The Royal Shakespeare Company releases music from its archive

October 13, 2014

For more than a century, the Royal Shakespeare Company in England has hired composers to write original music for its productions. That sheet music has sat in a vault for decades — until now.

The company has started releasing albums that combine music from its contemporary productions with much older works.

Bruce O'Neill, head of music for the Royal Shakespeare Company, describes the archive as "a bit like a bank vault."

"You've got these various rooms with, sort of, very thick doors with a big wheel on the front to let you in," O'Neill tells NPR's Ari Shapiro. "And they're all sort of organized along these shelves and categorized by date and by composer in some instances. Although they're organized to a certain extent, some of them really haven't actually been looked through since the production happened."

The collection includes compositions from well-known composers. Twentieth-century composer Ralph Vaughn Williams' adaptation of "Greensleeves" for the 1913 production of Richard II is just one example.

"That [piece] sort of demonstrates that, at that time, there was still a propensity to use existing pieces of music," O'Neill says of the adaptation. "Vaughan Williams was obviously hugely interested in folk music. So he was arranging a lot of folk music."

The archive has served the company well over the years. For a contemporary production of Richard II, O'Neill only had to visit the vault to find inspiration.

"We look back a hundred — exactly a hundred years — and there we had Ralph Vaughan Williams, Music For Richard II from 1913," O'Neill says. "It was a beautiful start for us."

The albums too juxtapose the contemporary with older works. This year, composer Michael Bruce adapted Shakespeare's song "Who Is Sylvia?" into an indie-rock ballad for a production of Two Gentlemen Of Verona. Listeners can compare this version with one from 1938 by Anthony Bernard.

"This is why I knew that we had to delve into the archive," O'Neill says. "Because, in 1938, that was modern. And classics only become classics after a length of time. … That's the beauty of it. And when people are listening to Michael Bruce's version in, say, a hundred years time, I wonder what they will think of that."

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