This page was written on 14 July 2017
I have just watched a superb programme that I had recorded from Sky Arts. The concert opened with Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 1 – which he had composed when he was only 15 years old. When I was 15 years old, and planning a career as a professional musician, I was still struggling with four-part harmony and counterpoint. The London premiere of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 1 was given at the Royal Philharmonic Society in London on 25 May 1829, conducted by the composer – who was still only 19 years old. By the time I was 19 years old I was serving in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) with the Royal Air Force, having been forced to abandon my aspirations to a career in music.
The London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner, were then joined on stage by some fine actors and the excellent Monteverdi Choir, for a performance of Mendelssohn’s complete music for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (including of course, the famous Wedding March.) It was quite remarkable. I have known and loved the music since I was at school, but this was the first time I had heard it ‘in context’.
I have a confession of sorts to make. I have never been to a theatre to see any of Shakespeare’s plays and I have never read any of his plays. I cannot even remember ‘doing’ his plays at any of the three grammar schools I attended between 1947 and 52. Some no doubt well-intentioned person gave me Charles and Mary Lamb’s ‘Tales from Shakespeare’ when I was about 10 years old and known to be already a prolific reader. I thought it was an exceedingly boring book and I don’t think I got past page 20 before, to my shame, I threw the book against my bedroom wall and never opened it again. That’s no way to treat any book. However, what about this patronising passage from the Preface (which I copied this morning from the Internet) as an example of muddled thinking and sexism (but it was published in 1807):
“It has been wished to make these Tales easy reading for very young children. To the utmost of their ability the writers have constantly kept this in mind; but the subjects of most of them made this a very difficult task. It was no easy matter to give the histories of men and women in terms familiar to the apprehension of a very young mind. For young ladies too, it has been the intention chiefly to write; because boys being generally permitted the use of their fathers’ libraries at a much earlier age than girls are, they frequently have the best scenes of Shakespeare by heart, before their sisters are permitted to look into this manly book.”
I spent nearly three years at RAF Gaydon in the 1960s and my regular pub in Stratford-upon-Avon, famous for its fabulous steak pies and Flowers’ draught bitter, was the Black Swan, always referred to, inevitably, as the Mucky Duck. It was literally just across the road from the RSC. During ‘the season’ we, my RAF friends and I, regularly found ourselves queuing at the bars alongside actors in exotic costumes – presumably during intervals in the evening’s performance. Never once did it occur to me to go to a performance. One evening when I was, for once, drinking alone in the Mucky Duck, a couple of beautiful young ladies invited me to their nearby flat for supper. There followed a performance of an entirely different sort - but I didn't learn anything at all about Shakespeare.