Two interpretations of The Cenci (1)

William Newman

Havergal Brian’s The Cenci and Berthold Goldschmidt’s

_Beatrice Cenci _ Part 1 : Introduction, Sources for the libretti - William Newman


Percy Bysshe Shelley’s drama The Cenci, although rarely performed on the stage, has inspired numerous musical settings including at least five operas. Surprisingly, two of these settings were written by British composers within three years of one another, yet there appears to be no evidence that either of the composers concerned knew of the other work’s existence.

The two composers concerned, Havergal Brian (1876-1972) and Berthold Goldschmidt (1903-1995), would, at first sight, appear to have a great deal in common. Both achieved early recognition and seemed likely to gain increasing acclaim, only to be virtually ignored in their middle years. Both suffered the loss or destruction of a large number of significant works, particularly from their early years. Neither showed overt bitterness at the music establishment’s uninterest in their considerable abilities. Both were men of considerable learning whose linguistic abilities enabled them to write operas in English and German. Both were rediscovered in their old age and wrote some of their finest music in a second flowering of their talents after their 80th birthdays. Both also used diatonic musical languages which failed to gain critical favour in the post-Second World War Period, though neither could be called a conservative in taste or style. Robert Simpson campaigned vigorously on behalf of both composers when the music establishment, by and large, ignored them. And both wrote operas derived directly from Shelley’s The Cenci.

These apparent similarities, however, are largely superficial and mask very different social backgrounds, musical training, approaches to musical composition and the means by which such compositions are realised. Although their non-musical similarities and differences may have little direct relevance to these composers’ musical end-products, nonetheless, knowledge of their extraordinary backgrounds and lives does assist in gaining entry into their musical and philosophical worlds, which are by no means straight-forward, particularly in the case of Brian.

Berthold Goldschmidt was born into a prosperous Jewish family in Hamburg and enjoyed a full and rigorous musical education, studying under Werner Wolff (a friend of Busoni) and, later, under Franz Schreker 1. He attended the Oberrealschule St Georg as a child where he rapidly gained fluency in English and French 2. Havergal Brian, on the other hand, came from a working class family in The Potteries and left school at the age of 12. He was virtually self-taught in music and he gained his wide knowledge of literature and philosophy from private study. His enthusiasm for Goethe, in particular, led him to study German, in which he became proficient.

Given such disparate backgrounds, it is hardly surprising that the early stylistic development of each composer should be so different and their early surviving compositions (which are relatively few) reflect to some degree their early musical environment. Yet both composers developed highly individual styles. Goldschmidt, for example, was little, if at all, influenced by the music of his tutor, Franz Schreker, and Brian’s music shows very little of the English pastoral tradition of many of his contemporaries, at least after the First World War.

Perhaps the trait which both men shared above all others was their dogged stoicism and this was reflected in the very personal nature of their music. This can make their music difficult to get to grips with, particularly in the case of Havergal Brian, but it equally makes the empathy eventually gained particularly rewarding, explaining why small groups of dedicated enthusiasts are such keen proselytes for the music of each man.

Sources for the libretti

The story which both Brian and Goldschmidt used in writing their operas on the saga of the Cenci family was based on fact 3. Count Francesco Cenci was born in 1549 and inherited considerable wealth from his father who had been treasurer to Pope Pius V. His first wife bore him seven children, including Beatrice, and when his wife died he married the beautiful Lucrezia Petroni. He appears to have been a violent and debauched man who was imprisoned on three occasions, but usually managed to avoid serious punishment by donations to the Papal treasury. He hated his children and committed incest with his young daughter, Beatrice. He was murdered at the behest of both his wife, Lucrezia, and daughter, for which crime both were beheaded in 1599, Pope Clement VIII having rejected pleas for clemency.

In 1819, the poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley, who had been living in Italy, came across a manuscript recounting the story of the Cenci and also saw the portrait of Beatrice Cenci ascribed to Guido Reni. Both the story, which was well known throughout Rome, and the portrait, of which he obtained a copy, greatly affected Shelley, not least because the portrait had a strong affinity with his own appearance and because his own eldest child had just died. He had by this time completed the first three acts of his drama, Prometheus Unbound, but he broke off completing this work to write his ‘tragedy in five acts’, The Cenci.

Shelley had little enthusiasm for the English theatre, but he had high hopes that The Cenci would be performed and he had in mind the actress Eliza O’Neill, an actress he admired, to play the part of Beatrice. However, both the theatres of Covent Garden and Drury Lane rejected it, apparently on the grounds of its immorality, though whether incest or parricide worried the managements more is not clear. The first staged performance did not take place until a private performance 1886 and, until relatively recently, Frank Leavis’s view that it is a ‘very bad’ play was the received opinion, even though Lord Byron had praised the work as the best English drama since Shakespeare. Of late, however, views as to the play’s merits have changed and it can now be seen as the most effective play written in the English romantic period, though it must be said that the competition is not great!

