John Abraham Fisher's Music for the Opening of Macbeth

October 1, 1986

Recently, a long-lost manuscript of music by John Abraham Fisher (1744-1806) came to light in the shop of a London bookseller.1 This manuscript, entitled Music For The Opening Of Macbeth [1780], is Fisher's autograph of a musical setting of the witches' scenes in the first act of Shakespeare's Macbeth. The recovery of an eighteenth-century theatrical score is, in its own right, a matter of importance. The significance of this score is heightened by the fact that Fisher's setting of these scenes appears to be the first based on an accurate text. Altered forms, such as that by Davenant, still gained performances on English stages in the late eighteenth century and had been used for earlier musical settings of these scenes.2 The score, however, poses many problems with regard to the chronology of the composition, the events leading to the première and even the location of the première itself. It is the intent of this paper to reconstruct the events leading to the composition of this work and to ascertain the type of musical performance for which the settings of I.i. and I.iii. were intended.

Although John Abraham Fisher was best known during his lifetime as a virtuoso violinist, he composed a substantial quantity of music. Although this includes both sacred and secular instrumental music, it is his music for theatrical productions that became widely known.3 His association with the Covent Garden theatre began in 1767 as a performer. He soon began composing for productions and, until 1780, he contributed much of the music performed there. Through his marriage to Elizabeth Powell in 1772, he obtained a one-sixteenth share of the Covent Garden theatre and, until the death of his wife in 1780, he was actively involved with the management of the theatre and its musical direction. Records also show that he performed as soloist in violin concerti in this theatre as well as appearing in concerts throughout the city of London. After 1780, Fisher moved to the continent to pursue a performing career and did not return to the British Isles until 1785.4 It is Fisher's connection with the Covent Garden theatre in the early part of 1780 and his celebrated abilities as violinist that figure prominently in an attempt to reconstruct the background of the Macbeth manuscript.

Fisher's settings of the two scenes are effectively written and deserving of attention. The vocal settings are largely syllabic and are characterized by strong rhythmic gestures. Much of the vocal writing is somewhat instrumental in nature, with frequent wide intervals in the vocal line (Example No.1).


Example 1. I.i., line 10.



The clear projection of the text seems to have been a greater priority with the composer than melodic invention: There is little text painting in the vocal parts and very little vocal display save one rather amusing exception: a flourish on the word "rump-fed" (Example No.2).


Example 2. I.iii., line 6.



Textual depiction of storms and tempests is given over to the orchestra and is well-handled within a somewhat limited harmonic vocabulary. Considering Fisher's training as an instrumentalist, it is not surprising to find idiomatic orchestral writing. Only occasional use of cliché in cadential situations intrudes upon these well-crafted compositions.

The text from I.iii. is largely set for solo voices and the composer took the opportunity for musical characterization to a far greater degree than in his setting of I.i. Two examples, in particular, merit attention. They correspond to lines 18-23 and 28-29 of the text.5 Both examples are marked siciliano and serve to underscore the grotesque nature of the text by introducing an element of black humor (Example No. 3).


Example 3. I.iii., line 18.



Fisher's witches, much like those of Richard Leveridge (in the "traditional music," long thought to be the composition of Locke6), are operatic creations in keeping with seventeenth- and eighteenth-century conceptions of these characters. They lack the diabolical overtones that were to emanate from nineteenth-century settings for the play; however, they should not be judged by criteria that did not exist in Fisher's lifetime.

The many questions connected with the manuscript include the chronology of the composition of the two scenes, the purpose for each, and the circumstances surrounding the première. While the lack of concrete fact necessitates conjectural reconstruction of the events leading to the première, internal evidence in the two settings gives clues to the composer's intentions for each scene. The manuscript consists of 56 oblong folios with a title page marked "originale," signed by the composer and dated 1780. A separate title page is given for the setting of I.iii. This is again signed and marked "originale" but is undated. The text that Fisher chose to set consists of lines 1-7 and 11-12 of I.i. and lines 1-37 and 48-50 of I.iii. Lines 8-10 of I.i. are not sung but are spoken by two of the singers. The exact edition of the text used by Fisher is not known. His text matches that as edited by Lewis Theobald in 1733 and, with one minor exception, that of David Garrick's version, which had been published in Bell's Edition of Shakespeare Plays (1773), just seven years before the composition of Fisher's music. Garrick's acting version had actually been used at the Covent Garden theatre in 1774.7 The text from these two scenes does not make a continuous dramatic sequence since it is obvious that, in I.iii., the witches are meeting again after an absence. Fisher has set the two texts as separate entities with a full stop between them. There can be no question that Fisher considered the two texts to be a continuous dramatic narrative or envisioned a continuous musical performance.

