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Shakespeare’s dramatic music

Whenever a public event requires a speech from Shakespeare to articulate the profundity of human experience, or to illustrate the cultural achievements of humankind (or perhaps Britain), there is a very good chance that someone will turn to Caliban:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That if I then waked after long sleep
Will make me sleep again; and then in dreaming
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked
I cried to dream again.
(The Tempest, 3.2.138-46)

Quite what it means to foreground these lines or indeed this character is a question requiring its own article, but one striking effect of performing it at the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony, for example, is how it places music at the heart of Shakespeare’s artistic vision. The Tempest is often described as Shakespeare’s most musical play, but in fact it is hard to find much of his writing that does not make use of music – be that practical performance or figurative image – in some way. For Shakespeare, music is a dramatic tool; a means of narration; a symbolic discourse of harmony and disharmony; even the basis for the occasional dirty joke.

Shakespeare, it seems, is not only a precise and nuanced user of music cues and song in his own work, but also a great provoker of music in others.

Richard III might not seem like the most musical of plays, lacking any songs or music other than the drums and trumpets used to announce the progress of battles and the entrances of monarchs. Yet even here, Shakespeare toys with his Elizabethan audience’s musical expectations over and over again by matching trumpet calls indicating the glorious entrance of a royal person with a series of distinctly un-kingly sights: a ‘sick’ and dying Edward IV helped onto the stage; a small boy, Edward V, with the ‘Lord Protector’ Richard looming ominously over him; the murderous Richard III himself ‘in his pomp’; and, finally, the more positive royal figure of Henry VII who nonetheless has to step over the body of the king that he has just killed to reach his crown. Music actually makes meaning in this play, asking early modern playgoers to consider what a monarch could – or should – look like.

I am regularly asked whether we have the original tune for a particular song or cue in Shakespeare. The answer is often ‘no’, but there are a reasonable number of likely original compositions preserved in texts of the period. Often these reveal Shakespeare taking a piece of music that his audience would already be familiar with – a popular ballad in Othello (4.3.38-55), or a fashionable, art-music ‘ayre’ in Twelfth Night (2.3.98-108) – and giving it a new twist. Thus, Desdemona’s ‘Song of Willow’ turns a male complaint about an inconstant lover into her articulation of female grief and male mistreatment, and Sir Toby’s ‘Farewell, Dear Heart’ reimagines an introverted, young man’s solo love song as a raucous duet that celebrates the ‘good life’ and taunts the apoplectic Malvolio who has just told him in no uncertain terms to be quiet. Like Richard III’s trumpets, both songs demonstrate Shakespeare’s sophisticated awareness of exactly how his first audiences would engage with a piece of music, and how he can shape those engagements to particular dramatic effect.

Shakespeare and the King’s Men also commissioned new compositions for some of his plays, like court lutenist Robert Johnson’s songs for The Tempest. Two of these, ‘Full Fathom Five’ and ‘Where the Bee Sucks’, survive in seventeenth century sources. These songs demonstrate yet closer links between what are presumably Shakespeare’s words and Johnson’s music, for the lines claiming that Alonso has drowned and ‘suffer[ed] a sea-change | Into something rich and strange’ (1.2.403-4) are accompanied by a musical ‘change’, modulating into the dominant key. Shakespeare’s plays demonstrate a near-infinite capacity to accommodate new song settings and instrumental pieces into a performance, and indeed, the practice of adding or altering music for a production is one that Shakespeare and his company would surely have recognised. But nevertheless, Johnson’s bespoke settings indicate just how much dramatic subtlety is likely to have vanished along with the majority of now-missing music for Shakespeare’s plays.

All this is to say nothing of the dozens of operas, ballets, non-dramatic song cycles and incidental music suites inspired by Shakespeare’s text, and the thousands of pieces composed for use in productions over the last four centuries, recorded in Gooch and Thatcher’s Shakespeare Music Catalogue (OUP, 1991). Shakespeare, it seems, is not only a precise and nuanced user of music cues and song in his own work, but also a great provoker of music – and, often, a provoker of great music – in others.

Featured image credit: The Ambassadors, detail of globe, lute, and books, by Hans Holbein the Younger. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Chips Mackinolty

    And this most recently from Australia’s Paul Kelly: http://www.paulkelly.com.au/seven-sonnets-a-song-1

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