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When Shakespeare’s plays call for music, what kind of sound should we imagine?

The following is an excerpt from ‘Music and the Stage in the Time of Shakespeare’, a chapter written by Ross Duffin that appears in the Oxford Handbook of the Age of Shakespeare. This passage looks at how music was used in Shakespeare’s plays and what it would have sounded like.

What instruments were used, either onstage or ‘in the pit’, to use modern parlance? There is evidence that the standard instrumental band for the theatre at this period evolved to be a very particular kind of ensemble that had its roots in the 1560s. Such an ensemble first gets mentioned in the play Jocasta, by George Gascoigne and Francis Kinwelmarsh, first acted at Grays Inn in 1566 and printed in Gascoigne’s A Hundreth Sundrie Flowres of 1573:

“First, before the beginning of the firste Acte, did sounde a dolefull and straunge noyse of violles, Cythren, Bandurion, and suche like…”

In fact, the bandurion (bandora, pandora, etc.) had reportedly been ‘invented’ by the London instrument-maker John Rose in 1562, so it was a new sound, and was a bass counterpart to the smaller, wire-strung cittern. The ‘suche like’ instruments in the band become clearer with subsequent reports. The cittern and bandora are related as plucked, wire-strung instruments, but the rest of the band was of more disparate character. That may be why Robert Laneham’s (or Langham’s) letter concerning music at the Entertainment for Elizabeth at Kenilworth Castle in 1575 refers to ‘sixe seuerall instruments’, meaning that they were mostly of different types.

Those six instruments first seem to have been named explicitly in the description of the music at the entertainment for Elizabeth at Elvetham in 1591:

“After this speech, the Fairy Queene and her maides daunced about the garland, singing a song of sixe partes, with the musicke of an exquisite consort, wherein was the Lute, Bandora, Base-violl, Citterne, Treble-violl, and Flute…”

So, this ‘ideal’ consort consisted of one bass and one treble bowed string instrument, a woodwind instrument, a flexible gut-strung plucked instrument with a wide range, and two wire-strung plucked instruments for texture and percussive effect. This is the basic plan and, though the ensemble is small, its textural resources are rich and substantial. But substitutions occur. Some musical sources assign the flute consort part to recorder, and some sources refer to vyalyn, or violan, instead of viol, suggesting that the treble bowed instrument might have been a violin as an alternative to the treble viol. The original German of the description given here of a pre-play concert at Blackfriars in 1602 uses ‘Geigen’, which I have translated as viols but which might just as well be rendered as ‘fiddles’, meaning generic bowed-string instruments:

“For a whole hour before the play began we heard a delightful consort of organs, lutes, pandoras, citterns, viols and flutes. When we were there, a boy with a warbling voice sang so charmingly to the accompaniment of a bass viol that with the possible exception of the nuns at Milan, we heard nothing to equal him on our journey.”

The inference of having the consort in the theatre is that, having performed before the play (such pre-play performances at some American festivals today are called ‘green shows’) they would stay and provide music during the production as well. In recent decades, mostly because of the influence of film underscoring, we have become accustomed to almost constant use of orchestral music, filling the silence, and manipulating the moods and expectations of the audience. As Julie Sanders says of the underscoring in Branagh’s Henry V: ‘Throughout this film the audience is highly conscious of the epic orchestration that underlines, and sometimes in terms of volume overlays, the events and exchanges being witnessed’. It is very clear, however, that, as important as music was, this kind of constant musical background was not part of the sound experience in late Renaissance theatre.

As Tiffany Stern notes, ‘no Shakespearean ghost’s entrance is flagged by sinister music — or by music of any kind — as would happen in a modern film’. Actors speaking without amplification could not compete with a musical ensemble, whether in an indoor or outdoor theatre, though it is possible that a lute or viol might occasionally continue through portions of dialogue. Moreover, without the ubiquity of recorded music that we enjoy today, music at that time was special— magical even— and its effect would have been diminished by constant presence even if that were possible for the musicians, which it was not. David Lindley, indeed, points out that, in contrast to the modern use of filmic underscoring, music in Shakespearean theatre was ‘always part of the world of the play itself, heard and responded to by the characters on-stage’.

Featured image credit: ‘Man drawing a lute’, by Albrecht Durer. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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