A s far as stage performances are concerned, the adaptation made by Antonin Artaud 4 (staged in 1935), although adversely criticised at the time, proved to be highly significant, influencing writers such as Ionesco, Genet and Beckett. This production was also influential in encouraging a wave of studies of the play, particularly on the concepts of moral responsibility illustrated in the drama.

Shelley’s utopian moral and philosophical views were greatly influenced by William Godwin and Prometheus Unbound illustrates these well, with the torments of Prometheus resolved by his unwavering moral steadfastness. It is significant that Prometheus’ freedom is achieved not by any act of violence by himself, which would have been anathema to the beliefs of Godwin and his followers, but by the intervention of Demogorgon. Although The Cenci is permeated by the imagery used in Prometheus Unbound, it poses a more complex moral dilemma, namely that the violent action of Beatrice in killing her father defies the moral standards embraced by Godwin and Shelley. As Shelley makes clear in his Preface, his intention is not to condone the murder of Count Cenci:

Undoubtedly, no person can be truly dishonoured by the act of another; and the fit return to make to the most enormous injuries is kindness and forbearance, and a resolution to convert the injurer from his dark passions by ace and love. Revenge, retaliation, atonement are pernicious mistakes. If Beatrice had thought in this manner she would have been wiser and better; but she would never have been a tragic character.

This is very much the philosophy of Godwin, and of Shelley, but the sympathetic treatment of Beatrice and Shelley’s portrayal of the evil of Count Cenci belie such a high moral tone. Indeed, the success of the play derives from the contrast on the one hand between the corrupt environment in which the Cenci lived and, on the other hand, the essential incorruptibility of Beatrice, despite her crime. Thus, one of the murderers describes Beatrice, without irony, as ‘most innocent’ and in her penultimate speech to her younger brother, Bernardo, Beatrice says:

One thing more, my child
For thine own sake be constant to the love
Thou barest us; and to the faith that I,
Though wrapped in a strange cloud of crime and shame,
Lived ever holy and unstained.

Four years after Shelley’s discovery of a manuscript describing the Cenci tragedy and the portrait of Beatrice, a French officer and writer who used the nom de plume of Stendahl made the same discoveries and wrote a novella named Les Cenci 5 in which he made extensive use of contemporary documents. Although both Brian and Goldschmidt (or, more correctly, Goldschmidt’s librettist, Martin Esslin) used only Shelley’s text, it is significant that Goldschmidt had read Stendahl’s novella as early as 1923 [^6]. Other writers, notably Alberto Moravia in his existentialist drama Beatrice Cenci, have been attracted to the same story, and it is not surprising to find other composers being similarly attracted.

Thus Giuseppe Rota wrote an opera on the same subject in 1863, as did Ludomir Rozycki in 1922 and Alberto Ginastera (Beatrix Cenci) in 1971 7. It should be added that I recall, and noted, a performance on the BBC Third Programme in 1951 of a new setting of ‘lines from Shelley’s ‘The Cenci’’ by Patrick Hadley, contemporaneous with Goldschmidt’s and Brian’s operas.

NL 144 © _William Lawrence Newman 1999_

  1. Drew, David and Struck, Michael, Chronologie, in Berthold Goldschmidt, edited by Silke Hilde and Winfried Jacobs (Bonn: Boosey & Hawkes, 1996), p 7 ↩︎

  2. Allenby, David and Keeffe, Bernard, Chronological Biography, in programme notes for Be_rthold Goldschmidt: A Musical Celebration_, a concert held in The Wigmore Hall, London, 27 March 1997 ↩︎

  3. i) Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Preface to ‘The Cenci’, in Shelley: Complete Poetical Works, edited by Thomas Hutchinson, 2nd edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970)
    ii) Keeffe, Bernard, The Historical Cenci in sleeve notes to a recording of Goldschmidt, Berthold, Beatrice Cenci, Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, conducted by Lothar Zagrosek, 1995, Sony S2K 66 836, hereafter Beatrice Cenci 1995 ↩︎

  4. Also using elements from Stendahl’s novella, Les Cenci (see below) ↩︎

  5. Published in his Chroniques italiennes _ (6) Banks, Paul, The case of ‘Beatrice Cenci’ in _Beatrice Cenci, Concert programme notes, performance given at Spitalfields Market Opera, London: 9-11 July 1998 ↩︎

  6. i) _Beatrice Cenci 1_995
    ii) Catalogue of published works, London: Boosey & Hawkes, nd, p13 ↩︎

Newsletter, NL 144, 1999