Songs for the Season

Unique Musical Programs

Archive for the month “February, 2013”

A Season for Shakespeare

From Imbolc to Shakespeare’s Birthday on April 23 this is a great time of year for enjoying Shakespeare and poetry. As a status report on where things stand with the “Lyrics by Shakespeare” project, it is apparent that this will be a project in development for some time and I don’t see bringing it to production until next year at the soonest (winter 2014).

I was just reviewing Bob Harrington’s advice* on how to learn a song and prepare it for performance. Basically he advises that you analyze the lyric as a poem and then act a paraphrase as if it were a monologue. I love this approach and I do some of this work intuitively. I’ll make a resolution to do it more concertedly with this material, which cries out for it.

The pre-production preparation for “Lyrics by Shakespeare” is in progress. I have been granted access to the compositions of George Windt who, as the long time music director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, set most of Shakespeare’s songs to music in the style of the period. I’ll be trying out his versions of Sigh No More Ladies and Who Is Sylvia, two of the songs for which we lack music and can only conjecture about the original settings.

Also, I’ve met with a Chicago based composer who writes music in period styles and we are exploring a possible collaboration creating the music for the four songs that need compositions.

I’m still thinking about how to approach the musical style of the program. In general, I know that I would benefit from work with a vocal technique teacher (singing coach) and if I could find one with some experience in Renaissance (Early) music that could be a way of addressing some issues. My friend at Terra Sounds thinks I may need more than one person to help me with my general technique and to meet the unique challenge of the material.

Add to that the need for contemporary arrangements and I have three really specific needs to address while looking for a collaborator for “Lyrics by Shakespeare”.

So I’m shopping around for a new voice teacher.

Meanwhile, I have made some exciting contacts within the Chicago Cabaret Professions as I seek guidance on finding the right Musical Director for Songs for the Season in Chicago. I’m quite excited to get started on the spring program which will be up next.

*Harrington, Bob and Eaker, Sherry (ed.) The Cabaret Artist’s Handbook. Back Stage Books: New York: 2000.


Program Lyrics by Shakespeare

Below is the initial plan for the songs in the new program. The lyrics are indeed by Shakespeare, except where noted. The music sources are noted. I will be looking for collaborators for original musical settings for #1, #2, #3 and #10 and arrangements for most of the others. I want the music to sound (or at least have the appeal of) folk-rock. The show will also contain patter and poems to illuminate the story told in the synopsis.

1. Sigh No More, Ladies (music after trad. “Lusty Gallant”
in Duffin, p. 372)

2. Who Is Sylvia? (after “O, Ye Happy Dames” in Duffin, p. 460)

3. Why Was Not I A Flood? (Passionate Pilgrim #6 attributed to Shakespeare, music original, my dummy)

4. Tell Me Where Is Fancy Bred (after Robert Johnson, circa 1590,
arr. Charles Vincent)

5. O, Mistress Mine (William Byrd, 1611, arr. Charles Vincent)

6. Then Live With Me And Be My Love (lyric Marlow/Raliegh,
music W. Conklin, 1612, Kines p. 25)

7. Come Kiss Me Kate (trad. round, from Duffin, p. 101)

8. It Was a Lover and His Lass (Thomas Morley, 1600, in Kine p. 46)

9. Hey Robin, Jolly Robin (lyric Wyatt, music Cornishe, circa 1523, in Kine, p. 12 and Duffin, p. 47)

10. Rich In Will (Shakespeare’s Sonnet #135, music original, my dummy)

11. Willow Song (trad. lute tune circa 1583, arr. Charles Vincent)

12. So Sweet is She (lyric, Ben Jonson, music Robert Johnson, 1611)

13. Greensleeves (trad., arr. Charles Vincent)

14. Fear No More the Heat o’the Sun (music Edwards c. 1558
in Duffin, p. 142

15. Sing No More Ditties (reprise of #1)

My primary resources are:
Duffin, Ross. “Shakespeare’s Songbook” W.W. Norton and Co., New York. 2004.
Kines, Tom. Songs for Shakepseare’s Plays. Oak Publications, New York. 1964.

Synopsis: A Lover of Poets

There were once two extraordinary souls touched by one another in an unprecedented act of mutual exploration. One was a story teller, a bard of some renown, and the other was a peculiar young nobleman in the throws adolescent angst. The boy was reluctant to grow-up and leave childish things behind. He loved the theater and games and saw the arts as his playground. These two souls were destined to know one another as Poet and Patron.

The remarkable youth awakened the poet’s sympathy at first because of his beauty and station in life, although the lad was selfish and difficult to love, but also because of his extraordinary need. It was evident that the young lord’s quest was mostly to know himself and the wide world better. Although he had had the best education, he had lacked the love of a parent. Faced with premature pressure to grow up and live up to his responsibilities, he was in open rebellion.

The rebellious youth had had a difficult childhood. His parents were virtually at war with one another and when his father died (when he was quite young) he became a ward of the state. So it was not only important to himself that he find his footing as a man, but also to his high placed family and his relations (which included the Queen and her chief minister who was his guardian).

So even though he had lived a life of privilege he didn’t know what love was let alone whom to love. He was all at sea and insisted on some happiness before he married and settled down. Apparently the poet pleased him and met his unique needs because he became part of the young lord’s life for over three years. It seems that poet may have resided with the young lord as a kind of secretary, a position of servitude for which he was very well suited.

Not only was the poet a distant kinsman to the young Lord, but he had previously served both as a teacher and as a scrivener. His early works as a playwright were well known to his lordship’s family and it would have been acceptable to take him on as a kind of gentleman usher*. The time was ripe as the playhouses had been closed by the plague and most noble families repaired to the country for the sake of their health. The country life suited the poet perfectly as he was used to returning to his own country roots for inspiration.

