New Program for 2017-2018
Music & songs from the plays of William Shakespeare
O Mistress Mine (excerpt) - "Play, Music!"
Music from the plays of William Shakespeare
I wanted to find a way to do something more than “just-another-shakespeare-music program”. Something that would allow an audience to experience these songs as they might have sounded when they were first performed.
The information yielded from this research was used to create a holistic representation of the music Shakespeare would have heard in his lifetime, even in his own original productions! A closer look at the sources from this time reveals that there were essentially two types of songs:
opular Ballads and Art Songs
There is no musical notation included in any of the manuscript or folio editions of Shakespeare's plays, but he references and even quotes popular songs of the time. Popular ballads were songs that everyone knew. They were sung in the homes, hummed in the streets. It was fashionable for poets to write new lyrics for these pre-existent melodies, and for composers to write variations upon these tunes. It is in this way that "lost" songs have been rediscovered within Shakespeare's plays. Shakespeare not only used popular songs in his plays, he added depth to his script by using them. For example, Shakespeare's setting of Titus Andronicus' lament to the tune of Fortune isn't arbitrary. The ballad Fortune would have been known by many as a song about tragedy and death. Ergo, when Titus began to sing his song, people knew before the end of the first phrase that it was going to be a tale of sorrow and woe.
Art songs, on the other hand, were polyphonic works of art, composed and performed only by those highly trained in music. Thousands of art songs survive, but precious few of these songs have Shakespeare texts. Full Fathom Five (pictured below) gives us an example of a Shakespeare text set by a contemporary composer, Robert Johnson. In a way, this one manuscript page yielded two songs from two different plays. The same "ding-dong" burthen used here is later quoted by Shakespeare in Merchant Of Venice, and the versification of the song text from that play perfectly fits to the same tune. Both songs will be played together as a pair in this performance.
Research has revealed that Shakespeare's English sounded quite different from the English we speak today. The study of period languages and the pronunciation of Shakespeare's plays is called OP or original pronunciation. This field draws evidence from the rhymes and puns found in period sources, the spelling of words used by the playwrights and poets, and treatises written by experts of pronunciation. Some of the songs referenced by Shakespeare were written many years before his lifetime, and during an incredibly important period in the history of the English language called the Great Vowel Shift (ca. 1350-1600). Old ways of pronunciation were constantly giving way to the new and we can witness this in the poetry of the era. Changes to the English language have continued to take place even to the present day, detaching us by quite a lot of static, from the pronunciation of any given historical period. Almost every word that Shakespeare ever wrote was intended to be spoken or sung aloud. OP lends insight into the language and sound Shakespeare would have had in mind while writing his greatest works.
The lute was the most popular instrument during Shakespeare's lifetime. Queen Elizabeth played the lute and employed a lutenist, John Johnson, as her personal music tutor and musician. Shakespeare wrote the lute into a number of scenes in his plays, and members of his company would have undoubtedly known how to play a few things on the lute. The instrument reached the height of its popularity around 1600 and appears in poetry, paintings, and plays from this period.
There are songs about Hamlet and Ophelia, Duke Orsino and Viola, Desdemona and Othello, the Fairy Queen and the old gods Hymen and Juno, as they would have been enjoyed by audiences around the turn of the 17th century. Popular songs and instrumental solos from the period are also performed. The deeply moving songs and poetry from Shakespeare's plays will be featured in reconstructions by Brian Kay. This program would not have been possible without Ross W. Duffin’s Shakespeare’s Songbook published by Norton, in addition to access to period publications and manuscripts through the Folger Library and Peabody Conservatory.
This new one-man show is performed by Brian Kay (voice, lute, guitar).