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  • Print publication year: 1965
  • Online publication date: March 2007

Some Shakespearian Music, 1660–1900


Looking back on Shakespeare's quatercentenary with its exhibitions, performances, scholarly books and all too few concerts, the contemporary musician might be tempted to state, as did Nancy in The Jubilee of 1769,

All this for a poet, O no

A poet who lived Lord knows how long ago.

How can you jeer one

How can you fleer one,

A poet, o no, 'tis not so

A poet who lived Lord knows how long ago.

It must be some great man,

A prince or a state man.

It can't be a poet, o no.

Your poet is poor,

And nobody sure

Regards a poor poet I trow.

The rich ones we prize,

Send them up to the skies,

But not a poor poet, o no,

A poet who lived Lord knows how long ago.

It may be this stress upon Shakespeare as simply a poet that has tempted musicians from the Restoration to the present day to use his texts as convenient pegs on which to hang their music.

Today's casual attitude towards songs from Shakespeare's plays is the result of a trend that began during the Restoration, although 'musical additions were being made to Macbeth even before Shakespeare's death'. Macbeth was rewritten by Davenant shortly after the Restoration, and in this the operatic trend was manifestly potent. Even more operatic was The Tempest, which was altered by Davenant and Dry den in 1667. Some songs like Banister's 'Go thy Way' (known as the Echo Song) were added at this early date, and, within the next ten years, even more music was added. By 1674, The Tempest, transformed into an opera by Shadwell, contained songs by Banister, Reggio and Humfrey, incidental music by Locke (who also set 'Orpheus with his lute' in 1673) and a masque in Act 11 by Humfrey. When Henry Purcell composed his music for The Tempest, around 1695, the work was made more operatic still, and, as in the version of 1674, few of the songs are to words by Shakespeare. Purcell's two other Shakespearian works The Fairy Queen (1692) and the masque from Timon of Athens (1694), which is also an adaptation by Shadwell, do not include a single line by Shakespeare. Indeed, the whole of The Fairy Queen bears little or no resemblance to A Midsummer Night's Dream, its original model.

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Shakespeare Survey
  • Online ISBN: 9781139052986
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