There was fascination all around by the poet’s ability to reflect the young man’s character in the magic mirror of his art. Often that mirror was flattering and extolled the youth’s better qualities, but it could also be critical and eventually revealed images of what the noble youth could become. The power of art transformed them both and the servant poet became a kind of tutor if not quite a father figure to the boy, not unlike an older brother or mentor. In an act of generous license through his patron’s indulgence and thanks to his art the poet was privileged to play a role in the young lord’s quest for adult personhood: not a bad accomplishment for a mere entertainer.

*For the poet’s sojourn with his Lordship I am indebted to (among others) Muriel Bradbrook who asserts the idea convincingly.

Love Song for a Groundhog

Every time this season of the year rolls around I think of love songs. The impulse keeps repeating like the need to know if winter will end anytime soon, which by the way is why we still celebrate the pagan holiday of Imbolc in a somewhat debased form as Groundhog’s Day. It’s not just that the Groundhog tells us if spring is near (not to mention St. Valentines), there is a deeper seasonal connection.

Imbolc is the earliest of old spring festivals marking the time when the sap begins to rise and the new lambs are weaned. The great pagan hearth goddess that rules this festival is Bridget, the Celtic Minerva. She is also the patron spirit of bards and smiths, a powerful muse for creativity.

In the darkness of winter it’s natural that people would especially like to gather around the hearth for stories and songs to brighten the lingering gloom. The Christian festival of Candlemas associated with St. Bridgit celebrates that spark of fire that lights our way through the coldest days: especially with creativity. This spark of fire is above all the spark of inspiration.

The inspiring love songs that haunt me now are quite old and like Master Slender in Shakespeare’s Merry Wives of Windsor I yearn for my book of songs and sonnets. You see, during the 1980’s I worked extensively to fashion a play based on Shakespeare’s Sonnets. My collaborators and I called our play Siren Tears and it had several successful incarnations. Since then, I have often though that I might fashion a new solo performance piece based on that familiar material. But with a different focus.

Siren Tears was based on the notion (which by they was always only provisional, I was never zealous about it) that the Sonnets told a discernible story of what was happening in Shakespeare’s personal life. The main objection viewers of the play came away with was that we proved nothing, that the story we told was only circumstantial and therefore nothing but a fiction. Well, yes, that was our intent. We were attempting to tell a story that could have been true, not trying to prove a circumstantial case of what absolutely was true, but rather celebrating a possibility.

Now in looking at the material again as a source for solo performance, I want to try something much more fundamental. I want to explore the songs and sonnets as entertainments. I believe that whatever else the sonnets suggest, that it is demonstrably true that they were exercises in amusement. Most critics who object to an autobiographical interpretation of the Sonnets argue they could have been merely isolated exercises. I partly agree with this point but I also believe (along with the distinguished scholar Jonathan Bate) that the impulse for their writing had to be based in the reality of what was happening in the author’s personal life, even though we cannot truly extrapolate many facts from the story they suggest. Still, as exercises, the sonnets (literally little songs) do what all songs are meant to do. They are meant to entertain, to amuse. This I hope to demonstrate.

Since they hold such promise they are irresistible challenges for a performer. But it is not just their poetic quality that is of interest but also their novelty. Most of my material as a performer is fundamentally comedic or lightly sentimental. I believe that the sonnets (and songs) were written primarily in this vein. Also, it is a commonplace truth, of which moderns often lose sight, Shakespeare’s Sonnets were performance pieces written for an intimate audience not unlike a Victorian parlor piece or modern cabaret song. Hence they may be ripe for interpretation in the context of my Songs for the Season project.

What were the circumstances that gave rise to the Sonnets? Already famous (if not infamous) at the time the first Sonnets were commissioned, I believe Shakespeare had the good fortune to spend nearly four years during the course of the closure of the theatres during the early 1590’s in the family circle of Southhampton House. He wrote his narrative poems dedicated to the Earl of Southhampton during this time, as well as most of the sonnets and two experimental comedies (Two Gents and Love’s Labors Lost) all of which were a departure from anything he had previously written and which, as exercises, proved to immeasurably enrich his subsequent writing.

Written sometime before 1592, Robert Greene’s posthumous warning in “A Groatworth of Wit” that Shakespeare, merely a presumptuous player, was plagiarizing his betters, became notorious enough that it required an answer in print. The answer which defended Shakespeare’s skill was his first good review. And from it we also learn that he had powerful defenders and that his work was thought to be amusing (facetious).

It happens that I agree with Greene that up until this time Shakespeare was engaged primarily in writing pastiche (Comedy of Errors, Taming of the Shrew, Titus Andronicus, Henry IV, etc.) He probably also had the grand endeavor Richard III on the drawing board at this time with its extensive exploration of rhetoric, where he seems to be trying to out Marlow Marlow and top Thomas Kyd. But that huge play wasn’t produced until later. Copying the classics and other successful contemporary writers is how a young poet learns to become a dramatist. I conceive these early plays as apprentice pieces which were probably revised or polished at dates later than when they were originally composed.

When the theatres were closed down by the plague, Shakespeare was able to closely study what non-dramatic poetry could do. This practice proved to be invaluable and the relatively safe refuge he must have enjoyed in the Southhampton household may also have saved his life. Many of his contemporaries lost their lives during this difficult and dangerous time.

The poems of this period explore deeply the extents of what lyric (and narrative) poetry is capable of doing. Immediately following this Shakespeare accomplished greatness in the plays we now know as his lyrical period: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet and Richard II. It’s not for nothing that after the popular success of “Venus and Adonis” and Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare endeared himself to the ages as a love poet. How he got there is a unique and amusing story which will be the context for my program, “Lyrics by Shakespeare”.

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