The use of music in Shakespeare

Orpheus' lute was strung with poets' sinews,  Whose golden touch could soften steel and stones,  Make tigers tame and huge leviathans  Forsake unsounded deeps to dance on sands. (The Two Gentlemen of Verona, 3.2.79-82)Photo by Giovanni Dall'Orto

Orpheus’ lute was strung with poets’ sinews,
Whose golden touch could soften steel and stones,
Make tigers tame and huge leviathans
Forsake unsounded deeps to dance on sands.

(The Two Gentlemen of Verona, 3.2.79-82)
Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto

Music and the theatre share an intimate and faceted connection, and the artistic links between the two are no less prevalent in the plays, sonnets and narrative poems of Shakespeare than the works of any other poet. When first performed on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage, Shakespeare’s plays were accompanied by a variety of “noises, sounds and sweet airs” which, like modern film scores and sound effects, enhanced the dramatic totality of the performance.

Shakespeare’s notoriously sparse stage directions in the Folios and Quartos give little indication of the nature of the music on stage at the time, yet the dramatic importance of music to each play as a work of art cannot be understated; consider the effect of the regal trumpet “flourishes” that accompany the entrances and exits of his regal characters (in Macbeth, the placement of these in relation to Duncan, Macbeth, and Malcolm masterfully introduces shades of dramatic irony), and in many of the plays the ‘hautboy’ (a harsh and thin sounding early-modern ancestor of the oboe) was employed by Shakespeare to significant dramatic effect as a musical omen of portentous action.

The play-scene from Hamlet by Daniel Maclise. Taken from the Imperial edition of the works of Shakespeare, 1876.

The play-scene from Hamlet by Daniel Maclise.
From the Imperial edition, 1875-76.

The direction “Hautboys play” precedes the catalytic mise en abyme of Hamlet’s ‘The Mouse-Trap’ (the shrieking stabs of the infamous shower scene created by Bernard Herrmann for Hitchcock’s Psycho are the obvious contemporary cinematic parallel); similarly, the banqueting scene of Timon of Athens is opened with the music of hautboys, and the characters later dance in an ironically grim tableau that presages the decadence of the later acts.

The last play that Shakespeare wrote alone, The Tempest, is particularly notable for its dramatic employment of music and the inherent musicality of the play’s peculiar lyrical grace (“[…] the play itself is an absolute symphony of sound, and it is through sound that its contrasts and movement are expressed.” Two of the songs of the play, ‘Full Fathom Five’ and ‘Where the Bee Sucks’ survive in the 1659 work ‘Cheerful Ayres or Ballads’, where they are attributed to Robert Johnson, who wrote many of the contemporary settings for Shakespeare’s lyrics.

A conjectural reconstruction of the Blackfriars Theatre by G. Topham Forrest.

A conjectural reconstruction of the Blackfriars Theatre by G. Topham Forrest.

Both the courtly popularity of lavishly performed masques (which included singing, dancing, music, elaborate costumes and impressive special effects) and the change of acoustical environment the play was written for (from the open space of the Globe to the more musically conducive indoors Blackfriars) would have contributed to the role of music within the play. The theatre’s limitations too played a more incidental role in the musical performance of the play; artificially lit by candlelight, the performance at Blackfriars necessitated ‘interval music’ to be played between acts whilst the candles were trimmed.

 

Within the music collections at the University Library and the Pendlebury Library, the emphasis is, not unnaturally, skewed quantitavely in favour of the musical works inspired by Shakespeare.  The wealth of songs and music from the Classical era onwards is due not least to the “bardolatry” that took hold in the country (sparked, of course, in no small part by David Garrick’s 1769 Shakespeare Jubilee, as discussed in an earlier blog post).  However, a brief search through the libraries will also find a wealth of literature about this aspect of Shakespeare’s immense theatrical talent, including:

Oscar Haines

Oscar is a library assistant working between the University Library Music Department and the Pendlebury Library

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About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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One Response to The use of music in Shakespeare

  1. Pingback: Libraries past and future | MusiCB3 Blog

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