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Music played an important role in the Renaissance theatre and Shakespeare brought new subtlety to its use. In a theatre without lights and sets, it fell to music to underline mood, whether for magic, comedy, feasting or pathos. Here are thirty or so settings from Shakespeare’s lifetime by Morley, Johnson, Dowland, Byrd, Ferrabosco and others, including lyrics set to ballad tunes that would have been very familiar to the actors in his company.
By David Denton
Incidental music formed an important part in the presentation of William Shakespeare's plays, not only to set the mood, but equally to provide a diversion
Incidental music formed an important part in the presentation of William Shakespeare’s plays, not only to set the mood, but equally to provide a diversion for audiences who would be first time experiencing the depth of his intellectual content. What was actually performed can be argued at length, but here we have pieces written during Shakespeare’s lifetime and using words from his plays. Today they are much featured in ‘traditional’ productions, though most have also found an independent place in English song. Among the featured composers are Robert Johnson, Anthony Holborne, John Dowland and Thomas Morley, the thirty-tracks including, O mistress mine, It was a lover and his lass, Come away death, Who is Sylvia?, Sigh no more ladies, You spotted snakes and Where the bee sucks. I much enjoy the simple rustic soprano approach of Rebecca Hickey who sums up the roll of women in Shakespeare’s time. Gerald Place turns his pieces towards art songs, while the lutenist, Dorothy Linell, provides the accompaniment and adds the work most closely linked with Shakespeare, the Diversions on Greensleeves. Good sound quality and a most pleasing presentation of lightweight music. The disc is not available in all zones, but your friendly Internet shop will oblige.
Music for Shakespeare’s Theatre
The plays of William Shakespeare feature the word “music” at least 170 times, and further references to songs, tunes, voices and a wide variety of instruments far outstrip this number. It seems that only King John has no reference to music at all. Songs were an important element of earlier drama, though they were frequently little more than the expected divertissements, and in general the songs are not specified. By contrast, Shakespeare only very rarely leaves the choice of song to the actors themselves. In Shakespeare’s world characters who appreciate music are estimable: those who do not are fit merely for “treasons, stratagems and spoils”. Nor is it enough just to appreciate music. Hamlet berates the otherwise courtly Guildenstern for not being able to play the recorder as it makes him a gentleman lacking in the necessary accomplishments at best, and morally suspect at worst.
So attitudes to music colour motive and character, and the balance between harmony and discord affects all life, from love to politics. As Ulysses says in Troilus & Cressida: “Take but degree away, un-tune that string/And hark what discord follows”. If the power of music was so important to Shakespeare as an image, it comes as no surprise that his use of music itself in the drama is far more subtle than that of his predecessors. In a theatre without scenery or lighting, music had always been important to give a sense of time and place: for example trumpet calls for battles, wind-music for banquets; but in Shakespeare’s hands it could also serve to enhance mood.
Of the named composers in this programme two in particular may have had a close association with Shakespeare’s theatres. Robert Johnson wrote prolifically for the stage, both for plays and the elaborate court masques. He was indentured to Lord Hunsdon, who was to become Lord Chamberlain, and patron of Shakespeare’s company of players. Three of his songs to Shakespeare’s texts survive and are almost certain to have been used in early performances. Thomas Morley was organist of St Paul’s Cathedral, and one of the Gentlemen of the Chapel Royal. It seems that he and Shakespeare were neighbours for a time, and his ‘It was a Lover’ is perhaps the most celebrated Shakespeare song from the period. ‘O Mistress Mine’ has also traditionally been attributed to Morley though the tune, from his Consort Lessons of 1599, only fits the words with a certain amount of adjustment. Of an earlier generation was Richard Edwards, who was both dramatist and composer and wrote two plays for his Children of the Chapel Royal. ‘When griping grief’ is quoted only in part in Romeo and Juliet, where the tune ‘Heartsease’ is also mentioned. Robert Jones also combined song-writing with managing a troupe of choir choirboys and staging their elaborate musical entertainments. Boys were not limited to these companies, for they had to play the women’s parts alongside the men in the outdoor theatres and presumably would have brought with them considerable musical skills. Another man of the theatre was Alfonso Ferrabosco II, who wrote many court masques for King James I in collaboration with Ben Jonson. John Wilson may well be the strongest link of all with Shakespeare. As well as publishing his own songs, he included Robert Johnson’s in his collection. Later in life he became professor of music at Oxford, but earlier, as a young actor/singer, he may have been that same Jack Wilson known to have sung ‘Sigh no more, ladies’ in Much Ado About Nothing.
