You wait decades for a play about Johann Sebastian Bach and two come along. Oliver Cotton’s The Score, dealing with Bach’s confrontation with Frederick II at Potsdam in 1747, opens at the Theatre Royal Bath in October and stars Brian Cox. You could argue that Nina Raine’s Bach & Sons, which played at London’s Bridge theatre in 2021 and starred Simon Russell Beale, might actually have been called Succession since much of the action hinged on which of his offspring the testy patriarch would finally favour.
What is surprising is how many plays there are about great composers. You could say that is down to the success of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, but even before that dramatists were drawn to musical divinities: Sacha Guitry’s Mozart, with Yvonne Printemps as the hero, played in London in 1926. I would put the current popularity of musical biodramas down to a number of things. The fact that many composers have led lives streaked with violence; that there is often a disjunction between the musical genius and the man (and, sadly, in drama, it is rarely a woman); and there is a never-ending debate about the composer’s obligation to society as well as the creative impulse.
One reason why Amadeus became a popular hit is that it managed to pack in all those ideas. Shaffer picks up on Salieri’s deathbed confession that he had poisoned his detested rival, Mozart, and examines its credibility. To those who wanted to preserve the image of Mozart as a Dresden figurine – notoriously including Magaret Thatcher who made known her dislike of the play – Shaffer reminds us that the composer was both a conduit for divine music and a potty-mouthed libertine. Shaffer also underscores the point that, in 18th-century Vienna, power, prestige and economic survival depended on the approval of the Austrian Emperor, Joseph II.
Brilliant and beguiling as Shaffer’s work is, many of its ideas had been explored by Alexander Pushkin in his 1830 play Mozart and Salieri. When it was staged at the Almeida in 1989 with Tilda Swinton and Lore Brunner in the title roles it was a revelation. Salieri’s realisation that dedication is very different from genius, his detestation of Mozart as a “gormless skylarker” and his thrill of remorse when he hears the Requiem all proved that Pushkin’s “little tragedy” anticipated Shaffer’s mighty spectacle by a century-and-a-half.
Yet there is another British playwright, the unsung David Pownall who died in 2022, who had an even greater capacity than Shaffer to make drama out of composition. In the stunning Music to Murder By (1976) he provocatively argues that Carlo Gesualdo’s killing of his wife and her lover in 1590 liberated his creative talent. Less sensationally in Elgar’s Rondo (1993) he shows the supposed imperial jingoist dogged by private despair.
But Pownall was at his peak in Master Class (1983): one of the best plays about music ever written that shows Prokofiev and Shostakovich summoned by Stalin to the Kremlin in 1948. Not only does Pownall show the three men attempting to create a folk-cantata based on a Georgian story, but also gives real urgency to the question of whether the composer is the servant of his own compulsion or has a wider duty to communicate with ordinary people and express national longings. We naturally favour the former but Pownall asks whether, in a country suffering the trauma of 20 million wartime deaths, the artist has an equal duty to bring hope and joy.
This ultimately is what plays about musicians can do: raise big moral issues. Ronald Harwood successfully did it twice in interlinked plays. In Taking Sides (1995) he offered a surprisingly sympathetic view of Wilhelm Furtwangler, who remained as conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic during the Third Reich. In the even better Collaboration (2008), Harwood showed how Richard Strauss, while working on Die Schweigsame Frau with Stefan Zweig, was forced into an accommodation with the Nazis to protect his Jewish daughter-in-law and her children.
This is the very stuff of drama and a million miles away from the kind of ludicrous composer biopic that Hollywood used to churn out: a genre epitomised by Song Without End in which a wild-eyed Lyndon Brook advanced down a corridor exultantly crying: “I am Richard Wagner and this is the score of Lohengrin.”