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Renaissance Music at The Rose Playhouse

I've written in the past about some of the challenges we face as modern performers when we are required to create period, or at least period-evoking music for certain performances. I’ve also reflected on what it's like to create settings for the songs in Shakespeare's plays - following in the foot-steps of the great comics, actors, & musicians of our favorite early-modern acting companies. This month I thought I'd explore the process I used to create settings for the songs in As You Like It, which we performed at the Rose Playhouse at Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp on June 4, 2016. I have long had a keen interest in the music of medieval & renaissance Europe, and have heard the unmistakable echos of songs and rhythms that I actually recognized in the texts of some of Shakespeare's plays. I have been deeply influenced by the work of Owain Phyfe, who during the 80's & 90's was recording renaissance music with a sort of modern flair - making medieval and renaissance music accessible to modern audiences.

And also by the work of Jordi Savall, an ancient music scholar who has been exploring improvised solo work with extant ostinato forms. (Ostinato - Italian for "obstinate" or "stubborn" - refers to a repeating phrase or chordal sequence which creates a structure for a melody or melodic improvisation to be played over it.)

We definitely wanted a renaissance feel for the music in the Rose Playhouse, so I used renaissance rhythmic & harmonic forms as much as possible.

For "Under the Green-wood Tree" (see my full chart at the end of this blog…) I started with the very simple form: I I IV V above, which seems to have originated in early-renaissance Spain or Italy. I also chose the key of D-major, which has a bright, happy, even joyous character that I felt best suited the play.

From there, I turned to the text to set up the basic rhythm & phrasing structure and began to discover a melody. I say, "discover" because while Shakespeare put the words into a verse form that has a clear meter, the melody had to complement and musically accentuate the rhythm of the words to help tell the story and create "response potential."

That is, as the listener hears each line of the song, they begin to feel that they want to hear the next line, and the next - eventually coming (hopefully...) to a musically and emotionally satisfying conclusion.

For "Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind" I turned to D-minor, and a chord sequence found in early-modern Spanish music: i V i II III II i V ; but then I scrambled it a bit. The actual chords I used in the song ended up as: i V i V / III II i V / III II i V i / i V i.

The words of this song seem to alternate between a wistful, sad, almost bitter quality, "Blow, blow thou winter wind / Thou art not so unkind / As man's ingratitude / Most friendship is feigning, / Most loving mere folly," and the almost incongruously happy, "Hey-ho, sing hey-ho unto the green holly / Then Hey-ho the holly / This life's most jolly."

I wanted the music to reflect this by being in its turn sad and reflective ( i V i V), and "happy" (III II), but then counter-posing the words, "Hey-ho the holly" and "This life's most jolly" with the sad musical figure i V i.

For "It Was a Lover and His Lass" I opted for the key of G-major - a key that has been described as, "rustic, idyllic, & lyrical" and as expressing, "every gentle and peaceful emotion of the heart." I started out with a melodic line that had been rattling around in my head for many years - and a chord structure based on our old friend, I IV V - but which sort of evolved into: I I vi V / I I IV V / I I IV V / I IV vi V / IV IV I I / I V I I

The “hunters’ song” we used was one that I’d actually arranged a couple of years ago as a jigge song in a performance of Merry Wives of Windsor at the Rose. It is in this same key of G-major and was based on the galliard “Fortune a bien couru sur moy” by Pierre Attaignant published in 1529.

Next came the Wedding Hymn, "Wedding is great Juno's crown" with its very staid meter.

We returned to D-major and I IV V, and stuck close to the ancient chord-song style of old church music, but as the hymn ends and the happiness of the coming nuptials begins to take hold, the musicians can hardly seem to wait and the strains of "Under the Green-wood Tree" are heard. The Duke has to reign in the merriment, until finally (there are a lot of words...) he calls for music & dancing, and the celebration can be contained no longer. The forest rings with the happy refrain, "Come hither, come hither, come hither / Here shall he see no enemy / But winter and rough weather."

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