Let’s Sing Shakespeare!
(Among the Shakespeare Songs, this version of “Full Fathom Five” is my favorite. It is performed by Celtic Woman, an all-female musical ensemble:
So we had Shakespeare in Music where famous composers take on from Shakespeare’s plays to produce compositions of notes, rhythm, meter, and musical narratives; singers and bands who incorporated some lines from Shakespeare into their songs, made Shakespeare’s theme, characters, and other elements evident in their lyrics, and the emotions supposedly to be felt in a particular Shakespeare play present in the melody of the song. Indeed there is a lot to be drawn from Shakespeare to be ‘recycled’ into music or if better, ‘inspired’ by him. Then “Hey,” I thought, “could it be possible that there are Shakespeare songs with lyrics purely taken from Shakespeare’s plays and not merely adaptations of them?” Coming from the discussion concerning Shakespeare integrating the popular songs of the day into his plays, this idea made perfect sense to me. Actually opera has done this in addition to the theater. “But what about the sonnets?” Then there’s the treat!
Not surprisingly, Shakespeare alludes to or includes the text of over one hundred songs in his works.* In Shakespeare, besides the songs most commonly known, there are allusions to many kinds of vocal music, and scraps of the actual words of old songs—some with accompaniment, some without; a duet; a trio; a chorus; not to mention several rounds, either quoted or alluded to.** This is due to the fact that music was an integral part of Elizabethan life, as it is today. London publishers were constantly producing broadside ballads, madrigals, and consort pieces, and most educated people could read music and play a tune on a recorder, lute, or viola da gamba.
The importance of music and song is summarized by Lorenzo in The Merchant of Venice (5.1.91-7):
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.***
Here are some of the Shakespeare songs, three of which are performed by Alfred Deller and the other two by James Bowman:
The English counter-tenor, James (Thomas) Bowman, has been one of the world’s leading counter-tenors for nearly 30 years. (A counter-tenor is the highest male voice type.) His career spans opera, oratorio, contemporary music and solo recitals. Another English counter-tenor, Alfred Deller, was the man most responsible for the renaissance of music for counter-tenors in the 20th century. He was a pioneer in popularizing the current practice of early music performance, and he revived the counter-tenor voice as a vehicle for accurate performances of Medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music. He set the standard for counter-tenors for many years. His voice was very light with a wonderful lyric quality. He was most effective in the more contemplative pieces, but when necessary he was able to sing very florid pieces extremely well.**** One of the most popular songs by him is the Willow Song in Shakespeare’s Othello:
Desdemona’s final scene is given added poignancy by singing the Willow Song; here Shakespeare offers a fine illustration of integrating music into the plot structure. The Willow Song in Act IV creates the pathos of the strangled heroine because the notion of the dejected and melancholy lover by the side of the tree had great popular appeal and could be relied upon to arouse sympathy. The associations that the Willow Song evokes are essential to the characterization of Desdemona: her innocence, the fear of her imminent death, and her repugnance at Othello’s accusation of adultery.
Note that the original Willow Song (in the London Book) has eight stanzas:
I. The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree, Sing all a green willow..
With his hand in his bosom and his head upon his knee. Oh willow, willow, willow..
II. He sighed in his singing and made a great moan, sing etc.,
I am dead to all pleasure, my true love she is gone, etc.
III. The mute bird sat by him was made tame by his moans, etc.
The true tears fell from him, would have melted the stones, sing etc.
IV. Come all you forsaken and mourn you with me,
Who speaks of a false love, mine’s falser than she, sing etc.
V. Let love no more boast her in palace nor bower,
It buds, but it blasteth ere it be a flower, sing etc.
VI. Though fair and more false, I die with thy wound,
Thou hast lost the truest lover that goes upon the ground, sing etc.
VII. Let nobody chide her, her scorns I approve,
She was born to be false, and I to die for her love, sing etc.
VIII. Take this for my farewell and latest adieu
Write this on my tomb, that in love I was true, sing etc.
