A scam by a venal London merchant

There is a version of Hamlet called the bad quarto, which was the first to be printed, in 1603. It is a pirated edition, designed by an unknown bookseller to cheat Shakespeare of his royalties. To make it, the pirate hired one of the minor actors, the man who played Marcellus, to write out what he could remember of the play. In the Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare's plays were first performed, the actors were only given pieces of paper holding their own lines. They never possessed a complete copy of the script.

As a consequence Marcellus's largely irrelevant words are perfectly rendered, the speeches of other characters he shares scenes with are competent, and the rest of the play when he was not on stage is a garbled mess. It is a pointless jumble, the work of the finest mind in English literature filtered through the memory of a bit-part player, catching snatches in the wings, then scribbling them down months later in a scam by a venal London merchant. His ineptitude is funny only because we have the original to compare it to. In Marcellus's version, Hamlet's famous soliloquy begins: 'To be, or not to be, Aye, there's the point.'
From Ivo Stourton's recommended first novel The Night Climbers. It may be heresy to mention venal London merchants and that guardian of the Bard's genius, the Royal Shakespeare Company in the same sentence, but I will anyway. Last night we saw the RSC's new production of Romeo and Juliet with Anglo-Asian Anneika Rose and David Dawson in the title roles. The setting is mafia territory in the 1940s complete with knives and guns, with which I have no problem. Modern stagings are fine, if the text of the play or opera are totally respected; with Wagner's Ring providing enduring evidence that the text can survive the most bizarre stagings.

But the RSC's new Romeo and Juliet, which is directed by man of the moment Neil Bartlett, commits the cardinal sin of letting the gimmicks come between the Bard and the audience. Cheap Harry Potter-style sound effects are used to, spuriously, underline key moments in the drama, and voices are electronically processed to explain that the crypt scene, which looks like a crypt scene, is actually taking place in a crypt. Worst of all, the Prince's crucial final speech is drowned out by the on-stage musicians. It was good to see a capacity audience including many young people and school parties. Any live theatre is infinitely preferable to the dross of today's television. But is Shakespeare Hogwarts-style really the only way to reach new audiences?

And staying with venal London merchants I'm bracing myself for this committed curmudgeon's birthday treat next week. Glyndebourne's new Hansel and Gretel is set in a cardboard box and a supermarket - I joke not. I just hope there are no bleeping bar-code readers in the Glyndebourne production to mar that most sublime of all opera scores. As I write Naxos' UK copyright-exempt CD transfer of the 1953 EMI Karajan and Schwarzkopf Hansel plays. There is so much more to Engelbert Humperdinck's score than the well-known overture. The close of Act 1 is as moving as anything Wagner wrote and this super-budget priced double CD (or the more expensive EMI original) should be in every collection. Not only is Walter Legge's production lasting proof that great art has no need for cheap gimmicks, it is also one of the great achievements in the history of recorded sound.

A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head:
Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things;
Some shall be pardon'd, and some punished:
For never was a story of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

The Night Climbers by Ivo Stourton was borrowed from Norfolk Library Services. Naxos' Hansel and Gretel was bought online. Any copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk


Garth Trinkl said…
Sorry your Shakespeare evening was marred, pliable.


“There is so much more to Engelbert Humperdinck's score than the well-known overture.”

Some of your readers may not know or recall that the MET Opera staged --and televised internationally last season -- the Welsh Opera’s fascinating and edgy production of H & G, by Richard Jones, with Alice Coote, Christine Schäfer, and tenor Philip Langridge as the Witch.

There must be some videos of the production out there somewhere on the Web.

Here are a few pics:

Pliable said…
... and Shakespeare in trouble elsewhere -
Drew80 said…
Am I the only one who has trouble with the Naxos practice of raiding the back-catalogs of other recording companies?

I realize that copyright laws are different in Europe, but Naxos doing this galls me no end.

