Berthold Auerbach, a German born writer and poet, on the subject of music once said: “Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” Now, I knew neither Auerbach nor this quote before I began searching the Internet for ways to start this article... so, both you and I are starting out on roughly the same foot. In spite of our shared ignorance of 19th century German writers I think the quote stands, especially in reference to the theatre.

This week I was lucky enough to be involved with the National Youth Orchestra (NYO), work©\\shopping the story of Romeo and Juliet alongside them for their performance of Prokofiev’s ballet, of the same name, as part of the BBC Proms. Before ploughing on I would like to recognise the talent displayed by the NYO; they were passionate, enthusiastic, energetic, and not to mention quite remarkable musicians.

I bring this up because the day I spent with them got me thinking about the importance of music within theatre. Aside from opera and musicals, where it is the backbone, in plays it very often becomes an addition rather than a key component. That’s not to say that it isn’t the icing on the cake, but it is scarcely the buttery biscuit base. Of course that’s something of a generalisation as there are contradictory examples – the National Theatre’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favour was testimony to the power of live music. But that is a rarity.

You only have to look at films to see the impact that accompaniment can have. I’m sure the line “If there’s anything you need, I won’t be far away”, from the grave scene in Forest Gump, wouldn’t be half as emotional as it is if you took out the gentle underscoring – which I personally hadn’t even noticed until I got thinking about this topic. Certainly in terms of the cinema, then, you could argue that the unobtrusive, yet often present, musical underscoring helps to wash away the dust of everyday life and transport you into a new environment.

Why plays don’t make better use of this I’m not sure. I wouldn’t for a second deny wonderful scores have been created for plays, but my suggestion is that it’s often the subject of scene changes rather than an emotional undertone.

I’m sure there is an argument for wanting the words to be the main focus and effecter of a performance as, although we now go to watch a play, we once went to hear a play; it’s not a coincidence that audience comes from the Latin audire meant "to hear". But surely we should make use of all our senses to emote theatrically? We might never be able to touch or taste a play (despite how many of my female friends wanted to after watching the RSC’s original Cardenio trailer), but why shouldn’t we support our hearing of a play with an emotive musical addition?

There is obviously a balance to be drawn; it should be potent without being intrusive. The cellist tutor for the NYO suggested to me that the best type of musical accompaniment was the one that you didn’t notice. A good example of this would have to be in the Histories Cycle from the RSC a few years ago. During Richard III there was an almost omnipresent percussion based score that not only drew us into another world, but the relentless rhythm pushed energy into the scenes.

That is the other benefit of this type of scoring – it helps the actors. Certainly I found performing the scenes of Romeo and Juliet much easier when accompanied by a 165©\\piece orchestra. This is because it acts as a short cut. It allows the actor a more obliging access to their own emotion because of the hugely emotive sound helping them to it.

The only downside to my new found passion is the cost. Professional musicians and composers are talented and therefore expensive, especially for fringe venue where the biggest rewards, sadly, might be reaped. It’s also not the most likely time to be getting more money for the arts.

I shouldn’t finish without praising the diligence of the NYO, and their rehearsal room etiquette. I’m sure no actor would stand to attention when the director walked into the rehearsal room; the way musicians do with the conductor. I also know from experience that actors can be a lazy bunch. Although I’m sure the days are gone of "A coffee and a cigarette is the only warm©\\up I need, darling…" the amount of effort we (or at least I) put in, comparatively, seems like nothing at all.

I suppose it all just goes to show how much can be learned and reaped from other art forms.


The National Youth Orchestra perform Romeo and Juliet as part of Prom 30 at the Royal Albert Hall tomorrow night (6 August 2011). It will be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3, repeated at 2pm on 10 August 2011. Prom 30 will be televised on BBC Two on 13 August at 9pm.