Stanzas II, V, VI, and VIII are missing in Desdemona’s song, and their absence confirms the suspicion that Shakespeare did this for dramatic expediency.***** In Shakespeare only the following lines are included:
The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
Sing all a green willow.
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow.
The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur’d her moans.
Sing willow, willow, willow.
Her salt tears fell from her, and soften’d the stones.
Sing willow, willow, willow.
Lay by these.–
Sing willow, willow, willow…
Sing all a green willow must be my garland.
Let nobody blame him; his scorn I approve,-
(Othello, 4.3.40-52), Desdemona******
Alfred Deller sings stanzas I, II, and IV (Mr. S. Beck’s version).*******
Now we come to the sonnets. It is common knowledge that poetry, especially lyric poetry, in the early days are meant to be sung. It is quite interesting that various contemporary artists have tried to convert Shakespeare’s sonnets into songs by putting melody to the words, after which, turned out fine and might be suited to the previous and present generations’ taste. Most of the sonnets sung are performed by Rock Filarmonica Oradea; one is by Rufus Wainwright, another by David Gilmour (the one I liked best):
Rock Filarmonica Oradea is an essential line-up of guitar, flute, and voice, and which has symphonic rock arrangements (or combining rock music and classical music). The group is known for converting Shakespeare’s and Eminescu’s poems to music (songs).********
*Mabillard, Amanda. “Shakespeare Songs.” 28 Dec 2009. Shakespeare Online. 13 Feb 2011 <http://www.shakespeare-online.com/>.
**Naylor, Edward W. “III:Songs and Singing.” 31 Oct 2006. Shakespeare and Music [ebook]. 13 Feb 2011 <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/19676/19676-h/19676-h.htm#III>
****“Index to Short Biographies of Performers.” 18 Feb 2011. Bach-cantatas.com. 25 Feb 2011 <http://www.bach-cantatas.com/IndexBiographies.htm>.
*****Sternfeld, Frederick William. “The Willow Song.” Music in Shakespearean Tragedy. Great Britain: Routledge, 1963. pp. 23-48.
********“Rock Filarmonica Oradea.” 2003-11. Myspace.Inc.25 Feb 2011 <http://www.myspace.com/rockfilarmonica>
Becker, Carl Ludwig Friedrich. Desdemona. Painting Palace. 25 Feb 2011. <http://www.painting-palace.com/en/paintings/18905>.
“Desdemona and Othello.” 24 Feb 2011. Bevis’s Blog. 25 Feb 2011 <http://avrammerrillbevis.blogspot.com/2011/02/desdemona-and-othello.html>.
Finch, Karen. “Operatic Voice Types–The Counter-Tenor.” 13 Apr 2010. Suite101.com. 25 Feb 2011 <http://www.suite101.com/content/operatic-voice-types—the-counter-tenor-a224948>.
“Index to Short Biographies of Performers.” 18 Feb 2011. Bach-cantatas.com. 25 Feb 2011 <http://www.bach-cantatas.com/IndexBiographies.htm>.
“M.A. Shakespeare.” 13 Feb 2011 <http://personal.rhul.ac.uk/uhle/001/Shakespearesongs.htm>.
Mabillard, Amanda. “Shakespeare Songs.” 28 Dec 2009. Shakespeare Online. 13 Feb 2011 <http://www.shakespeare-online.com/>.
Naylor, Edward W. “III:Songs and Singing.” 31 Oct 2006. Shakespeare and Music [ebook]. 13 Feb 2011 <http://www.gutenberg.org/files/19676/19676-h/19676-h.htm#III>
“Rock Filarmonica Oradea.” 2003-11. Myspace.Inc.25 Feb 2011 <http://www.myspace.com/rockfilarmonica>
Sternfeld, Frederick William. “The Willow Song.” Music in Shakespearean Tragedy. Great Britain: Routledge, 1963. pp. 23-48.
“William Shakespeare: Songs from the Plays.” 13 Feb 2011 <http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/noa/pdf/27636_16u41Shakespe.1_79.tp.pdf>.