On Music with Scott Wright
Rep Company member Scott Wright drops some knowledge about music in Shakespeare’s plays and how music fits into the Original Practices style.
The question of music in modern Shakespeare performances turns out to be a somewhat contentious one. Strong opinions are often expressed about the kind of music one “should” hear associated with the Bard’s works. The proponents of using modern topical pop music argue that it is more accessible to a modern audience whose musical sensibilities are already attuned to it. They regard with a certain degree of impatience those who insist that Shakespeare’s plays should be performed in renaissance costumes, accompanied by renaissance music, on renaissance instruments, especially when performed in one of the many “replica playhouse” stages around the world. Indeed it might be said that playing renaissance music is an “original practice…”
My own opinions – and I’d expect most people’s – lie somewhere in the middle.
Modern pop songs and even those of the previous generations – “oldies” if you will – are fun to perform and seeing an audience’s eyes light up in recognition of a familiar tune, watching as they nod & tap their feet in time to the music, and as they make the connection between the topic of the song and the play – when they get the joke – is extremely gratifying to us as performers. Songs like, “Cruel To Be Kind” in Hamlet or “Ain’t No Rest For The Wicked” in a performance of Macbeth can be a real relief to an audience who is concentrated intently on following an epic story in an almost foreign language.
Shakespeare’s plays to a certain degree, lend themselves to being set in almost any time or place (with a few notable exceptions…) The music then becomes a key element in setting the scene – of indicating and coloring the culture, status and perhaps the nationalities of the characters and in telling the story of the play.
The songs that the Bard left within the plays themselves present real challenges in this regard – the song and its musical setting become as important to telling the story as the costumes or the set. Many composers have set their hand at creating music for these songs – to varying degrees of success – and indeed, this may be one of the most “original practices” of all. For the vast majority of these songs, the tune to which they were originally set is lost – either not written down, or simply passed out of memory. It is thought that the musicians – or possibly one particular musician – in Shakespeare’s acting companies composed settings for these songs. But certainly it was a very common practice to write new words – either topical or salacious, depending on your whim or the nature of the audience – to already popular songs (a practice referred to as “filking”), and it seems reasonable to think that Shakespeare’s songs might fit very easily to a melody that, in 1598 everyone knew very well, but just didn’t pass down to us.
But Renaissance music can’t quite entirely be extirp’d from Shakespeare. In “Twelfth Night” Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Feste the Fool drunkenly sing songs that are immediately recognizable songs by Thomas Ravenscroft – “Hold Thy Peace, Thou Knave” – and Robert Jones’ “Farewell, Dear Love” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5iPpVAWhYg – who were contemporaries of Shakespeare and writers of some of the “pop” music of the time and whose music the Bard could not but have known.
In “Much Ado About Nothing” Beatrice is urged to, “…Clap’s into ‘Light o’ Love’;” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SnTYs1jlg70 - a tune written by an anonymous author that appeared in William Ballet’s 1580 Lute Book and would qualify as a popular and familiar song to Shakespeare and his audience, but is almost certainly unknown to ours.
In fact, when I think of “pop” music of the renaissance it’s this sound of the viol, the recorder, and the lute – as in “Light o’ Love” or just the strings, as in this one - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-I9cyit8bY that I think of.
The lute was often substituted, as it is here, by the “renaissance guitar” and the little band would have often been accompanied by a drum or other percussive noisemakers. Shakespeare’s acting companies would have had many other instruments at hand, and would have been familiar with all kinds of music.
The vast majority of music of the renaissance that was actually written down was either for dancing or for church, or for small groups of singers and/or instrumentalists to perform for themselves around an after-dinner table. The popular music of the time was in some cases collected into printed books like Ballet’s Lute Book (a collection, it seems of very well-known songs by largely unknown songwriters) and Ravenscroft’s three-volume collection of “Rounds, Catches, & Merrie Conceits.” Musicians didn’t make much money publishing their music – real success for a musician was usually to be notable enough to gain employ or patronage of a wealthy nobleman or to be employed at court. But one might imagine, in a time that lacked our modern sensibilities of intellectual property ownership, that the first time a really good song was performed publicly it might be mere hours before someone else across town was playing or singing it – possibly with new lyrics of their own devising. One might also imagine that a touring acting company brought in to a command performance for a noble family would be flexible and prepared to please in any way possible – musically and theatrically…
For a modern Original Practices company, I think that being prepared to perform either modern or ancient music, as the occasion demands presents an intriguing challenge. Imagine setting topical words to renaissance melodies – a very original practice. Finding ways to arrange ancient music for a small ensemble of modern instruments presents still more challenge and possibility – just as finding ways to make modern songs sound good with a small acoustic band has.
So – I hope this has given you all food for thought, and I’d like to leave you with one more – for a performance of “Othello” the lead-in to Act1 might be something like this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=46Cfrl7hMoQ - (Though at the risk of giving it away, nowhere in the text does Desdemona appear to have a “Mama Pajama”…)