Musica Sacra

In Music Is Such Art: Choral Music Celebrating Shakespeare

Saturday October 22, 2016 at 8:00pm

Shakespeare believed music to be the universal communicator, supreme among all other art forms. Composers throughout time and the world have responded to his deep appreciation of their medium with their own settings of his words.

In Music is Such Art: Choral Music Celebrating Shakespeare

Hear works from Ralph Vaughan Williams, Frank Martin, Jaakko Mäntyjärvi, and Matthew Harris—who, like so many composers throughout time and around the world, have responded to The Bard's deep appreciation of their medium with their own settings of his texts. Hear songs of Shakespeare's clowns and sprites, his tragic maidens, his sweet and bitter fools, set to music of infinite variety!

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Bards Dispense Profanity

Don't miss your chance to win a signed and "chorally customized" version of a game called Bards Dispense Profanity. (It's similar to Cards Against Humanity®, but with a Shakespearean theme.)

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Venue

Tickets

Advance ticket sales for this 8:00 concert have closed, however tickets will be available at the door beginning at 7:00 PM. We hope to see you at the concert!

Concert Program Notes

In honor of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death we reprise, with modifications, our concert of the 2008-2009 season "In music is such art." I love this title, coming as it does from Shakespeare's play Henry VIII, even though some have attributed the poem's authorship to his collaborator on that work, William Fletcher. If the bard himself, considered by many to be the finest writer in the English language, chose to heap encomiums on music, who are we to disagree?

In fact we open our program with the 19th Century setting of this poem by George Macfarren. Just as the tone of the poem is consolatory, speaking of the power of music as a balm for even the most distressing emotions, so the music of Macfarren. Shakespeare well understood the power of music in our lives, and how sly of him to do this through describing the powers of Orpheus, the supreme musician in ancient Greek mythology, for in that time music and poetry were inextricably bound. Consider the first line of Virgil's &Aelig;nead, an epic poem from the era of the Roman Empire occurring much later: I sing of arms and the man. Contrast the placid nature of this piece with the other work of Macfarren's on this program: When daisies pied. The jaunty dotted rhythms in the women's voices over the drone provided by the men in parallel fifths imparts the bucolic scene of spring described in Shakespeare's words. Then, when the cuckoo calls, which Macfarren sets to the falling major third of that bird's song in the high tessitura of the sopranos, the lower three voices reiterate O word of fear as the bass part rises by half steps. This creates a mood of anxious suspense in keeping with the association of the cuckoo's call with a wife's infidelity.

I would bet that all of you raised in a Protestant tradition are familiar with the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams even if you don't think you are; the Episcopal Hymnal lists 16 hymn tunes by him, and his setting of For all the Saints is a must-do on the Sunday recognizing All Saints' Day. In addition, Vaughan Williams led the twentieth century movement to catalogue folk tunes before they died in the oral tradition that nurtured and sustained them, so those of you who know many folk songs have him to thank as well. In the five works on our program tonight, two imitate the folk tune format: they have a simple melody set as though it were a hymn with all voices moving together, a compositional style known as homophony. In O mistress mine Vaughan Williams reiterates all harmonies verbatim in the second of the two stanzas, using only dynamics to underscore the textual implications. Thus the building crescendo that reaches its apex on the word youth celebrates the robust nature of that time of life, while the immediate diminuendo on a stuff will not endure alludes to the fleeting nature of life explored in great detail by the metaphysical poets contemporaneous to Shakespeare. Vaughan Williams's setting of The Willow Song is similar, setting all of the three verses homophonically, but in this work he uses shifts in the melody and its accompanying harmony to convey the melancholy nature of the text.

Vaughan Williams lived a long life, and sixty years separates his compositions written in the simple style mentioned above with Three Shakespeare Songs penned in 1951. To borrow from Shakespeare how rich and strange these settings are in contrast! I will hazard a guess that Vaughan Williams was a sailor, or at least very familiar with the sea; he certainly has it pegged in his setting of Full fathom five. The opening's juxtaposition of different harmonies in different rhythms among the treble and tenor voices interspersed with the altos falling scale of a major third in varying rhythms creates a perfect musical representation of a sea in turmoil. Anyone who has been near a bell buoy can attest to that. This mood sets up the surface of the roiling sea, under which the lowest choral part, the bass, intones full fathom five my father lies in a simple melody. It's a masterful representation of the sea's calm under its tumultuous surface. Then the complicated harmonic progression setting the word change provides a musical demonstration of the word, while the word strange is represented by chords of extreme dissonance: a C major chord with a half step above the fifth and a full step above the root creating a tritone, the most dissonant interval in the musical canon. Rich and strange indeed! Vaughan Williams's musical rendering of bells contrasts greatly with that of John Cook, who hears them as intervals of fourths, something he reinforces by his abundant use of chords built of fourths among the voices.

