragedy, an enormously ugly exploration of the worst that “whoremaster man” can display of his “goatish disposition.”
But beauty emerges: the divine loveliness of pity. The King and Gloucester teach us how to look at human weakness without judgment or contempt. Maybe Balakirev intended his music to bring this aspect of the play to the fore.
The first fantasia, to precede the play’s opening scene, reminded me of just how stupendous that scene is. Don’t quote me, but I believe it is the Bard’s longest. As I think I once mentioned before, more happens in the opening scene of King Lear than has happened in many of the centuries of human history.
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…Speaking of all things Shakespeare: I am sure you know that the obscure Henry VI trilogy recounts the “War of the Roses.” These plays are rarely performed; the intricate history is even more rarely grasped.
If you were a Shakespeare troupe undertaking to perform Henry VI, Part 3, would you open the action by slowly unfurling a long banner which is emblazoned with a summary of the first two plays, while playing the Darth Vader theme in the background? Would you title the summary “Rose Wars, Episode III”?
If so, you would have done what the American Shakespeare Center did last night at the opening performance of their short-running rendition of this obscure play. It was the beginning of an enchanting two hours. These players do better with a shoestring budget than the so-called big boys in downtown Washington do with their wasted millions. Long live the American Shakespeare Center!