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The Willow Song

August 9, 2011

The ‘Willow Song’ has a life of its own as one of the more familiar Elizabethan ballads, mainly through its dramatic quotation in Shakespeare’s play, Othello (Act IV, Scene iii).  Also known as ‘Desdemona’s lament’, the song is found in an untitled version for voice and lute in British Library Add. Ms. 15117, f. 18 (circa 1600).  An earlier setting for lute solo is also found in Folger Shakespeare Library manuscript 448.16, f. 19, and Christopher Goodwin and Ian Payne have pieced together fragments from other miscellaneous early sources, even creating choral and consort versions of the song, as described in Lute News 64 and 73.

While Shakespeare’s text is adapted to fit the female perspective, the manuscript source offers an alternative, employing nearly the full range of imagery that describes ‘Elizabethan melancholy’, or what might aptly be called the 16th-century Blues.  Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) is a source that offers both a literary and a medical description of the symptoms of melancholy, as well as the role of music as a treatment for the affliction:

But to leave all declamatory speeches in praise of divine music, I will confine myself to my proper subject: besides that excellent power it hath to expel many other diseases, [music] is a sovereign remedy against despair and melancholy, and will drive away the devil himself.

What we have come to call the ‘cult of melancholy’ included several important musician-composers and literary figures of the time who, as in any age, were drawn to generous patrons like moths to the flame.  Lucy Harington, Countess of Bedford (1581 – 1627), was such a patroness and her circle included  ‘luminaries’ John Donne and John Dowland, who dedicated his Second Booke of Songs or Ayres (1600) to Lucy.

As the namesake of Saint Lucy, for whom we perform an annual concert, the Countess of Bedford is a favorite of ours. In addition to patronizing some of our favorite poets and musicians, she also supported the work of lexicographer John Florio (1553 – 1625), translator of the essays of Montaigne and also responsible for Dictionarie of the Italian and English tongues (1611), which we constantly find to be a useful reference.  Florio, brother-in-law to John and Samuel Danyel, was also a known associate of Willy Shakespeare, who may have had need of an Italian translator from time to time.

The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice is presumed to date from 1604, although it was not published until 1623, and Shakespeare’s source for the play was a novella by Giraldi Cinthio, published in his Hecatommithi (Venice, 1565).  As with his earlier source for the story, Shakespeare likely quoted the ‘Willow song’ from the English ballad tradition of the late 16th century, with the phrase-oriented melody and lute accompaniment set to preexisting poetry, the result seeming more like a realized ground than an authentic through-composed song.

In Othello Act IV, Scene iii, Desdemona describes her source of the song to Emilia while dressing:

My mother had a maid call’d Barbary;
She was in love, and he she lov’d prov’d mad,
And did forsake her.  She had a song of “Willow,”
And old thing ’twas, but it express’d her fortune,
And she died singing it. That song tonight
Will not go from my mind, I have much to do
But to go hang my head all at one side
And sing it like poor Barbary.

Desdemona’s rendition of the song naturally adapts the text to the female point of view, and her singing is interrupted a few times for dramatic purposes.

The song as found in the manuscript source is pitched rather high, causing the singer to dwell near the top of his or her range.  Since the lute part is nothing more than a realized ground with minor decoration, we follow what was standard 16th century performance practice, transposing to a lower pitch that communicates the text more clearly.  Additionally, our performance is unique in that the triple-time rhythm is gently pulsed and quietly but insistently regular, in contrast to the more typical free form interpretation of the rhythm.

Our rendition of the ‘Willow Song’ is from the 2007 release, My Lord of Oxenford’s Maske. MP3s are available from Bandcamp, iTunes, Naxos’ ClassicsOnline; CDs are available from Amazon, CD Baby, and

A performance edition of the music transcribed from the manuscript, with an alternative setting a fourth lower can be found in Shakespeare’s Lute Book, available from Mignarda Editions at


  1. To me, the Willow Song is part of a new and inventive genre which is “Emblem without Image”. The traditional emblem, consisting of an image and text, is fused into a musical creation. Adopting the Italian style of the blazon, in which elements are listed sequentially as a topic, the key allegorical images are described, and traced musically, in a song composition. As with all early 17th century allegories, the emblem may be interpreted on many levels, e.g., dramatic, romantic, sacred, vanitas, and so on. Although the affect is certainly one of melancholy, in melody, harmony and phrase, the unhinging of the central character is closely related to the Orlando Furioso themes, which in turn spun off the “mad songs” of the late 16th-early 17th centuries. The beauty of the song is in fusing all of these various elements–it would have been easy to cast the mad song in a typical vehicle of short, contrasting sections, but instead the song borrows from the sad courtly air as well as the short, internally repeating phrases of a sacred litany. The use of the litany became on of the most important, ritornello like structures throughout the 17th century.
    Like all great works, it can be interpreted in different ways 🙂

  2. Thanks for sharing your perceptive analysis, David. What you write seems to echo ideas from Robin Headlam Wells’ “The ladder of love Verbal and musical rhetoric in the Elizabethan lute-song” from
    Early Music (1984) Vol.12, No. 2, ppg. 173-189, also expanded in his book Elizabethan mythologies: studies in poetry, drama, and music: Cambridge University Press (Cambridge, 1994).

    Of course, both approaches are looking retrospectively from later ideals of image and emblem, particularly the ‘mad song’ comparison.

    Actually, I think the ‘Willow Song’ is less complicated, and translates as well conceived Tudor era poetry set to a simple ground. The melody of the song merely arises from the harmonic outline. The song has much more in common with ‘When griping griefs’ for instance than with Dowland’s ‘Flow my tears’.


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