Singing around the Son­nets

Po­etry and mu­sic from Eng­land’s Golden Age

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - James M. Keller The New Mex­i­can

Shake­speare’s plays ooze mu­sic. Mu­sic is at least men­tioned in nearly all of his stage works. Many of these in­clude lyrics for orig­i­nal songs, some cite well-known folk songs or pop­u­lar melodies of the day, and quite a few of­fer gen­eral sound cues (“The trum­pets sound parley with­out,” for ex­am­ple). Songs of­ten play a po­tent dra­matic role in the plays, high­light­ing mo­ments of great emo­tional pitch or un­sta­ble state of mind, such as in­fat­u­a­tion or in­san­ity; think of Ophe­lia’s end-of-life folk song recital in Ham­let, Des­de­mona’s lament­ing “Wil­low Song” as she re­signs her­self to sor­row in

Othello, or Edgar’s quot­ing snip­pets of pop­u­lar tunes to au­then­ti­cate his sub­terfuge as the mad­man Poor Tom in King Lear. It is a great in­con­ve­nience to mod­ern ac­tors and mu­sic directors that very few song-set­tings of Shake­speare’s time can be au­then­ti­cally con­nected to ac­tual per­for­mances of his plays, which is one very good rea­son why pro­duc­tions to­day usu­ally sport newly com­posed songs to the sur­viv­ing lyrics. The sit­u­a­tion partly de­rives from the fact that pub­lic the­aters of Shake­speare’s time were open-tothe-air venues rather than sturdy build­ings with ameni­ties like stor­age space. Only a few years later, the­aters be­came build­ings of a more mod­ern sort — and an­cil­lary pro­duc­tion ma­te­ri­als like mu­si­cal scores ac­cord­ingly sur­vive in far greater abun­dance for, say, the plays of Beaumont and Fletcher.

Vi­ola da gamba vir­tu­oso Mary Springfels, who since 2008 has resided in Cer­ril­los, has long since come to terms with the frus­tra­tion of try­ing to re­claim the mu­sic used in Shake­speare’s plays dur­ing his life­time. She has be­come such an ex­pert that she was pre­vailed upon to pen the ar­ti­cle “Mu­sic in Shake­speare’s Plays” for the En­cy­clopae­dia Bri­tan­nica . As a per­former, her in­ter­est is prac­ti­cal as well as aca­demic. She be­gan her ca­reer in play­ing early mu­sic as part of a renowned group, the New York Pro Mu­sica. It had been co-founded by the legendary Noah Green­berg, who led the group from its be­gin­nings in 1952 un­til his early death in 1966. “It was a re­mark­able group,” Springfels re­called, “al­though it would sound dated now. We did ev­ery­thing from Machaut to Josquin masses to Re­nais­sance madri­gals. We did a lot of reper­toire peo­ple are now re­dis­cov­er­ing; for ex­am­ple, we did a ton of early Span­ish theater mu­sic. I missed Green­berg by a year. When I got in­volved, it was di­rected by John Reeves White, a mu­si­col­o­gist who was the first per­son to do a kind of the­matic pro­gram­ming, which later be­came very com­mon.” Af­ter her time with New York Pro Mu­sica, Springfels plunged into study­ing French Baroque reper­toire for vi­ola da gamba, work­ing with Catha­rina Meints in the United States and Wieland Kui­jken in Europe. “I came back and free­lanced for years,” she said. “I was in ev­ery Baroque group in New York.” In 1983, she es­tab­lished the ac­claimed New­berry Con­sort, an early-mu­sic en­sem­ble that op­er­ates un­der the aegis of the New­berry Li­brary Cen­ter for Re­nais­sance Stud­ies, an in­de­pen­dent re­search cen­ter with close ties to the Univer­sity of Chicago and North­west­ern Univer­sity. There she stayed for 25 years, un­til her path led her here.