EMI is paid nothing, the estates of deceased musicians are paid nothing, and even musicians still living who participated in the original recording--and there must be a handful of members of the Philharmonia Orchestra of the time still alive--are paid nothing and are not even asked for permission to have their work "borrowed".

Naxos gets to collect money for stealing the work of others: that's what this amounts to, and I detest this practice.
Pliable said…
Drew, thanks. But I really can't agree with your use of the word 'steal', or, frankly, with your general sentiments.

'Steal' means to take in breach of the law. Naxos are re-issuing material which, under EEC law, is in the public domain. Therefore they are not stealing.

Both the EEC and US put a finite period on the copyright protection of audio recordings. In the EEC it is fifty years, in the US it is seventy years. That is the decision of the elected legislators.

The Naxos website clearly states 'Not available in the United States due to possible copyright restrictions'


I am all in favour of artists receiving their reward, and this blog has been an active defender of copyright protection for living musicians -


But, copyright law notwithstanding, I find the case far less convincing when the recording is more than fifty years old, which the Naxos Hansel and Gretel is. In many cases, the majority of the money on these old recordings flows to lazy corporate record companies who do not take the trouble to actively to remaster, repackage and remarket the recordings in the way that Naxos, Testament, and other copyright-free specialists do.

If you are really concerned about copyright you should look at YouTube. And yes, I have to plead guilty. The video I featured here recently -

http://www.overgrownpath.com/2008/11/coming-to-concert-hall-near-you.html -

is in breach of copyright laws both in the US and EEC. It makes unauthorised use of the audio track of a 2004 ECM CD made by musicians who are still alive and composed by a living artist. That is a lot more serious than giving a fifty-five year old recording, which has already handsomely rewarded its makers, a new lease of life.
Drew80 said…
Pliable, I believe Testament licenses its reissues from the original companies. An exchange of fees is involved, and the necessary permissions sought.

Naxos, on the other hand, simply issues its own versions of whatever is in the public domain. Naxos is not even in receipt of the original master tapes for most of its "historic" reissues.

In the specific case of the EMI recording of the Humperdinck opera, EMI's recording remains available through EMI, in which case Naxos is not nobly trying to reissue neglected material long out of print.

Naxos is simply trying to make money from the work of others.

EMI does not raid the back-catalog of Decca, and vice versa, attempting to undercut the original company on a price basis. Other major companies refrain from this practice as well.

I think it is all rather ungentleman-like of Naxos.

Now, if the original recording company were long out of business, with no successor company having taken over its product line, and Naxos were trying to reissue historic material that otherwise would remain out of sight, I might have a different viewpoint.
Pliable said…
Drew, do you make a voluntary donation to Beethoven's estate every time you hear, or buy a recording, of one of his symphonies, or one by the thousands of other composers whose work is out of copyright in both the US and EEC?

And as this post started with Shakespeare how about those plays on your bookshelf?

And how about those van Gogh reproductions in your den?

Every one is an example of making money from the work of others. That's what happens when copyright expires.
Drew80 said…
The Beethoven Estate has been returning my checks of late!

Seriously, yes, I see your point, Pliable.

But I still have qualms about one company taking another company's work product and issuing it as its own. There is something unseemly about it. This is why Deutsche Grammophon does not reissue RCA's Toscanini recordings from the 1940's on its own label, or why Sony does not reissue EMI's Karajan recordings from the late 40's and early 50's on its label. To do so would be to assume another entity's work product.
Pliable said…
'... one company taking another company's work product and issuing it as its own.

Naxos clearly state that Hansel and Gretel was issued on Columbia LPs, they identify the masters from which the exemplary transfers by industry expert Mark Obert-Thorn were made, and the excellent booklet essay by ex-Gramophone editor Malcolm Walker discusses in detail the Columbia sessions.

Naxos are professionals dealing, in this instance, in IP that is in the public domain. Just like Phaidon or Taschen with their coffee-table books of out of copyright artworks.

For more of the same I recommend Naxos' transfers of Casals' Bach Cello Suites -


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