Singing around the Sonnets
Poetry and music from England’s Golden Age
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 , 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.