Purcell & Shakespeare
The audiences of Elizabethan England were typically treated to at least one song during the performance of any given play. Even when songs were inappropriate—as in tragedies—trumpets and drums would have occasionally been used to accentuate the drama. Plays that that had no songs, dance scenes, or other practical music that advances the story were still framed by music. William Shakespeare was not afraid to push the limits of this custom. Shakespeare’s drama is deeply informed by the music of his time.
Despite this, some of the most enduring examples of the music of Shakespeare’s time seem to have escaped his attention. Neither the clever word-painting of contemporaneous madrigals by the likes of Thomas Morley or Thomas Weelkes, nor the sumptuous and complex polyphony of composers such as Thomas Tallis or William Byrd seem to have been deemed worthy of his mention. Whether such music would have gone over the heads of Shakespeare’s audience is difficult to ascertain, but surviving examples of Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre music, such as those featured on this program, suggest that he favored a more vivid, declamatory and direct approach.
Ordinarily, the main characters in plays of this era did not sing. Instead, servants, rogues, fools, clowns, and other ancillary characters were assigned most of the singing duties. Shakespeare gave us only two heroines whose behavior goes against this custom: Hamlet’s Ophelia and Othello’s Desdemona, both of whose singing demonstrates their deteriorating mental states. Desdemona’s “Willow Song” was not composed for Othello, but is a perfect example of one that was appropriated for it, as was typical in Shakespeare’s plays. Anonymous settings and some of the text for this song appear in a handful of mid-sixteenth-century manuscripts of lute and consort songs. In a way, then, one of the most famous songs from Shakespeare is not a Shakespeare song at all, but rather an old, famous tune that the playwright wove into the fabric of his play, exploiting his audience’s aware- ness of popular culture to advance plot and develop character.
Perhaps the closest we can come to experiencing original songs as they would have been heard by Shakespeare’s audiences is through Robert Johnson’s setting of “Where the Bee Sucks” and “Full Fathom Five” from The Tempest. It is believed that Johnson had some association with Shakespeare toward the end of his career, and these two song settings are excellent examples of how the English ayre was changing in the early seventeenth-century. From around 1610 onwards, these works for solo voice and simple instrumental accompaniment were increasingly showing the influence of Italian monody’s emphasis on mood, character, and dramatic declamation of text.
Since no written instrumental music from Shakespeare’s plays has survived, we must look a few generations after his death for examples of incidental music intended for theatrical performances of his works. By the Restoration in 1660, Matthew Locke was one of England’s leading composers. Apart from his post as composer and performer in the court of Charles II, Locke was chiefly a composer of music for London’s commercial theatre scene. A 1667 production of The Tempest adapted by poet John Dryden and theatre manager Sir William Davenant supplemented Shakespeare’s original drama with new scenes that included opportunities for new instrumental music and songs performed by the supernatural characters on Prospero’s island. This led to a further reworking into a semi-opera by dramatist and amateur composer Thomas Shadwell in 1674, for which Locke added a suite of incidental music. This suite, notable for its spectacularly vivid depiction of the violent storm that opens the play, has secured Locke’s reputation as an important and unique English composer.
The songs for the 1674 production came from several of the most prominent English composers and musicians of the day, including young Pelham Humphrey. Although his travels are undocumented, Humphrey was believed to have been sent to France to study with Lully and his musicians and returning an accomplished composer well steeped in his stylistic period’s prevailing ethos: that music should both express and move the passions. Other songs from this same production, including “Come unto These Yellow Sands,” “Full Fathom Five” and “Dry Those Eyes” (the lattermost being a setting of a new text by Davenant and Dryden) and were set by John Bannister, who, like many Restoration composers, paid his musical dues as a member of Charles II’s famous ensemble of twenty-four violins (Locke himself held the post as composer for the ensemble). And, like Humphrey, he was sent across the channel to receive training in the continental styles that were so popular in King Charles’ court. Unfortunately, Banister lost this court appointment, by one account, “for some saucy words spoken to His Majesty: when he called for the Italian violins, [Banister] made answer that he had better have the English.” Pietro Reggio, the compos- er of the stirring “Arise, ye Subterranean Winds,” was vividly described by parliamentarian Samuel Pepys (whose exhaustive diaries provide invaluable insights into a decade of English his- tory and culture) as a “slovenly and ugly fellow who sings Italian songs to the theorbo most neatly.”
When Locke died in August of 1677, Henry Purcell was sworn in as his replacement as court composer for the twenty-four violins. Though his music shows a great deal of influence from his predecessor, there is no evidence that Purcell had studied with Locke. Nevertheless, Purcell famously penned a moving elegy for “his Worthy Friend Mr. Matthew Locke” entitled, “What hope for us remains now he is gone?”
Purcell’s standing as one of the most important seventeenth-century composers is reinforced by his ability to create works that combine fiery Italianate virtuosity, elegant French dance forms, and intricate counterpoint. All three of these are on fine display in his brilliant “Three Parts Upon a Ground.” No less important is Purcell’s facility with setting the English language to music. In the preface to the first volume of his posthumous collection of vocal works, Orpheus Britannicus, publisher Henry Playford wrote that Purcell had “a peculiar Genius to express the energy of English Words, whereby he mov’d the Passions of all his Auditors.”
From 1690 until his untimely death in 1695, Purcell was heavily involved in composing for the theatre. One of the last productions with which he was involved with was an adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This lavish production, The Fairy-Queen, was one of the most expensive shows of its time, with a budget that climbed to £3,000 (this would be close to one million U.S. dollars today).
Where Dryden and Davenant’s production substantially altered Shakespeare’s original text, most of Purcell’s modifications came in the form of added songs and dances inserted between existing scenes. Most of these are an excuse to make a grand spectacle, as in the grand masque of Act III, and the “Symphony While the Swans Come Forward,” which featured an elaborate scene change to a forest setting where two giant, mechanized dragons come together to form a bridge over a river in which two approaching swans are visible.
The Fairy-Queen concludes with the “Masque of Hymen,” in which King Oberon and Queen Titania call upon the Roman goddess Juno to bless the marriage bed of the finally-united pairs of lovers. Since it would hardly seem proper to have a Deus without some impressive ex machina, the goddess arrives in a machine drawn by peacocks and sings “Thrice Happy Lovers.” Like the others Purcell set for The Fairy-Queen, the text for this air is uncredited. The opulent masque concludes, somewhat inexplicably, by the “Chaconne for a Chinese Man and Woman.” It is hard to imagine a more delightful celebration of the myriad cultural influences that combined to form Baroque music than an English genius’ interpretation of a popular Spanish dance form with a French name that accompanies twenty-four dancers as they grace- fully wend their way around six giant pedestals of China-work that have just majestically risen from under the stage.
—Dr. Aaron Cain