Differences in the orchestral and vocal specifications indicate a duality of purpose behind the composition of the scenes. The music for I.i., with its lack of stage directions, limited musical characterization, and lengthy repetition of lines eleven and twelve, has the appearance of a concert number. The setting of I.iii., with its many stage directions, is unquestionably incidental music. The orchestra called for in I.i consists of two horns, two oboes, strings, and basso continuo. Bassoons are mentioned as part of the bass instrument group, but they are not given a separate part in the score. The setting of I.iii. adds the off-stage drums and organ and in one section the bassoons are given a separate divisi part. The vocal specifications are clearly marked in the setting of I.i. The three solo parts are Treble, Tenor, and Bass, while the chorus parts are listed as Cantus, Altus, Tenor, and Bassus. The composer further specified that "Their must be more than 3 Witches . . . in the first Scene, altho they are not used, till they break into the Chorus markd thus; vol26id141 then there should be 4 Soprano Voices, 4 Counter Tenors, 4 Tenors, and 4 Strong Basses to make the Chorus have its proper effect." Although the chorus is mentioned many times in the stage directions of I.iii., there are only three vocal parts and these conform to the specifications of the soloists. Had the term "chorus" not been used by the composer so many times in these stage directions, it would be tempting to think that Fisher intended only the three soloists to appear in this scene. This does not seem plausible in view of his directions and we must accept the presence of a three-voice chorus in this scene as opposed to the four-voice chorus found in I.i. The logical point for the chorus to join in the singing is at line 32, "The Weird Sisters, hand in hand," the first time that ensemble singing is heard in the scene. The differences in the vocal specifications lead one to speculate about the possibility of the two scenes having been composed at different times or for different circumstances.

One of the most striking differences in the settings is the profusion of stage directions in scene three and the total lack of such directions in the first scene. The stage directions for I.iii. include directions for movement:

During this symphony, the three Sisters to joyn Hands, and form a Circle, as if in Consultation. . . .

directions for changes in the instrumental grouping:

After the Chorus of the "Weird Sisters Hand in Hand etc." the Band must leave the Orchestra and play the Chorus Piano, markd thus: vol26id141 there must be otherwise an Organ heard with them who is to play the verses, All Hail etc. on the Diapassons only, but when those Words are repeated the third time at this Mark vol26id141 then all the Chorus Singers, and Organ to be loud. . . .

and directions for melodramatic music:

N.B.When the Witches vanish, at theis Words of Macbeth, "Speak I charge you" the Organ is to play the Strain markd thus. . .

Several factors demonstrate that Fisher had a staged performance of Macbeth in mind when he composed his music for I.iii. The music comes to a full stop at the end of line 37, thereby making it a separate entity from the musical setting of lines 48-50. The music has been constructed so that in a staged performance of the play Macbeth and Banquo enter and speak their lines (37-47) before the resumption of the music. The composer has instructed members of the orchestra to leave the pit during this interval and set up elsewhere, presumably backstage, so as to achieve a spatial effect for the setting of lines 48-50.8 Without actors to play the scene in its entirety, there would not be time for members of the orchestra to leave, set up, and be ready to play again. Therefore it is impossible to perform this music as written in a concert situation. Macbeth's line "Speak, I charge you," mentioned above, does not occur until the end of line 78, twenty-seven lines farther into the dialogue. In addition, the organ solo at the end of the manuscript is meant to accompany the text that follows this line and not part of the text leading up to it. This cannot be an ending suitable for a concert situation for its serves as a bridge to the remainder of the act in a staged performance. This is important when one considers the question of the première.

Attempts at documenting a performance of this music reveal tantalizing clues but little in the nature of concrete evidence. Many factors point to a première of the setting of I.i. at the Covent Garden theatre on 10 April 1780; however, no absolute proof has yet come to light. If indeed the date and location mentioned above are correct, the story behind such a performance casts light on the rivalry between two eighteenth-century London theatres. On 23 March 1780, The London Courant and Westminster Chronicle advertised an entertainment called A Fete to be given at the King's Theatre in the Haymarket on 10 April 1780. The performance was again advertised on 29 March and then daily from 4 April until 10 April, except for 9 April, which was a Sunday. It is highly likely that the details of the program for A Fete were still being finalized after the initial announcement was made, since the detailed description of the program did not appear until 4 April 1780. The entertainment was devised by Anthony Le Texier, who had a chequered career in various London theatres during the last twenty years of the eighteenth century. He served as acting manager for the King's Theatre until 27 December 1779 of the 1779-80 season and presumably maintained some link with the theatre for the rest of the season.9 The program promised great diversity in the types of entertainments to be provided and, in addition, food and wine were to be made available.

