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Play On! A Meditation on Music: Part 1 of 3

The question of music in modern Shakespeare performances turns out to be a pretty 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. 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; 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 dialect.

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 an important element in setting the scene – of indicating and coloring the culture, status and perhaps even 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 have tried 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 never written down, or simply passed out of memory. It is thought that the musicians – or possibly one or two particular musicians - in Shakespeare’s acting companies composed settings for these songs. Certainly it was a very common practice to write new words to already popular melodies - a practice that has come to be known as “filking.” Those new lyrics might be topical or salacious, depending on your whim or the nature of the audience, and it seems reasonable to think that Shakespeare’s songs might fit very easily to a melody that, in the 1590’s everyone knew very well, but just didn’t pass down to us. One might also 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.

So, that’s it for this installment. Part 2 will explore some of the fragments of popular songs that survive in Shakespeare’s texts as well as in surviving musical collections from the time, and Part 3 will explore a theory of how Shakespeare’s songs might have been (and can be now…) set within familiar chordal structures that Renaissance musicians were used to improvising in.

Leave us a comment if you think these are interesting topics…!

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