Shakespeare and Music

Music in Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s plays are full of music. Lorenzo in the Merchant of Venice calls for music as he and Jessica sit outside: ‘soft stillness and the night Become the touches of sweet harmony’. Jessica’s reaction is, perhaps, unexpected: ‘I am never merry when I hear sweet music’.  And, indeed, music is not necessarily associated with merriment in Shakespeare. The song that Duke Orsino (Twelfth Night) calls for to soothe his disturbed heart deals with the melancholy of unrequited love: ‘Come away, come away death’.  Desdemona sings the mournful ‘Willow’ song just before she is murdered by Othello. Iago’s drinking song has a glee and energy about it that seems devilish because we know it is part of his plan to bring about Cassio’s downfall. Paulina, about to bring the statue of the apparently dead Hermione to life, cries ‘Music, awake her; strike!’ (The Winter’s Tale’).

The Tempest is arguably the most musical of the plays. Caliban, the ‘salvage and deformed slave’, is lulled and enchanted by the isle by the ‘Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight, and hurt not’. But he only sings himself to join in the drinking songs of his companions from the shipwreck, Trinculo and Stephano. Ariel has mischievous and taunting songs as he goes about his puckish business, as well as the well-known ‘Where the bee sucks, there suck I’. And the masque that Prospero organises in Act IV has its own music.

[All quotations are from Arden editions of the plays.]

Shakespeare in Music

Some of the original settings of Shakespeare’s songs have been preserved; for instance, Richard Johnson’s settings of ‘Where the bee sucks’ and ‘Full fadom five’ from The Tempest. But in any case Shakespeare’s lyrics and indeed his plays have provided – and still provide – endless inspiration for composers. Apart from countless settings of the songs, there is incidental music (Arthur Sullivan’s music for The Tempest has a wonderfully graphic overture); music for films of the plays (William Walton’s score for Henry V, for instance); orchestral pieces such as Tchaikovsky’s fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet, Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, Elgar’s symphonic study Falstaff, Liszt’s symphonic poem Hamlet and Berlioz’s unconventional symphony with voices, Romeo and Juliet; modern musicals such as Kiss me Kate and West Side Story – and of course the operas. Verdi’s wonderful Otello and Falstaff come to mind immediately, but a personal favourite is Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict.

At their concert on Saturday, 11 July 2016, the Southport Bach Choir will be marking the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death by singing several settings of his words. Vaughan Williams’s Serenade, his setting of the words from The Merchant of Venice (referred to above) is probably his best-known Shakespearian piece, but we shall be performing his lesser known Three Shakespeare Songs. Only one of these, ‘Full fathom five’, is actually marked as a song in Shakespeare. The words of the second piece, ‘The cloud-capp’d towers’, are taken from Prospero’s famous speech as he dismisses the spirits of the masque; ‘Our revels now are ended’. The third song sets words spoken by a stray fairy in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’: ‘Over hill, over dale’.

Last year the choir included in its 50th anniversary concert a specially commissioned piece by Will Todd, ‘It was a lover and his lass’. We are glad to have another opportunity of singing such a delightful piece again this summer, and will be pairing and contrasting it with Thomas Morley’s setting (1600) of the same words. Rather more unusually, the Swedish composer, Nils Lindberg, has set a Shakespeare sonnet, ‘Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’ as part of his Garland of Elisabethan Poetry – an appropriate song to include in the choir’s summer concert. Finally, turning to one of the modern re-workings of Shakespeare, the concert will include one of the movements from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story choral suite.