Wordsmith Superstar Popular for Four-Hundred Years

      William Shakespeare (1564-1616) began his 438th year on April 23. In the last twelve months at least one of his plays was made into a movie and I'm sure somewhere in the world some composer has set a text or two of his. Since I wrote that last sentence, local composer and Englishman John Dixon tells us "...that I am that composer! I set 'the quality of mercy' (Portia's famous soliloquy from The Merchant of Venice) to music a few months ago. It's for chorus - sorry! " Would he be willing to set it again as an art song for solo voice?

      His father John Shakespeare was a glover and wool merchant and his mother Mary Arden was from a prosperous farm family who lived near Arden Woods where some of his plays are set. Since his works display a direct knowledge of classical Latin literature, it is thought that he attended the Stratford-on-Avon Grammer School were the classics were taught. When he was 18 he married Anne Hathaway, eight years his senior. Today, very intelligent young people are often bored with their age-mates. Was Shakespeare seeking a peer in a mature woman? They had their first child six months into the marriage. Three years later the twins Hamnet and Judith were born.

      Did a group of traveling players come to town and entice Will away? We do know that when he was 28 he joined a theatre group called Strange's Men, but one year later the plague hit London and the theatres were closed. Shakespeare spent much of this time writing poetry. We are not certain of when his first plays were produced, probably before the plague. By the time he was thirty-three he had written at least eleven plays. Among them A Midsummer Night's Dream, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew and Love's Labour's Lost.

      For many years Shakespeare averaged two plays a year and was a shareholder in the theatrical company and grew wealthy enough to become a gentleman and buy a substantial house in Stratford. It is believed that in his later years he returned home to enjoy small town life. He died at age 52 on his birthday.

      In the 18th century George Frederick Handel made an opera of Julius Caesar. In the 19th century Verdi, the great Italian master set to music three of Shakespeare's stories: Macbeth, Othello and Falstaff. These great men shared understanding and insight into the human mind, emotions and behavior and their music gives powerful dramatic expression to the characters. Charles Gounod's opera Romeo and Juliet (1867) was composed just three years before he came to live in England and work as a choral director.

      In the 20th century we have Benjamin Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream and Anthony and Cleopatra written by Samuel Barber. Also in the 20th century many of his more neglected plays were rediscovered and given theatrical performance. Readers may want to see the recent film Titus based on Titus Andronicus and directed by Julie Taymor of Lion King fame. She also directed a film of Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex with Jessye Norman. We would also recommend the 1996 movie William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet staring Leonardo DiCaprio. Shakespeare in Love (1998),with a brilliant screenplay by Tom Stoppard, is another favorite film which puts the writing of Romeo and Juliet in a fanciful historical context. Share your own favorites with us and we will publish an addendum to this list.

The Art Songs of Shakespeare

      In the introduction to his fine book Shakespeare, the American poet Mark van Doren has pointed out how Shakespeare demonstrates a well-neigh perfect balance between understanding and observation, between intellect and instinct, between vision and sight. His characters are the characters we meet in our day-to-day life. Shakespeare does not invent new characters, he reflects to us the ones we know.

      "What he dealt in was existence and his dealings were responsible, high-hearted and humane. The reader who places himself in his hands will not be protected from any experience, but he will be safe from outrage because he will always know his bearings. What is supposed to happen in Shakespeare's plays does happen; and what has happened anywhere cannot be finally hated. Shakespeare loved the world as it is. That is why he understood it so well; and that in turn is why, being the artist he was, he could make it over again into something so rich and clear." (pp.5& 6).

      "The songs that shoot like stars across his plays are brightest at the beginning, and often burn out before the end." In his plays we find 50 songs. The lyrics are there to be set to music by the composers. The songs range from lullabies to drinking songs, from odes to spring to gravedigger's songs. In his poetry and in even the text of his plays composers find passages worthy of tunes. From a conversation in Twelfth Night Joseph Haydn found the text for his song She never told her love. It is true to the words as Shakespeare wrote them.

      This has not always been the case. In Schubert's setting of Who is Sylvia?, one of his most famous settings, the translator rewrote the text with a romantic dramatic flair, losing the elegant understatement of the original text praising the beauty and virtue of this young woman.

      In Shakespeare's day the staging of the plays required that his song texts be set to music immediately. The names of many composers and their music are known but many others are lost. From a Phillips CD (446 687-2) titled Shakespeare's Musick we learn that eleven contemporary or near contemporary settings of the songs survive. The CD is excellent and gives the flavor of the times. The group, Musicians of the Globe, is led by Philip Pickett.

      Every superstar has a greatest hits list and Shakespeare is no exception. The titles are followed by the number of composers who set the text into song:

O mistress mine where are you roaming? (16)
It was a lover and his lass, also set as In the springtime (15)
Take, o take those lips away (14)
Under the greenwood tree (10)
Orpheus with his lute (9)


      We have been assured by MC Lorraine Bell of Hampton University that on Sunday, June 2 at 3:00 pm at Freemason Street Baptist Church Virginia Art Song Society will present some of these songs.

      The earliest song to be presented on Sunday's program is John Wilson's (1595-1674) setting of Take, o take those lips away It is likely that he was a player in Shakespeare's company. In the first half of the twentieth century Gerald Finzi, Roger Quilter and Ralph Vaughn Williams turned to Shakespeare for many songs. On Sunday, Three Songs from Shakespeare by Vaughn Williams will be heard: When Icicles Hang by the Wall, Take, O take those lips away, and Orpheus with His Lute.

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