Of the remaining composers, Anthony Holborne was best known for his instrumental music, but also left a handful of songs, so it seems not inappropriate to use part of one of his dances for ‘When Daffodils begin to peer’. Of Thomas Greaves little is known except one book of songs, and it is good to give his ‘What is beauty but a breath?’ a new lease of life set to ‘Fear no more’. ‘Come live with me’ is from William Corkine’s Second Book of Ayres. The poem is by Christopher Marlowe, but was attributed to Shakespeare in The Passionate Pilgrim of 1599. It also appeared in England’s Helicon. John Dowland’s sophisticated song-writing did not suit the theatre, but we include two instrumental pieces with strong associations: My Lady Hunsdon’s Puff was written for the wife of the Lord Chamberlain, and Tarleton’s Resurrection is in memory of Queen Elizabeth’s favourite jester, traditionally identified with Yorick in Hamlet.
In the year 1623 two of Shakespeare’s friends and colleagues, John Heminges and Henry Condell, published a lavish Folio edition of Shakespeare’s works in his memory. As a result Shakespeare’s lyrics have survived, but there was no place for music in these books, and for anyone wanting to know what these songs sounded like in the original productions it has always been a case of musical detective-work. The first popular anthology, compiled by Frederick Bridge, was published by Novello as late as the 1920s, and included a handful of familiar pieces. Since then the corpus of available settings has been added to, often ingeniously, by Frederick Sternfeld, Ross Duffin and many others. Writing in 1966, Dr John Stevens made the clear distinction between ‘popular’ songs for which ballad tunes are appropriate, and ‘art’ songs that need more sophisticated musical settings. Some of the ballad tunes suggest themselves: in A Midsummer Night’s Dream Puck’s other name is Robin Goodfellow, and as Duffin shows, the folk-tune of that name fits perfectly to ‘You spotted snakes’. His also is the felicitous pairing of ‘Come Away Death’ with the tune King Solomon. More established examples include Ophelia’s songs, which are all snatches of ballad texts, and Desdemona’s ‘Willow Song’ which is, as she says herself, “an old thing”. Jeremy Barlow has suggested the tune Woodicock for Bottom’s ‘The Woozel (Ousel) Cock’. For the more formal songs we have looked to the English lutenist song-writers, seeking primarily to find music of appropriate mood and style, but in most cases turning to composers who had some connection with the theatre.
Song was the most formal means of expression in the drama of the period, and as Shakespeare developed, he sought ways of using it further to express characters’ feelings and states of mind. It was a theatrical convention that people of noble birth only ever sang in public if mad (Ophelia) or distracted (Desdemona); otherwise singing fell to servants, rustics and enchanted beings. Of the lowerclass characters, the so-called fools were an important musical element: Will Kemp in the older knockabout tradition, and later Robert Armin in more philosophising rôles like Feste, the grave-digger in Hamlet, and Autolycus. But it is in the late plays that music takes on its most metaphysical guise: rewarding good, punishing evil, healing the sick and even bringing the dead back to life. Yet for all this sophistication, an essential charm pervades the songs of Autolycus and Ariel, a charm that has made sure all these lyrics have remained fresh for over four hundred years.
Gerald Place, 2008
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