She has re­mained ac­tive as a gam­bist-for-hire and teacher-coach on the early-mu­sic cir­cuit, and a cou­ple of years ago she de­cided to es­tab­lish a per­form­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion that she could nour­ish with­out get­ting on an air­plane. Thus was born Sev­er­all Friends, which she cre­ated and over­sees jointly with her long­time col­league El­iz­a­beth Blu­men­stock, an in­ter­na­tion­ally prom­i­nent pe­riod-in­stru­ment vi­olin­ist. “The name,” Springfels said, “is a snip­pet of a ti­tle of a col­lec­tion of mu­sic manuscripts by [the 17th-cen­tury com­poser] Matthew Locke.” Locke’s man­u­script ac­tu­ally bears the in­scrip­tion “Ffor Sev­er­all Ffriends.” Springfels thought it wise to draw the line at just one set of dou­ble let­ters. “We did a pro­gram with the ti­tle Mu­sic for Sev­er­all

Friends when I started work­ing at the New­berry, and it stuck with me. It ac­cu­rately de­scribes our group. We know one an­other well and have played to­gether for a while.”

Springfels and Blu­men­stock oc­cupy the core of Sev­er­all Friends, which draws on other per­form­ers as needed for any given pro­gram. Re­peat visi­tors in­clude harp­si­chordist Matthew Dirst and lutenist Mark Rim­ple. So far, the group has given two sep­a­rate pro­grams fo­cus­ing on 17th-cen­tury string mu­sic, a recital of me­dieval works from Dante’s Italy, and a Tele­mann con­cert high­lighted by his “Paris” flute quar­tets. “And now,” Springfels said, “we’re do­ing lute songs.”

She is re­fer­ring to Songs and Son­nets: Po­etry and Mu­sic From Eng­land’s Golden Age, which the en­sem­ble per­forms on Fri­day, Feb. 24, at the his­toric San Miguel Chapel. The con­cert builds on Springfels’ in­ter­est in Shake­spearean mu­sic by fo­cus­ing on a par­tic­u­lar co­nun­drum: Since mu­sic is such an in­ex­tri­ca­ble part of Shake­speare’s plays, why did his con­tem­po­rary com­posers not leap to cre­ate mu­si­cal set­tings of his son­nets? It does strike one as cu­ri­ous. Shake­speare’s son­nets of­fer a large body — 154 items — of “pure-form” po­etry, as op­posed to po­et­i­cal drama. Mu­si­cal com­posers were flour­ish­ing in Eng­land at the time, and one might have imag­ined they would have been drawn to Shake­speare’s su­perla­tive po­ems as moths to flames. In fact, the sit­u­a­tion per­se­vered through suc­ceed­ing cen­turies. Mu­si­cal set­tings of song lyrics from the plays abound in the 18th, 19th, and 20th cen­turies, but set­tings of his son­nets re­mained prac­ti­cally nonex­is­tent. The Bri­tish com­poser Sir Hu­bert Parry (best known for his ever­green “Jerusalem”) used a hand­ful for songs in the 1870s. A few mid-20th-cen­tury fig­ures wrote Shake­speare son­net set­tings: Hanns Eisler, Paul Des­sau, and Mario Castel­n­uovo-Tedesco. Choral com­posers have pro­duced a num­ber of Shake­speare son­net pieces in the past few decades, but no A-list fig­ures are among them. The only “big name” who springs to mind is Stravin­sky, who in 1953 com­posed a set­ting of the son­net “Mu­sic to hear, why hear’st thou mu­sic sadly?” It is rarely heard, be­ing writ­ten in the late-in-life se­rial style many lis­ten­ers find unlov­able in that mas­ter’s oeu­vre.

