Inside Southbank Sinfonia

An orchestra like no other, based in the heart of London


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Shakespeare in Music: Rosabel Watson, the Suffragist pioneer

Richard Sandland
Music Operations Manager, Royal Shakespeare Company

Alongside getting new RSC productions on-stage, Richard has spent years delving into the company’s remarkable archive and rediscovering scores from plays over the past century. Now, Southbank Sinfonia will bring a selection back to life in a special concert.

I have to admit to becoming really keen on a name from the early years of the RSC: Rosabel Watson – who worked in Stratford on and off between c. 1916 and c. 1944 as a Music Director.

Earlier, she is mentioned in The Common Cause, a Suffragist newspaper, in 1910 where, at a reception for the President and Council of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies given by Lady Frances Balfour, “….Miss Rosabel Watson’s orchestra will give a programme of music. Miss Watson’s band is composed largely, if not entirely, of ardent suffragists who are also excellent artistes…” The Aeolian Ladies Orchestra was the first all-female Orchestra in the UK.

She was a double bass player, a viola player and also was described as the “best woman horn-player in England”; evidently she was an excellent all-round musician. That’s her in the middle of the picture below, with the conductor’s baton.

Rosabel-Watson---Aeolian-Ladies'-Orchestra

Rosabel was well established in the profession when in the programme for The Winter’s Tale (2 August 1916), it states that she arranged the music for entr’actes. It seems that her orchestra played pre-show too, although, it being 1916, records are scant.

Nine years later, the programme for King John (1925) includes the note “The Orchestra under the direction of Miss Rosabel Watson.” There is no composer noted anywhere on the score or parts. Did she write the music too? I suspect it was almost certainly her, or possibly Albert Cazabon, but the manuscript is certainly in her hand. Even the archive’s original production records neglect to mention who the composer was. Nice record-keeping, folks!

Rosabel Watson - King John score

Much of her original music is now in the papers of Chris Castor at the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas at Austin; there are others in the Donald Wolfit Papers – perhaps an answer to her story lies somewhere in that archive. A short biographical note in the Texas papers says she was “A bright little lady with bright piercing eyes. She proved to be a loyal and sympathetic friend. She had served for twelve years at Stratford on Avon and worked for many years at the Open Air Regent’s Park under Robert Atkins.”

Rosabel Watson - As You Like It

Rosabel was here again in 1944, when she worked on As You Like It. Arthur Dulay wrote the music, but Rosabel arranged the songs, from Thomas Arne. She died in 1959, a fleeting shadowy figure, a pioneer in a man’s world. It will be fun to put flesh on the bare bones, and there will be more news if I find it, of the bright little lady.

Southbank Sinfonia performs Rosabel Watson’s King John alongside concert premieres of other Shakespearean scores on Tuesday 20 September at St John’s Smith Square, London. Joining the orchestra are a cast of actors, including Olivier Award-winner Patricia Hodge and BAFTA-nominated David Threlfall, to set the scene with Shakespeare’s evocative prose. The concert is presented in collaboration with the RSC.

Find out more here.

Follow Richard on Twitter here.


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Shakespeare in Music: Vaughan Williams’ lost music

Richard Sandland
Music Operations Manager, Royal Shakespeare Company

Alongside getting new RSC productions on-stage, Richard has spent years delving into the company’s remarkable archive and rediscovering scores from plays over the past century. Now, Southbank Sinfonia will bring a selection back to life in a special concert.

It’s nice to report that the RSC had, a hundred years ago, one of the undisputed masters of what is now known as the second English musical renaissance working here. Sir Frank Benson’s productions of 1913-14 featured Ralph Vaughan Williams as arranger, composer and conductor. The picture below shows him at pretty much this time. He was the first classical composer that I, as a callow youth, became really interested in; I was a tuba player and he wrote a Tuba Concerto – yes, I know! Why?

RVW portrait

Vaughan Williams was a local man to the RSC, being born in Down Ampney, near Cirencester, only about 40 miles or so from Stratford-upon-Avon. He was descended on his mother’s side from Josiah Wedgwood; Charles Darwin was a great uncle, and so his genes contained potential for that combination of inquiry and art that marks out a formidable creative mind.

RVW-Richard-II-1913---Score

Images used by permission of The Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust

A page from RVW’s score for us for Richard II from 1913. I love that we know exactly where this was used in the show – it’s “to bring Richard on”, but, more precisely, it’s “when Mowbray sits” – RVW would have been watching the stage and cueing the orchestra.  Also, the trumpet part says “play when no Horns” – did RVW know who was turning up each night to play?

In 1905 he had arranged and conducted music for the Stratford Revels where, according to his biographer, “Ben Jonson’s Masque Pan’s Anniversary was performed in the Bancroft gardens”, this being the first performance of that piece since 1625. What I would do to find THAT music! His technique was then refined by having lessons with Ravel in 1908, and by 1913, when he received an invitation to meet with Sir Frank Benson, he had written his first mature works: A Sea Symphony, to words by Walt Whitman, the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, and was engaged in writing his London Symphony. He had also, in 1906, edited the English Hymnal.

So it was with a mixture of the ancient and the new with which Vaughan Williams arrived in Stratford for the 1913 Festival, which ran from 21 April to 14 May. Sir Frank – who I get the impression was formidable – “was obviously neither pleased not interested by the new music”. It wasn’t particularly new, though, being a mixture of folk-tunes and plainchant, with hymn tunes occasionally too, but apparently Sir Frank reverted to his “usual” music as soon as RVW departed, the Benson Company being “passionately wedded to their conventional incidental music”. I think they generally did revivals, so the 1913 Richard II would have been much the same as that from 1896, with 11 revivals in between.

Sir Frank Benson

Sir Frank Benson standing outside the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre

According to Benson’s biographer, J.C. Trewin, “The orchestra pit was very deep in the Memorial Theatre in Stratford such that if Vaughan Williams was high enough to see the stage, he could not see the orchestra. Conversely, if he could see the orchestra, he could not see the stage.” Much scope for comedy moments there!  Also of concern was “Benson’s utter disregard for music – except as something that had to be there” – this was an irritation, according to Ursula Vaughan Williams, but Ralph was delighted by the friendliness of the company and the glamour that went with it, and was deeply interested in all facets of the Production, even singing a plainchant psalm himself when the offstage singers were in the wrong place.

RVW - Shakespeare Memorial Theatre

The Shakespeare Memorial Theatre showing the orchestra pit where RVW would have worked.

Later in life, he wrote a full-scale opera on The Merry Wives of Windsor, which he called Sir John in Love, and he wrote music for radio productions of Shakespeare. But Vaughan Williams never came back to Stratford and his music for Richard II hasn’t been performed in public since.

Southbank Sinfonia performs Vaughan Wiliams’ Richard II alongside concert premieres of other Shakespearean scores on Tuesday 20 September at St John’s Smith Square, London. Joining the orchestra are a cast of actors, including Olivier Award-winner Patricia Hodge and BAFTA-nominated David Threlfall, to set the scene with Shakespeare’s evocative prose. The concert is presented in collaboration with the RSC.

Find out more here.

Follow Richard on Twitter here.