Scenes two and three of Part One of this entertainment are of particular interest:

Second Scene, a Room. A concert, in which two Ladies, who never appeared before in England, will sing an Italian duet. Mess. Cramer, Fischer, Florio, and Moreau on the harp, will executive solos. Third Scene, ruins, a cavern and tomb. Catches, "Here in cold grot," sung by three little fairies—"When we three, &c." by witches, and "look neighbours look," by the same [The London Courant and Westminster Chronicle, 4 April 1780].

Subsequent notices in papers such as The Public Advertiser and The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser corrected two mistakes found in the above notice. Fisher's name was spelled correctly and the textual incipit for scene 3 was changed to read "When shall we three, &c." Given the novelty and diversity of the program, this event naturally evoked apprehension in other theatres in the city. At the Covent Garden theatre, a performance of Nathaniel Lee's play (The Rival Queens or) Alexander The Great was planned as a benefit for the actor Francis Aickin who, for that occasion, played the role of Clytus. The play was familiar to London audiences of the period and not likely to draw a full house in the face of such competition as the exotic fare offered at the King's Theatre. Consequently, it appears that Covent Garden decided to attempt a similar, if abbreviated, type of entertainment called A Fete Anticipated, to be given in conjunction with the performance of Alexander The Great. The first mention of this addition to the Covent Garden program was made on 7 April 1780. The London audience now had a choice of entertainments on the same evening, with the Covent Garden program perhaps giving the greater value for the ticket price.

Although several London newspapers carried the notices of A Fete Anticipated, they did not always agree in content, as the following examples demonstrate.

Scene V. A Moonlight. Witches. Catch and Chorus. "Happy the Man, &c" [The London Courant and Westminster Chronicle, 10 April 1780].

Scene V. A moonlight, Witches. Catch and Chorus. "When shall we Three meet again?" [The Public Advertiser and The Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, both 10 April 1780].

The discrepancies in the notices can be attributed to haste in the compilation of the programs or a change in the program that was not communicated to The London Courant.

That this imitation of the program of the King's Theatre by the Covent Garden theatre was deliberate is verified by reviews of the occasion such as the following:

The Fete Anticipated, which was performed last night, at the Theatre-Royal, Covent Garden, for the benefit of Mr. Aickin, consisted of a very judicious selection of some favourite airs from the best masters; and, considering the manner in which the Fete at the King's Theatre in the Hay-Market was announced to the public, was an ingenious anticipation. It had the desired effect in bringing a good house to Mr. Aickin, and if performed with the same spirit and exactness, cannot fail to please in the repetition [The London Courant and Westminster Chronicle, 11 April 1780].

Unfortunately for Le Texier, A Fete at the King's Theatre did not gain much praise from either the audience or the press. The St. James' Chronicle reported on 11 April 1780 that the audience demanded that "Texier should appear and ask Pardon for insulting the Town. This was delayed some Time; indeed the Time had been mostly spent in Intervals of Delay and Expectation; a little before One o'Clock he came on, made an embarrassed Apology, and was hissed off." The audience reaction was undoubtedly caused by the long delays between the scenes, the omission of the second and third scenes of Part I (including the scene with the witches) and the first and second scenes of Part II, and compromises made in the staging of certain scenes. The "little cold Provision, and very bad common Wines" that followed did little to appease the anger of the audience although it seems that the appearance of the dancers from the Opera House (i.e. The King's Theatre) did help restore spirits sufficiently so that a riot did not ensue.

Fisher's name as a performer appeared in the notices for the King's Theatre until the day of the performance, when he was replaced by a Mr. Park. Along with this change in the program the witches' scene with its setting of "When shall we Three meet again?" disappeared as well. Knowing that Fisher did indeed compose a setting of the text during this time leads to several hypotheses. It is likely that Fisher was engaged in the dual capacity of performer and composer for A Fete. As a shareholder in the Covent Garden theatre, however, he would have found himself in an uncomfortable situation when that theatre decided to stage A Fete Anticipated on the same evening. Conflicting loyalties and concerns over financial returns probably led to Fisher's withdrawal from A Fete at the King's Theatre. Given Fisher's previous compositions for Covent Garden, is it not likely that his setting of "When shall we Three meet again?" was the one performed in A Fete Anticipated?

Several problems remain unsolved. First, the companion work "Look neighbours look," which was to be performed by the witches at the King's Theatre, remains unidentified.10 Second, all of the notices described the music for the witches as being a catch or catch with chorus. Fisher's setting of I.i. lacks any of the contrapuntal attributes of a catch, is accompanied, and exceeds the musical scope of the genre. If indeed it was Fisher's music that was performed at Covent Garden on 10 April 1780, it probably surpassed the expectations of the management in the length of the setting and the sophistication of its musical language. There is, however, one further shred of evidence that points to Fisher's setting of I.i. having been premièred at Covent Garden. On 3 April 1781, A Fete Anticipated was revived at this same theatre. Although the scene for the witches was omitted, an earlier scene, not previously given composer attribution, was now ascribed to Fisher.11 Fisher had left Covent Garden by this time (presumably taking his Macbeth music with him) and it would seem that the theatre was capitalizing on his name in a way that had not been necessary previously. If both these scenes were premières in 1780, the days leading up to 10 April must have been busy for the composer, and his withdrawal from the King's Theatre program is more easily understood.