“I strug­gled with this idea,” Springfels said. “Why was this great po­etry so dif­fi­cult to set to mu­sic? Partly it had to do with the met­ri­cal na­ture of mu­sic and the dif­fer­ent met­ri­cal na­ture of the po­etry.” That, it seems, was a pe­cu­liarly English prob­lem. Ital­ian com­posers of the time were com­pos­ing son­net-set­tings pro­fusely, and had been for gen­er­a­tions. Springfels noted, “Ge­orge Put­ten­ham, in his book The Arte of English

Poe­sie [1589], talks to adults who want to write po­etry. So you want to write a son­net?, he says — and then talks about how dif­fi­cult it is to write in English if all your tem­plates are Ital­ian. It is not easy to adapt a Ger­manic lan­guage to the scan­sion of Latin-based lan­guage. We have to re­think this if we’re go­ing to write ef­fec­tive po­etry.”

But of course Shake­speare did fi­nesse that feint mag­nif­i­cently, even if com­posers may have strug­gled with it. An­other part of the prob­lem, Springfels feels, is the high qual­ity of the po­etry. Shake­speare’s son­nets are com­plex and com­plete on their own. Mak­ing them the ba­sis for a mu­si­cal com­po­si­tion might seem like gild­ing the lily. “It took a Dry­den to write a kind of lyric we get eas­ily through a song set­ting,” she ob­served, point­ing to the later 17th-cen­tury au­thor whose texts proved a point of de­par­ture for such a com­poser as Henry Pur­cell. “[The mod­ern poet] John Hol­lan­der said Donne [Shake­speare’s near-con­tem­po­rary] killed English mu­sic be­cause no­body could do any­thing with the po­etry.”

Sev­er­all Friends will ad­dress the mat­ter of Shake­speare’s son­nets all the same. Three mu­si­cians — Springfels, Rim­ple, and coun­tertenor/ tenor Ry­land An­gel — will per­form 16 songs and in­stru­men­tal pieces by a hand­ful of El­iz­a­bethan and Ja­cobean com­posers, in­clud­ing such well­known fig­ures as John Dow­land and Thomas Cam­pion. In­ter­spersed will be 11 son­nets by Shake­speare, read by ac­tor Kent Kirk­patrick. While the songs are not set­tings of those son­nets, they mostly stand as ru­mi­na­tions on the same sub­jects those spe­cific po­ems ad­dress — some­times with un­canny par­al­lels, ac­cord­ing to Springfels. To help clar­ify the con­cept, Santa Fe-based Shake­speare scholar John F. An­drews, pres­i­dent of The Shake­speare Guild (which is co-pro­duc­ing this con­cert), will open the evening with re­marks about Shake­spearean lan­guage in the son­nets, par­tic­u­larly ad­dress­ing how the son­nets come across on the page and how read­ers may have ap­pre­hended these po­ems when they were new.

Many of these mu­si­cal se­lec­tions are lute songs, in which the singer is ac­com­pa­nied by just the lute. In Shake­speare’s time, such pieces were usu­ally crafted for am­a­teur mu­sic-mak­ing, which re­flected what we would to­day con­sider a very high level of ex­per­tise. “Peo­ple had lit­tle in­ner rooms then,” Springfels said, “and there — or per­haps also in bed­rooms, where it was rel­a­tively warm — is where up­per-mid­dle-class or aris­to­cratic peo­ple would play these songs, by them­selves or maybe with one or two other peo­ple. It was a very pri­vate kind of thing.” The spirit of in­ti­macy should be re­in­forced by the venue of the con­cert, San Miguel Chapel, which can ac­com­mo­date just beyond a hun­dred at­ten­dees. The site has the fur­ther ad­van­tage of be­ing chrono­log­i­cally ap­pro­pri­ate to the reper­toire. Al­though a few of Shake­speare’s son­nets were printed ear­lier, the col­lec­tion was first pub­lished in its en­tirety in 1609. The early his­tory of the San Miguel Chapel is a lit­tle shaky — and the place has cer­tainly un­der­gone much re­build­ing since its be­gin­nings — but es­ti­mates for its orig­i­nal con­struc­tion come in as early as 1610. You can’t get much more his­tor­i­cal res­o­nance than that.

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