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  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    


MUSIC INSPIRED BY WILLIAM MAKEPEACE THACKERAY

Thackeray was a contemporary of Charles Dickens but the music associated with him is nothing like as diverse. However this has cropped up from time to time over the last century and more, most notably, it seems, in musical versions of his Christmas play. The Rose and the Ring. The first of these appeared at the Prince of Wales Theatre in 1890 to music by the London theatre composer and conductor Walter Slaughter (1860-1908).

A generation further on and there was another version, with music by Robert Cox, which earned 42 seasonal performances at Wyndhams Theatre in 1923. A mere five years after that, still a third version, with music by Christabel Marillier was put on at the Apollo Playhouse, where it managed 52 performances – this featured among its cast Frederick Ranalow, Nellie Briercliffe, Megan Foster and Lawrence Baskcomb and a certain Dr Malcolm Sargent was the conductor. The following Christmas/New year season (1929-30) this version transferred to the Lyric, Hammersmith where its Musical Director, Alfred Reynolds, conducted it. Finally a much more up-to-date version of The Rose musically speaking, saw the light of day at the Theatre Royal, Stratford east in 1964, with a score provided by John Dalby.

Not only The Rose and the Ring among Thackeray’s literary output was turned into a musical comedy. The same fate overtook his most famous novel Vanity Fair, twice in the early 1960s: in 1960 at Kidderminster to music by Kenneth Rose, and in 1962, with music by Julian Slade, of Salad Days fame. This latter version toured the provinces, then had a shortish run at the Queen’s Theatre in the West End.

Vanity Fair has been adapted a number of times for both large and small screens. Hollywood’s 1935 version, entitled Becky Sharp, had music by Roy Webb. Of television adaptations I cannot recall who furnished the music for a 1960s version. More recently, Nigel Hess did the very tuneful music for the 1987 adaptation and Murray Gold – a brash, rather jazzy score rather in keeping with the adaptation generally - for the most reason 1988 showing.

What of musical settings of Thackeray’s shorter writings? Most notable of these were perhaps the Five Songs From Thackeray by Richard Walthew, who died in 1951. More recently we have had settings of A Tragic Story by Ann Hamerton, for two-part voices and piano (1958), and from the same year a solo with SATB accompaniment by the American Joseph Roff. Little Billy (sometimes Billee) has been set as a song for baritone (or tenor) and two basses by William Bowie in 1965 (one of several Songs For the Use of Harmonious Young Men), as a solo by Harold Sykes in 1970 and as an operetta by Michael Hurd in 1966.

The foregoing adds up to a far from contemptible musical extension of Thackeray’s music; but I think he may have been disappointed that this extension was not more extensive.

Philip L. Scowcroft

 

 


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