Shakespeare and Music

A week ago I spent a delightful evening at the Citizens’ Theatre enveloped in the RSC production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Augmented by local amateurs as Mechanicals and by students from Shawlands Academy as Titania’s Court, it was full of music: a band live on stage as well as sweet singing from Titania’s young court.

Add to that the odd evening or two (?) rehearsing George Shearing’s ‘Songs and Sonnets’ for our Spring Concert, ‘Vivaldi Meets the Cool’, and it’s hardly surprising that my mind should turn to music in Shakespeare plays and sonnets, with a view to keeping this blog current and relevant.

But how to start?  What route to take?  Where to end up? The simplest approach might be simply to note that music was everywhere in Elizabethan England: in the streets, in taverns, in church, at court.  It was de rigueur for all forms of entertainment and so it would have been expected that Shakespeare would include a song or two in his plays.  And he did so, particularly the comedies, almost all of which’ from the popular repertoire of the day  Very reminiscent of Panto! Seldom though, were the main protagonists required to sing, usually songs were allocated to servants, young or old or to fools or jesters.  In contrast on the rarer occasions in which song was introduced to the tragedies, the function was often to indicate madness, real or feigned, witness Ophelia in Hamlet or Edgar in Lear.

The most lavish theatrical productions of the era, and possibly the most musically skilled, were those performed at Court while those staged at the Globe would have relied on much reduced resources: one juvenile male who could sing, and older, comic actors who could turn their hand to a song.  Traditional airs are thought to have been employed for most of the songs in the plays and few, if any, originals are now known or used. 

Instrumental resources in the public theatres of the day have been described as ‘sparse’: in Shakespeare’s Company the wind section comprising a trumpet (lots of kings entering) and a hoboy, a predecessor of the oboe, flute and recorders; the strings were limited to two musicians competent on violin, viol and lute. Music was sometimes used much like modern day film music, to set the scene, and Elizabethan convention had it that the hoboy presaged doom, while the lute heralded happier events.

Thus concludes my simple meandering through the Bard’s music.



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