Magic, comedy, feasting or pathos. Here are thirty
or so settings from Shakespeare’s lifetime by Morley, Johnson,
Dowland, Byrd, Ferrabosco and others, including lyrics set
to ballad tunes that would have been very familiar to the
actors in his company.
music was important to Shakespeare is quite clear from the
sheer quantity of songs and ditties required or quoted in
the texts. Several very well known composers knew and seemed
to have worked for him; not least Thomas Morley and Robert
Johnson. The latter was often called ‘Shakespeare’s Lutenist’.
Both probably wrote for the first performances of the plays.
John Wilson - known as ‘Jack’ when a youngster - seems, according
to the interesting booklet notes by Gerald Place, who sings
tenor here, to have been one of the boy choristers/actors
who sang in these early performances. Later he made his own
settings of these famous texts. In addition, Shakespeare often
expected traditional songs to be used. He quotes them: Ophelia
in Hamlet comes out with some quite scurrilous folksongs
- like ‘Tomorrow shall be St. Valentine’s Day’ - during her
why was music important? First, it made a contrast and divided
up the scenes. It offered opportunities for poetry. Also,
as David Lindley says in his recent Arden Shakespeare publication
(‘Shakespeare and Music’, Thomson Learning, 2006, p.36): “the
emphasis was upon forceful representations of the emotions
of the words in solo song and monody”.
surprisingly this very rich repertoire has been much chewed
over and recorded; I mean the original songs not the much
later settings. One of my favourite recordings I purchased,
curiously enough in ‘Past Times’ several years ago. It will
serve as a useful yardstick. Called ‘Songs and Dances from
Shakespeare’ (CDSDL 409) it featured the ‘Broadside Band’.
It has several advantages over this new version. Dividing
the disc into seven themed sections, the vocal items are split
up not by the single-coloured sound of solo lute but by a
mix of instruments which constitute Jeremy Barlow’s ensemble.
Secondly it features the rather lugubrious but very expressive
singing of John Potter and then the light touch of Deborah
version under review here divides the songs into four sections.
These are separated by lute solos such as the charming ‘Greensleeves
divisions’ by the little known Francis Cutting. Greensleeves
is mentioned in ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ as well as
other plays. However I can’t say that I am too keen on Dorothy
Linell’s renditions. She seems to me a little diffident and
lacking in expression. As for the singers, they have very
pleasant, light and suitable voices - ideal for this music.
They lack that obtrusive vibrato which is so unsuitable in
this repertoire but they seem to be so uninvolved. It seems
that they are singing to themselves and almost as if they
are just going through the motions. Surely even such familiar
songs and traditional melodies need more passion and feeling.
The audience is left with a sense of it all being very pleasant,
very English, but not in any way exciting. Their diction is
clear and the balance with the lute excellent. That’s all
to the good as no texts are supplied.
I be keeping a place on my shelf for this CD? Well, no, but
if this music were a new discovery for me then this disc offers
a chance to get to know the very first settings of such famous
poetry in pleasing performances. All this is offered at the
usual Naxos superbudget price.