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Setting Shakespeare to music

Shakespeare has inspired countless and varied performances, works of art, and pieces of writing. He has also inspired music. In this 400th year since Shakespeare’s death we asked five composers “How did you approach setting the Shakespeare text you chose for your recent work?”.

Alan Bullard

Bullard (Alan) close-up
Photo courtesy of Alan Bullard. Used with permission.

Setting Shakespeare is a daunting prospect — one is following in the steps of so many others — and it is difficult to approach ‘Hark, Hark, the Lark’ from Cymbeline without Schubert’s setting (with its extra, non-Shakespearian verses) in one’s mind.  So, in my upper voice setting, I deliberately chose to respond differently — the short poem allows for a spacious, expressive approach, with the words of the title repeated several times as a refrain, the piano suggesting the rising and falling of the lark’s song, and the whole forming one broad sweep of music, shaped towards a climax and subsequently winding down.

By contrast, in my mixed choir setting of ‘When that I was and a little tiny boy’ from Twelfth Night I planned to mirror the five verses of this bitter-sweet account of the stages of life (a tragi-comic ‘All the world’s a stage’) with a folk-song like strophic melody which never quite settled in either major or minor key, or into a perfectly steady metre. I hope that this approach captured the humour, the pathos, and the final note of optimism, in the jester Feste’s valediction.

Gabriel Jackson

Jackson (Gabriel) credit_Joel_Garthwaite
Gabriel Jackson. Photo by Joel Garthwaite, used with permission.

There were always going to be ‘Three Shakespeare Songs’, after Vaughan Williams. Three is a good number for Shakespeare songs. With three pieces, there can be a nice balance between contrast and continuity. Fast-slow-fast? Or perhaps slow-fast-slow? The texts themselves can dictate that. And that was the difficult part – choosing the texts, where with Shakespeare there is so much to choose from. Perhaps texts that have been set before should be avoided? But if all three are unfamiliar, perhaps they will be less attractive to performers? In the end, I settled for one very well-known text, and two relatively unfamiliar ones. What should they be about? How to ensure there is some connection between the three pieces, some reason why they are grouped together? At one stage I thought they should all be about music, but Shakespeare’s attitude to music is always more-or-less the same – it’s a good thing! In the end, I chose three nicely different texts (two speeches and a sonnet) that all mention music or singing. The commissioners wanted there to be no divisi in these pieces, just straight SATB; my natural instinct, when setting words as rich as these, is to create rich textures and big chords. So I had to try something different to make music for these wonderful words, and different is always good!

Cecilia McDowall

1. Give me some music
2. Mark how one string sweet husband to another
3. How sour sweet music is

Where better to start writing a new choral cycle (‘When time is broke’) than with texts drawn from Shakespeare. A composer’s task is always easier with good words, rich in imagery, and Shakespeare has given such inspiration over 400 years to countless artists. The quest for words, just the very right words, can be a long, tricky but interesting pursuit. These particular texts are a ‘mash up’ from six different sources, including Sonnet VIII (advocating the virtues of marriage) and ‘Much ado about nothing’ (insinuating that matrimony begins well, then it’s downhill all the way). The texts are unified by a musical theme; harmony, discord and rhythm. I looked for words which I hoped had not been previously set.

Photo courtesy of Cecilia McDowall. Used with permission.

As to how to set them, the words provide a ‘way in,’ suggesting the style, mood and direction of how the music could be. Beatrice’s description of the courtship procedure as being like a Scotch jig, all hot and hasty, is enough encouragement to think of Scottish fiddle music. And why not take it a step further and give the voices ‘mouth music’ to sing, a traditional Scottish style known as ‘puirt à beul’ (literally, ‘tunes from a mouth,’ usually something cheery). Then in the second movement, with the words, one pleasing note do sing, I’ve made the repeated  ‘pleasing note’ a ‘blue’ note which I hope draws attention to itself. The final movement opens with a cynical unison laugh and the order to ‘keep time’ which should sound as though it is breathlessly not keeping time. All manner of discord follows rounding off the work with a collective pitch-less sigh. The rest is silence.

David Bednall

The toughest challenge in setting a Shakespeare text is probably the familiarity of the words in question and the certain baggage that they may carry – this was certainly the case for ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ It is possibly the most loved of all the sonnets, and certainly familiar from many marriage services, yet, nevertheless, remains timeless and fresh on each hearing. Added to this of course is the feeling of responsibility involved in setting words of such quality.

In making a musical setting of a text, one inevitably has to make choices of interpretation, and once these are made the feel of the work is set; obviously a performer has a certain leeway in their interpretation, but whereas the poem may be spoken or read in many different ways depending on the moment, orator, or reader, the musical setting is a more fixed entity. A further difficulty arises purely from the fact that this sonnet is in the first person whereas my setting is for choir. Against these difficulties of course there is the advantages bestowed by a text of immense poetic beauty and natural musical flow, filled with images that lend themselves to setting.

Skempton (Howard) credit Katie Vandyck
Howard Skempton. Photo by Katie Vandyck, used with permission.

My approach on the whole was simple and direct, allowing the words their full expression. I began, as always, by writing out the text in full, and then planning the musical structure, always governed by the words on both micro and macro levels, and deciding on the various musical textures which would provide variety and where these might be best deployed. A musical setting is almost inevitably more extended than a purely spoken one, so I chose moments which seemed to warrant and bear repetition in a sung context. I have always been much-inspired by the word-setting of Finzi, and strove to achieve a natural flow, hopefully painting something of their meaning in the music.

Howard Skempton

One of the most enjoyable aspects of composing vocal or choral music is going in search of a text, a task normally undertaken as one is finishing a previous piece. It is also exciting to be invited to set a text chosen by a commissioner (or editor of an anthology!), and the choice in this case was inspiring. My initial aim in setting ʻCome away, come away deathʼ was to devise a strong melodic line, one that might be worthy of inclusion in a production of Twelfth Night. The writing throughout the setting is essentially homophonic. The harmony attempts to strike a balance between tenderness and gravity, and is sometimes quite stark, as when colouring “my black coffin”.

Featured image credit: Ensemble by yunje5054. CCO public domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Richard M. Waugaman, M.D.

    Thank you for drawing attention to this seldom mentioned aspect of Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s use of language is inherently musical. And Shakespeare has inspired an amazing number of composers to write music based on his works. It’s another aspect of Shakespeare’s universal appeal–across boundaries of time, place, and creative expression.

    Open-minded readers may be interested to know that Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, the most likely alternative authorship candidate, was described by an Elizabethan composer as having musical skills superior to those of some professional musicians.

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