Concert version of 10 variations on a theme composed for the Royal Shakespeare Company's Henry V
Published by: Highbridge Music Ltd
Commissioned by: The Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford
Instrumentation: Solo Harp

[Key to Abbreviations]
Note on Lyrics: William Shakespeare
Duration: 10 mins
First Performance: Played on stage by Vanessa McKeand at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, for the run of Henry V with Kenneth Branagh 1984

Sheet Music Available
Instrumental parts for sale
Instrumental parts for hire
see op. 523
Recordings Available
ISABELLE und andere Werke fur Harfe
Released: 2017
Recorded: 2017
Artists: Isabelle Marchewka

Vanessa Sonderup (nee McKeand) on You Tube


Composer's note: In 1984 Adrian Noble invited me to create a musical score for the opening production of the Stratford Shakespeare season. He said: 'I would like you to write a complete film score for the play. This seemed like an innovatory idea which appealed to me and I did my best to achieve it. I decided to create a continuous subliminal nerve-edge sound whenever there was war in the land, but this punctuated at the climactic moments with colossal hit-points created by, amongst other things, dropping chains into a tin -bath and shaking a 30-foot high thunder sheet. The other ploy that I invented was to have a harpist playing variations quietly live on stage whenever there was peace in the land The harpist would be placed on-stage in period costume and play very quiet and peaceful music - something which might well have taken place in palaces of that era. The 'theme-tune' of the production was an unaccompanied song on Shakespeare's words 'and sword and shield in bloody field doth win immortal fame..'  I developed this folk-like theme into a set of variations for harp, here presented as a concert-work.



And sword and shield in bloody field
Doth win immortal fame.
Would I were in an ale-house in London;
If wishes would prevail with me,
My purpose should not fail with me;
But thither would I hie,
But thither would I hie.


9th March 2017 Isabelle Marchewka, Dusseldorf, Residenz Grafenberger Wald

A composite album of music by William Alwyn, Malcolm Arnold, Howard Blake, Jan Friedlin, Tobias van de Locht and Miklos Rosza

27th August 2016 Isabelle Marchewka harp, Part of a Shakespeare evening at the Evangelical Church Moers, nr Dusseldorf
23rd May 2014 Orchestra of the Swan, Civic Hall Stratford
16th May 2014 Featured composer Howard Blake, The Orchestra of the Swan, conductor David Curtis, Shakespeare Songs, Richard Edgar wilson (tenor), Civic Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 3,

Spring Sounds International
Music Festival 2014

Celebrating Shakespeare in words and music

With featured composer Howard Blake – Composer of The Snowman

Sunday 20 April – 8:10am BBC Radio 4

Wednesday 23 April  – 3:30pm BBC Radio 3

Friday 16 May, Friday 23 May, Friday 30 May and Friday 6 June

Civic Hall, Stratford-upon-Avon

2014 marks the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth and to commemorate the occasion Orchestra of the Swan will be celebrating music inspired by his words.

Howard Blake, composer of ‘The Snowman’, is our featured composer and we will be performing his Shakespeare Songs, Harp variations on a theme composed for Henry V and the premiere of Midsummer Night's Dream, Suite for orchestra - a new work specially created from music composed for the RSC's feature film directed by Adrian Noble.

The Lark Ascending and Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis by Vaughan Williams will also feature in this year’s programme as will new works by Huw Watkins, Roxanna Panufnik, Guto Puw and Roger Steptoe.

Click here to view events.


Spring Sounds History

The inaugural Spring Sounds took place in May 2008 with Tasmin Little at the helm as Artistic Director. The ethos behind the festival is to feature the work of established and developing composers alongside the great classics of the classical canon and to showcase and broaden Stratford-upon-Avon’s musical offering.

Taking place every May composers and artists featured thus far include Roxanna Panufnik, Joe Cutler, Phil Dukes, the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, Paul Watkins, Martin Roscoe, the Smetana Piano Trio, Param Vir and Viv McLean.

The festival has also made full use of a variety of venues Stratford offers from the orchestra’s home base of the Civic Hall through to the elegant Georgian Town Hall and the beautiful Peter Adams designed Compton Verney art gallery just outside of Stratford. Compton Verney has also hosted the festival’s family events with young participants and gallery visitors creating graphic scores and being treated to impromptu performances around the grounds from Orchestra of the Swan’s musicians


Howard Blake’s music for Shakespeare in performance

Howard Blake

Howard Blake

This Friday, 6 June, Stratford-upon-Avon’s Orchestra of the Swan’s celebration of the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth reaches its climax with a concert of music inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Three of the four concerts in the series have featured pieces by the composer Howard Blake, best known for the song Walking in the Air that was used in the animated film of The Snowman, memorably covered by the young Aled Jones in 1985. In a long career Blake has written much else, including film music and choral and orchestral work. He has also written a number of pieces for theatre: the first was for the 1984 RSC production of Henry V that launched the young Kenneth Branagh’s Shakespearean career. This was played at the second concert in which the theme was “Rosemary for Remembrance”. In the programme note he explains that in between the scenes of war, he decided to “have a harpist playing variations quietly live on stage whenever there was peace in the land. The harpist would be placed on-stage in period costume…The “theme-tune” of the production was an unaccompanied song on Shakespeare’s words”:

A scene from the 1984 Henry V with Kenneth Branagh

A scene from the 1984 Henry V with Kenneth Branagh

And sword and shield in bloody field Doth win immortal fame.
Would I were in an ale-house in London; If wishes would prevail with me,
My purpose should not fail with me;
But thither would I hie,
But thither would I hie.

Tanya Houghton was the performer at the Orchestra of the Swan concert, but the original soloist was Vanessa Sundstrup, then just beginning her career. She has recently put her own recording of this piece on YouTube. She recalls “The harp was featured as a solo instrument as a symbol of peace and was actually on stage”. I well remember her gentle playing of Blake’s music while the audience was assembling, becoming, sadly, less and less audible as the auditorium filled up. Blake’s music is beautifully melodic and I particularly like the way that you can hear the wistful words of the song “But thither would I hie” in the music.

Blake became associated with Adrian Noble’s productions, writing the songs for his As You Like It in 1985 which have also been sung in this concert series. The first concert featured another Shakespeare commission by the distinguished ex-RSC director Bill Alexander, (who also directed the stage version of The Snowman), for a student production of Twelfth Night. Blake’s version of O Mistress Mine was not actually used in the production so the concert on 16 May was its first performance.

Poster for Adrian Noble's film of A Midsummer Night's Dream

Poster for Adrian Noble’s film of A Midsummer Night’s Dream

In Friday’s concert the Orchestra will play a suite of Howard Blake’s music based on that which he wrote for the film version of Adrian Noble’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This will be the first performance of this suite which Blake has created specially for the 2014 anniversary. In the programme note Blake comments “Since Adrian’s production included a motor-bike for the Mechanicals and a forest consisting of light bulbs, the score did not have to be set in a conventional “mock-Tudor” style and the character of Bottom, for instance, is conveyed by a jazzy solo trombone”. And “A solo violin begins the work announcing the main theme, redolent of fairies flying through midnight skies and enchanted happenings”. Theatre and film music can be overwhelmed by the visuals, so on this occasion it’s going to be great for the music to get the attention it deserves.  This series of concerts has been a delight and I’d like to thank conductor David Curtis for the opportunity to hear so much Shakespeare-related music in concert, and not just the obvious pieces.

Sylvia Morris, Shakespear Blog, 6/2014

Related Autobiography Chapters

THE LAND OF COUNTERPANE - an animated film (2014)

[Back to top]