Making Music with Shakespeare in 1916

There’s nothing new under the sun. In 2016 we’ve been celebrating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and to the background of the bloody battles of Verdun, Jutland and the Somme, the Royal Manchester College of Music put on a costume performance in honour of the tercentenary of his death in July 1916. The women students of the Elocution Class in a casting role reversal, which might have made Shakespeare smile, “necessarily” had to play the male roles, just as boys had to play female roles in his day, and their acting abilities were “very creditable” according to the annual report of 1916. There were scenes from the darkest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, from King Lear, Macbeth and Coriolanus and from comedies, including Twelfth Night and The Taming of the Shrew. The Tempest also featured and the illustration shows the sprite Ariel who sings the song “Full fathom five”. Purcell’s setting of the words was performed by Elizabeth Sleigh (one of Marie Brema’s pupils). Other songs “in those plays, many of which were sung to the old music…” included “Orpheus with his lute” set by Sullivan to words from Henry VIII and sung by Elsie Kauntze;  Arthur Somerville’s setting of “Take, O take those lips away” from  Measure for Measure sung by Constance Felpts; and Schubert’s setting of the Shakespeare’s sonnet “Who is Sylvia?” performed by Annie Davies.

The picture was drawn in the late 19th century by the illustrator Gordon Browne for the Henry Irving Shakespeare edition.

Katherine Seddon


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