Broadheath Music

Contemporary Classical Music by Frank Wilhoit

5 Shakespeare Songs for high voice and piano


Shakespeare being Shakespeare, his plays are dotted with songs, which are more or less integrated into the flow of the drama -- sometimes they tail off, incomplete; sometimes they function as distractions; sometimes they point the action in a manner that may be so concise as potentially to escape attention.

Shakespeare being Shakespeare, each of these tiny lyrics has been treated with enthusiastic reverence by composers from the Bard's own time down to date; settings abound, those by British composers understandably dominating, although the single most familiar song may be Schubert's An Sylvia, D891.

Schubert being Schubert, his setting of "Who is Sylvia?" (from Act 4, Scene 2 of The Two Gentlemen of Verona) totally misses the point of the original, which is a parody sonnet. Put into the mouth of an incompetent serenader, this verse of 5+5+5=15 lines (instead of 4+4+6=14) stands out for the deliberate crudeness of its prosody. The setting tries to be musically "off" in ways analogous to those in which the text is poetically "off".

"Full Fathom Five" (from Act 1, Scene 2 of The Tempest) is another well-known verselet, here set as a simple tone painting emphasizing the repetitiousness of the waves and the bells, which are Shakespeare's metaphors for the repetitiousness of the experience of death: a shocking sentiment for his time, put for safety in the mouth of a supernatural/eccentric character whose views are not obligated to be in any sense "normal".

"O Mistress Mine" (Twelfth Night, Act 2, Scene 3) is another jagged little pill, subverting the conventions of courtly love songs in each of its four brief, tight stanzas. ("...sing both high and low"?!) The last line of all, as it pulls the trap door and sends the whole business sliding to Hell, is one of Shakespeare's finest. Think what anyone else would have done with it, and you will see how he got it: "Youth's a thing that won't endure"... "Youth's a thing will not endure"..."Youth's a stuff will not endure." But genius will.

"Blow, blow" (Act 2, Scene 7 of As You Like It) is yet another glass- edged parody, this time of the love-denied trope. Orlando Gibbons may have set it (or any of these); and who may doubt that he recalled it when, a few years later, he tied off "A Silver Swan" with the surprise ending "More geese than swans now live,/More fools than wise." The setting deliberately overemphasizes the bitter insincerity of the conventional, but utterly inappropriate, heigh-ho refrain.

After all this transgressively-expressionistic sarcasm, the cycle ends on an innocent note with "Orpheus" from Act 3, Scene 1 of King Henry VIII. Shakespeare purists may jib, inasmuch as the latest scholarship leans toward attributing this scene to Fletcher; but the language of this song is worthy of Shakespeare and after all, could we praise him more than to say that he impelled his contemporaries to rise to the standards he set? (See also, above, re: Gibbons.) "In sweet music is such art": that he knew, and we know still.

Copyright © 2015 Frank Wilhoit