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Saturday morning quotes 2.50: Shakespeare’s lute book

April 26, 2013

Shakespeare's Lute BookFor the past week we have been reading about the birthday and/or recorded death date of a certain prominent playwright and poet from Elizabethan England.  The literary output of this legendary (some say mythical) figure is still the source of employment for many stage actors, theater directors and university lecturers, not to mention loggers – deforesting large swaths of countryside to generate enough paper stock for the annual crop of dissertations on our subject.

It turns out that a musical thread runs through the works of our playwright and poet, whether via stage directions indicating actual songs or simply by passing reference to once-familiar ballads mentioned in dialogue, and imagery woven into the soliloquies of some of his most colorful characters.

“Grim-visag’d Warre, hath smooth’d his wrinkled Front:
And now, in stead of mounting Barbed Steeds,
To fright the Soules of fearfull Aduersaries,
He capers nimbly in a Ladies Chamber,
To the lasciuious pleasing of a Lute.”

– William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Richard the Third (I: i).

During the short span of his brief and bitter reign, the recently exhumed Richard III had scant opportunity to luxuriate in “the lasciuious pleasing of a Lute”.  But the words drawn from Richard’s opening soliloquy were retroactively loaned to him, purportedly penned 100 years later by a famous literary figure who frequently mentioned our favorite stringed instrument – one William Shakespeare  (26 April 1564 – 23 April 1616).  Of course, many of our best and brightest friends dispute whether the man from Stratford was indeed the author of what may be considered the greatest literary output ever scribbled by human hand.  No matter who wrote the words, the beguilingly familiar mention in Richard’s soliloquy, made with such confident ease, only affirms the unmistakable eminence of “the most musicall instrument the Lute.”

In his dedicatory poem found in the First Folio (1623), Ben Jonson (c.1572 – 1637) wrote that Shakespeare “…was not of an age, but for all time“.  But Shakespeare’s work was very much of its own time, and the plays reveal a great deal of contextual detail concerning Elizabethan life, customs, manners – and music.  Outdoor productions at the Globe Theatre most likely did not feature music played on lutes, and it may be assumed that louder instruments were used and probably played with less delicacy than one associates with such a refined instrument.  But indoor productions most certainly included lutes, if only to be broken over a character’s head.

Shakespeare scholars have had occasion to sift through and analyze every word of every play, and library shelves groan under the weight of the many dissertations that bedrape the author and his characters gaudily with anachronistic accoutrements, concepts like Freudian angst and gender (in-) sensitivity.  But without specialist knowledge of the Elizabethan musical world, scholars are ill-equipped to effectively scrub away the contextual grime that conceals layers of meaning hidden within the texts of songs and ballads mentioned in the plays.

In order to convey any music effectively, it is the performers who must delve deeply into song texts, in possession of a thorough understanding of the language of the time conjoined with a working familiarity of appropriate musical idioms.  Specialists in Elizabethan lute ayres are uniquely poised to recognize and understand familiar textual allusions and metaphors that were in such common use as to be instantly understood and placed in context by contemporary listeners.  Fortunately for all, most surviving songs and ballads from Shakespeare’s time are so universally appealing that modern audiences seem to find a certain delight in any performance no matter how well-informed.

Not thinking it amiss to provide a useful musical resource, we are featuring our publication, Shakespeare’s Lute Book, a collection of songs, dances, and ballad tunes referenced in many of Shakespeare’s plays; nearly 70 pieces of music for voice (or melody instrument) and lute, lute solo, and lute duet formatted for ease of performance.  The songs and instrumentals are conveniently arranged by the play in which they appear with a few hitherto unnoticed references described.  A great deal of the material in the anthology is the result of personal research conducted specifically for lecture-recital presentations, converted from scribbled notes and hastily-copied music into a format that is clear, concise and useful to others.  Professional and amateur performers no longer need make inappropriate choices for music in staging Shakespeare plays with this small collection of good, historically meaningful music that may be used by singers, lutenists and guitarists.

Shakespeare’s Lute Book includes the music for several well-known songs such as ‘When griping griefs‘ (In commendation of Music), quoted in Romeo & Juliet (IV:v), ‘The Willow song‘ from Othello (IV:iii), the ever popular ‘Greensleeves‘ mentioned in Merry wives of Windsor (V:v), and ‘O Mistress mine‘ from Twelfth Night (II:iii).  Also from Twelfth Night (II:iv) is a new setting of the text, ‘Come away death‘ fitting the words to music that was known in Shakespeare’s time, a fitting remembrance to the man behind the masque.

  1. Reblogged this on Marius Cruceru and commented:
    Ce spune Shakespeare despre sunetul lautei?

    • Orpheus with his Lute made Trees,
      And the Mountaine tops that freeze,
      Bow themselves when he did sing.
      To his Musicke, Plants and Flowers
      Ever spring; as Sunne and Showres,
      There had been a lasting Spring.
      Every thing that heard him play,
      Even the Billowes of the Sea,
      Hung their heads, and then lay by.
      In sweet Musicke is such Art,
      Killing care, and griefe of heart,
      Fall asleepe, or hearing dye.

      Henry VIII (III: i)

      This play is sometimes attributed to John Fletcher.


      Baptista Minola. What, will my daughter prove a good musician?

      Hortensio. I think she’ll sooner prove a soldier:
      Iron may hold with her, but never lutes.

      Baptista Minola. Why, then thou canst not break her to the lute?

      Hortensio. Why, no; for she hath broke the lute to me.
      I did but tell her she mistook her frets,
      And bow’d her hand to teach her fingering,
      When, with a most impatient devilish spirit,
      ‘Frets, call you these?’ quoth she ‘I’ll fume with them.’
      And with that word she struck me on the head,
      And through the instrument my pate made way;
      And there I stood amazed for a while,
      As on a pillory, looking through the lute,
      While she did call me rascal fiddler
      And twangling Jack, with twenty such vile terms,
      As she had studied to misuse me so.

      Taming of the Shrew (II: i)

  2. Never be seduced by anti-Stratfordians. They are the Fox News of scholarship.

  3. We both have open minds on the subject. But knowing how the concept of attribution was so flexible at the time, it would come as no surprise to discover that Shakespeare had some help with all that scribbling.

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