"A boy sings ... a beautiful thing."

Songs From Shakespeare's Plays
(from the booklet for the recording "Hey, Ho, the Wind and the Rain")

by Nick Wright

William Shakespeare
"The Bard"

It is appropriate that this collection of songs for Shakespeare's plays, recorded by boy soprano Lorin Wey, should contain music used in the original productions and early revivals, for the songs would then have been performed by boys who were accomplished singers as well as actors. Many of them would have been recruited from established companies, such as the Children of the Chapel or the Paul's Boys. Originally trained as choristers for religious duties in such prestigious places as the Chapel Royal or St Paul's Cathedral, these boys were also commanded to provide musical and theatrical entertainment at court and indeed became so well-known and popular that their masters set up their own companies to perform additionally in private playhouses. Their success overtook for a time that of the companies of professional adult actors, until the playwrights providing them with material introduced political and religious satire, which so displeased James I that he effectively closed the children's companies down. In 1608 Shakespeare's company, The King's Men, took over the Blackfriars theatre, which until then had hosted a children's company. But Shakespeare's company would also have taken over the best of the boy actors and singers, who were needed to play the female roles, as women were not permitted to act on stage professionally. These boys would be required, together with the apprentices of the King's Men, to create such demanding roles as Ophelia, Desdemona and Juliet.

This programme of songs for Shakespeare's plays takes us back as far as the earliest productions. But as the early editions of the plays contain no printed music we cannot be certain which of the songs might actually have been used. Nor can we be sure how many of the texts came from Shakespeare's own pen: often existing ballads were quoted or misquoted, and the length dictated by the needs of the action. Robert Johnson (15821633) is the composer most readily associated with Shakespeare: he was employed by the King's Men from 1609 and it is likely that the two songs for Ariel, Where the Bee Sucks and Full Fathom Five were used in early revivals of The Tempest. The Willow Song (Anon) was already known before Othello was written and Shakespeare adapted a shortened version of it for the boy who played Desdemona. Thomas Morley (1557-1602) published his song It was a lover and his lass about the same time as the first production of As You Like It and the setting of 0 Mistress Mine appeared just before Twelfth Night was first performed. But in both cases there is nothing to establish if the words were indeed Shakespeare's.

Other songs in this collection most likely used in the early productions of the plays include Take, 0 Take those Lips Away by John Wilson (1597-1674) and Hark! Hark! The Lark!, which has been attributed to Robert Johnson. In Measure for Measure only the first verse set by Wilson is printed, although the second verse appears in a play by Fletcher. Wilson was employed as composer to the King's Men in succession to Robert Johnson, and also held positions as King's Lutenist, Gentleman of the Chapel Royal and Professor of Music at Oxford.

At each successive revival of Shakespeare's plays, English composers were keen to show their skill in writing or arranging music to accompany the new productions. From the eighteenth century,Thomas Arne (1710-1778), prolific writer of operas and incidental music for the theatre, is best now remembered for his Shakespeare settings, of which Under the Green Wood Tree, Blow, Blow thou Winter Wind and Where the Bee Sucks, written in the 1740s, are represented here.

The words set by Thomas Linley junior (17561778) for a revival of The Tempest at Drury Lane in 1777 were not by Shakespeare but R. B. Sheridan, who had rewritten the beginning of the play to allow for a storm chorus and bright opening aria for Ariel: 0 Bid your Faithful Ariel Fly. Thomas Linley junior was the most promising composer of his age: coming from a multi-talented musical family, he was already an accomplished violinist and composer before going to Italy to study with Nardini at the age of twelve. There, two years later, he met Mozart (they were exact contemporaries) and they soon became friends, performing together at private salons. Back in England Linley was a prolific and acclaimed composer, but tragically his life was cut short when he drowned in a boating accident at the age of 22. Mozart called him "A true genius... had he lived he would have been one of the greatest ornaments of the musical world"

Over Hill, Over Dale from A Midsummer Night's Dream, is probably the least known song in this collection. It was written by an Irishman, Thomas Cooke (1782-1848), one of a large number of songs written for the stage. Cooke was a versatile musician, a noted singer and trainer of singers; he was also proficient in most string, keyboard and wind instruments. After leaving his native Dublin for London, he became associated for a long time with the Drury Lane Theatre where he composed music for more than fifty theatrical productions.

The name of Sir Arthur Sullivan (1842-1900) is inevitably associated with that of W. S. Gilbert, the provider of librettos for Sullivan's best-known operettas. But Sullivan left a quantity of other work, including orchestral music, oratorios, songs, anthems, and church services, as well as an attempt at serious opera. And just as his operettas were popular in the theatre, so were his songs in the home. He fulfilled the Victorians' passion for home music-making with some seventy songs: these vary in quality from those which aimed high (and succeeded) to others which descended to the overly sentimental. Most of these songs were written before his collaboration with Gilbert, and no doubt provided him with a comfortable income. He wrote five settings of Shakespeare texts between 1863-4, of which Orpheus and his Lute is the best known.

A more polished and elegant development of the Victorian drawing-room song is to be found in the work of Roger Quilter, (1877-1953). From a wealthy family, this most English of composers found early success as a song writer and only occasionally strayed outside this genre. The two well-crafted Shakespeare songs It was a Lover and Hey, Ho, the Wind and the Rain are from his Opus 23.

Our two most recent Shakespeare settings are by two of the greatest twentieth century British composers, Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) and Michael Tippett (1905-1998). Instantly recognisable by their individual styles, both are represented by works from the 1960s, Britten's Fancie (1961) and two of Tippett's Songs for Ariel, Full Fathom Five and Where the Bee Sucks (1962). These latter pieces were part of the incidental music Tippett wrote for a production of The Tempest at the Old Vic theatre, London. It is interesting to compare Britten's setting of Fancy with that of Francis Poulenc, (1899-1963) which dates from a couple of years earlier (1959).

Almost every major Western composer since Shakespeare's day has either set his words to music or written incidental music based on his plays. Hey, Ho, the Wind and the Rain is largely an anthology of English music through the ages, but it is fitting that Lorin, a former Vienna Choir Boy, and resident of Vienna, should include two songs by Franz Schubert (1797-1828), also a former member of the choir. The two songs An Sylvia and Horch, Horch die Lerch are both well-known favourites.

Note: The recording "Hey, Ho, the Wind and the Rain" by boy soprano Lorin Wey is currently available online at Tadpole Music in the UK. Three tracks from the recording may be heard at Lorin's discography page on this site.

Copyright 2003 Nick Wright, Tadpole Music Used with permission.

Copyright 2004 boychoirs.org
This page was last modified on 18 November 2005