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On Music: Part 2 of 3

In the previous installment of this blog, I talked a little about the kind of music we think of associated with performances of Shakespeare’s plays. Pigeon Creek often uses adaptations of familiar pop songs whose lyrics are topical to the play being performed, as pre-show and intermission entertainment.

I talked too, about how the music within the play – specifically the songs in the text – are just as important as costumes or scenic elements in setting the tone of the performance, and I noted that while Shakespeare’s lyrics have come down to us, the music they were originally set to has not.

Now – it COULD be that Thomas Morley’s setting of “O Mistress Mine” in his 1599 1st Book of Consort Lessons is a snapshot of the song as it was originally performed in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. But it could also be that Morley was writing down his own brand new musical setting of Shakespeare’s already familiar lyric. There is also speculation that Morley wrote songs like “O Mistress Mine” and “It Was a Lover and His Lass” (from As You Like It) and that Shakespeare borrowed these already popular songs – or that they collaborated. No actual evidence one way or the other has been uncovered.

A book published by John Playford sometime during the 1650’s or 1660’s contains settings composed by lutenist Robert Johnson of songs from The Tempest. It’s thought that Johnson wrote these songs down around 1620, and as a life-long servant of Sir George Carey, Lord Hunsdon, (the Lord Chamberlain from 1597 to 1603 & the Queen’s “Theatre Czar”) Johnson would almost certainly have had contact with Shakespeare and the Chamberlain’s Men. He may have even been one of their regular musicians. Again, are the songs in this collection the ones that were originally performed in the play (which had its first recorded performances at court in 1611 and 1613), or are they new compositions for already well-known lyrics? A tantalizing question…

There are other popular songs and fragments of songs in Shakespeare that have turned up – in The Taming of the Shrew, Grumio sings a fragment of a “catch” (a sort of drinking song we’d refer to today as a ‘round’) “Jack Boy Ho Boy News!” is a 4-part round that appears in Pammelia by Thomas Ravenscroft printed in 1609. In Twelfth Night, Sir Toby, Sir Andrew, and Feste the Fool drunkenly sing “Hold Thy Peace Thou Knave” – another catch by Ravenscroft (Deuteromelia-1609.) Sir Toby also improvises on “There Dwelt a Man in Babylon” which appears in the Roxburgh Collection of Ballads – The 2nd Book of Songs (date unclear – 16th c.) and on Robert Jones’ “Farewell Dear Love” published in his First Book of Songs or Ayres - 1600.

In “Much Ado About Nothing” Beatrice is urged to, “…Clap’s into ‘Light o’ Love’;” - a tune by an anonymous composer and recorded in William Chappell’s 1840 Collection of Ancient Song, Ballad and Dance Tunes. (There seems to be another candidate called “Turkeyloney” or Tordiglione that appeared in William Ballet’s 1580 Lute Book – but it’s unclear to me how that song, with its characteristic name, would also be called “Light O’ Love”…) This is by no means an exhaustive listing of popular songs in Shakespeare, but when I think of “pop” music of the renaissance it’s that sound of the viol, the recorder, and the lute (or renaissance guitar) that you just heard in “Light o’ Love” or just the strings, as in this one: that come to mind, and one can easily imagine such an accompaniment being adapted to almost any of Shakespeare’s songs.

Shakespeare, and probably his audiences too, were clearly familiar with these songs and it could be argued that they were familiar, popular music well before they appeared in print.

So, that’s it for Part 2. In Part 3 we’ll have a look at well-known early modern chord progressions and musical performance, and we’ll look at how Shakespeare’s songs might be set within those familiar chord structures.

As always – leave a comment if you like this topic…!

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