In none of the notices do we find any mention of the text from Macbeth I.iii. The differences in the settings of the two scenes have already been noted. These differences, along with the impossibility of performing Fisher's setting of I.iii. in a concert situation such as that found in A Fete Anticipated, strongly suggest that this music was not performed on the program. It is possible that the decision to write further incidental music for Macbeth came after the success of A Fete Anticipated and that the setting of I.iii. had not yet been written on 10 April 1780. Performances of Macbeth were scheduled for the Covent Garden theatre later in the season and Fisher may have been looking forward to these. That such incidental music was never completed may be attributed to the death of the composer's wife on 7 May 1780, his subsequent loss of interest in theatrical matters, and his resumption of the career of a travelling virtuoso. Given these circumstances, it would seem highly likely that Fisher's setting of I.iii. has never been performed.

With so little of Fisher's stage music presently available, the recovery of this score proves to be important for several reasons. Not only does it return to effective use enjoyable and well-crafted music; the choice of text serves to illustrate changing practices in Shakespeare production in eighteenth-century England. In addition, the study of the performance history, however veiled the evidence may be, affords insights into the colorful world of theatrical production in the late eighteenth century.

1This manuscript came into the hands of William Kitchiner (1775-1827), presumably after the death of the composer. When Kitchiner's personal library was finally sold at auction by Sotheby (beginning 14 December 1838), the manuscript was purchased by a Mr. Marchant, of whom little is known. The work was recently discovered in the possession of the music dealer William Reeves, Jr., in London. Mr. Reeves believes that the manuscript was purchased by his father before World War II but, unfortunately, he has no record of the previous owner. The manuscript now belongs to the Shakespeare Music Catalogue project (supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada) at the University of Victoria, Victoria, British Columbia.

2A conclusive date for a first production of Davenant's revision has not yet been established, although 1663 and 1664 seem likely candidates. Of the text under consideration here, Davenant's revision lengthened the part of the witches in I.iii. Musical settings based on Davenant include Matthew Locke (c. 1663-74; largely lost), John Eccles (c. 1695), and Richard Leveridge (c. 1702).

3Philip H. Highfill, Jr., Kalman A. Burnim, and Edward A. Langhans, A Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers & Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800, 10 volumes to date (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1973- ), 5:281.

4Ibid., 282-83.

5All line numbers that are quoted here correspond to The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974).

6Modern scholarship now rejects the attribution to Locke of the incidental music for Macbeth published by William Boyce in 1770 and gives provisional attribution to Richard Leveridge. For further details consult Roger Fiske, "The Macbeth Music," Music and Letters 45 (1964):114-25, and Robert E. Moore, "The Music to Macbeth," Musical Quarterly 47 (1961):22-40.

7The second printing of Bell's edition (1774) gives a cast list for the Covent Garden theatre that corresponds to the performances of 13 April and 29 May 1774. Evidence for assuming that Fisher was using either Bell's edition or Theobald's can be found in line 7 of I.i, where these sources have "There I go to meet Macbeth" as opposed to Shakespeare's "There to meet with Macbeth." Fisher changed this reading slightly so that all three witches can sing "There we go to meet Macbeth." He further changed one word in I.iii from that found in Bell's edition. Fisher sets "The weird sisters hand in hand" as opposed to Garrick's (and Shakespeare's) "The weyward sisters hand in hand." In doing so, Fisher may have been making use of the textual emendation first devised by Theobald. It is interesting to note, however, that Fisher set the word "weird" as if it contained two syllables.

8Fisher's use of "Band" is a bit confusing here. He may be referring to the wind instruments only and, had the music in this section been written in an antiphonal manner, such an assumption would be logical. The music in question, however, is composed homophonically, leading one to wonder if Fisher meant the entire orchestra to play from backstage.

9The London Stage: 1660-1800, volume 5: 1776-1800, ed. Charles Beecher Hogan (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968), 282.

10The catch "Here in cold grot," to be sung by three fairies, may refer to the work "Here in cool grot and mossy cell" composed by Garret Colley Wellesley, 1st Earl of Mornington (1735-81). The incipit "Happy the man, &c." reported in The London Courant and Westminster Chronicle cannot be identified positively. Pope's Ode on Solitude begins with this text; however, it would seem a most unlikely candidate for performance by a group of witches.

11This is "Scene III. Mount Ida. Venus and the Graces, to whom she complains of the Loss of her Son."

4171 Last modified on October 24, 2018