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Collaborative Composition at the RSC

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Part of the Palgrave Studies in British Musical Theatre book series (PSBMT)


The research enquiry in this chapter explores two central questions: how the process of collaboration that lasts at least a year influences the music heard on the opening night; and how composition changed over time, revealing developments in production practices, stylistic changes in taste and technological innovations. To address the first part of this enquiry I look in detail at notebooks, prompt copies and scores of a number of plays and periods, comparing some of the processes and strategies with those of the early modern period and Roland Settle’s 1957 description of how to compose for theatre. Then to address the second part I consider several treatments of a single text—Macbeth—that were created at intervals during the period from 1961 to 2015. This strategy is designed to highlight some of the key changes that affected the processes of composition and the aesthetics and functions of theatre music at the RSC.


  • Macbeths
  • Sound World
  • Musical Cues
  • Live Music
  • Woolfenden

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  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-95222-2_3
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  1. 1.

    Henry IV parts 1–2 (2000) and Richard III (2001).

  2. 2.

    There were relatively few female directors employed at the RSC at this time, but in this case I refer to ‘him’ simply because Sekacz focuses in her article on a specific process of collaboration with Howard Davies.

  3. 3.

    These include Jorgenson, Paul Shakespeare’s Military World Berkeley: University of California Press, 1956; Long, John H. Shakespeare’s Use of Music: A Study of Music and its Performance in the Original Productions of Seven Comedies. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1955; Manifold, John S. The Music in English Drama, from Shakespeare to Purcell. London: Rockcliff, 1956; Noble, Richard Shakespeare’s Use of Song: With the Text of the Principal Songs. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1923; Seng, Peter J. The Vocal Songs in the Plays of Shakespeare. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1967; Sternfeld, F. W. Music in Shakespearean Tragedy. London Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1963.

  4. 4.

    It is thought to be his first play. See Wells and Taylor (1997), Carroll (2004), and Warren (2008) as well as various anthologies including Wells et al. (2005).

  5. 5.

    Woolfenden had requested to write the score for this production because the play was quite rarely performed and it was the only one of Shakespeare’s plays for which he had not yet composed a score (Woolfenden 2018).

  6. 6.

    A catch was a popular part-song.

  7. 7.

    He incorporated a concert overture from 1826 (op. 21) into this score.

  8. 8.

    Parts of the score were re-orchestrated to accompany Max Reinhardt’s film of the play (1935), which will only have increased the familiarity of the music and its link to the play.

  9. 9.

    This production was filmed as part of the RSC Live season and is available on DVD produced by Opus Arte: 1168D.

  10. 10.

    In fact Lindley also questions whether the ‘jig’ that is often cited as the afterpiece was always as bawdy and satirical as some suppose. He provides evidence that some performances may have been followed by dances that were not jigs especially after the departure from the company of William Kemp in 1599, and in particular suggests that the evidence is sufficiently scant that a complete picture cannot be accurately provided.

  11. 11.

    David G. Butler undertook a major research project to digitise Derbyshire’s archive now based at John Rylands library, Manchester University, and reports this based on analysis of archival materials.

  12. 12.

    There is a copy of a reel-to-reel tape in the John Rylands Library at Manchester University that appears to be a draft of Tape A for this production.

  13. 13.

    This use of Latin vocal music was prefigured in Trevor Nunn’s 1974 production with music by Guy Woolfenden for which choral music was recorded by the choir and organist at New College, Oxford.

  14. 14. [Accessed 30.09.15]. This trailer demonstrates the musical world of the cellos, but this speech is not accompanied except by a hum and sound effects in the play. Part of 2.11 of the onstage action is at: [Accessed 30.09.15]. This scene gives access to the volume and reverberation of the sound effects and the speech and is accompanied by a very low hum. The scene is followed by a cello cue. A longer section of the music is available on Armstrong’s website at: [Accessed 19.10.15].


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Taylor, M. (2018). Collaborative Composition at the RSC. In: Theatre Music and Sound at the RSC. Palgrave Studies in British Musical Theatre. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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