The harmonic progression of The cloud-capp'd towers emulates the ephemeral nature of cloud formations with its constantly shifting harmonies that migrate slowly from one harmony into a totally unexpected one. The final musical phrase imitates that of the opening, although this time in F# major instead of f# minor to express the mystical nature of life. But Vaughan Williams illustrates Shakespeare's metaphysical allusion to the brevity of life by moving that third in the final chord from major to minor. In the third piece in the series, Vaughan Williams begins and ends a fairy's poem from A Midsummer night's dream by alternating treble and bass voices in a spritely setting of its opening lines. This demonstrates Puck's mercurial nature, while the use of an augmented triad with a major seventh added to it, a chord outside the lexicon of traditional harmony, underscores the fairy's otherworldly nature.

Two of the texts set by Vaughan Williams in tonight's program can be contrasted with settings by other composers. The American composer Matthew Harris also set Full fathom five in one of 12 works he wrote to Shakespeare's words. His setting has more in common with Vaughan Williams's earlier works; the sopranos begin and end the short work with a simple melody accompanied by the other voices. In the middle, however, the text describing the sea change is an imitative rising scale in staggered entrances and on different notes, creating a textural and harmonic change from the other sections to emphasize that change. Treatments of the other five pieces on tonight's program are similarly brief. Who is Sylvia? with its upbeat tempo and jazzy rhythms captures the ebullience of new love. The gusty winds of winter are captured by the dense imitative lines in Blow, blow thou winter wind in a way that allows the listener to envision the scudding of long dead leaves in all directions. The melancholy nature of the music of And will a' not come again befits Ophelia's mad lament from Hamlet, although the similarly pensive minor of Hark, hark! The lark seems somewhat incongruent to the lover's entreaty to his love to arise. Perhaps Harris set it this way to maximize the contrast between this simple poem and the lines that immediately precede it in Cymbeline, in which Phyllis would be wakened in a far cruder way. The rambunctious music of When daffodils begin to peer, with its multitudinous heighs, emphasizes the tavern atmosphere of drunken revelers celebrating the spring through the carnal pleasures of drinking and lovemaking.

The second text duplicated on tonight's program is The Willow Song from Othello, set by the New Zealand composer David Hamilton. We have done several pieces by this unjustifiably unknown author over the years, and we present three tonight. The Willow Song setting is folk-like in nature, like that of Vaughan Williams, with a laconic melody in the lower treble timbre of the alto register accompanied by the other parts. This shifts in the last line so that the male voices of the tenor can speak the lines of the feckless lover. In And let me the canakin clink Hamilton has good fun with the swing rhythms common to jazz and the wonderful melisma on the word soldier to convey the narrator's inebriated state. Rutter also makes use of the swing rhythm of jazz to make It was a lover and his lass a jolly modern carol. In Caliban's Song Hamilton sets a totally different mood through vertical texture, dynamic and tempo. The over-layering of tones in a slow tempo to accompany the whispered opening Art thou afeard sets the dreamlike state to which Caliban refers later in his song. Hamilton makes good use of dissonances to set the words hurt and twangling, thereby underscoring their meaning. And the slow tempo and miasma of sound from clusters of sonorities reinforces the dreaming state about which Caliban speaks, making it sound indeed like a desired-for state.

The Swiss composer Frank Martin set five songs of Ariel from The Tempest, of which we sing two. His use of extremely fast tempi and of staccato, in which note lengths are shortened to allow space between each note, allude to Ariel's spritely nature. The call and response of the first two lines of Before you can say come and go between the high register of the soprano and the lower register of the tenor create a musical representation of Ariel's fairy ability to dart from place to place. The tempo only slows at the end, when Ariel asks his master if he loves him; this highlights the seriousness of Ariel's question in contrast to his fey nature.

The music of the Finnish composer Jaakko Mäntyjärvi attests to the strong tradition of choral music in Scandinavia and the Baltic regions. His reiteration of the music to the repeated words Come away death and Fly away breath give a seductive tone to those entreaties. He also interrupts the poem to repeat the word weep with held chords in a 5/8 meter; this irregularity, along with a swelling and dying of sound on each chord known as messa di voce, mimics the gasping breathlessness experienced in extreme grieving. Mäntyjärvi's setting of Double, double toil and trouble is a tour de force of intense creepiness. It opens with the uneven 5/4 meter that dominates the work; its lopsidedness engenders a feeling of unsettledness and foreboding. He highlights the witches' 'witchiness' with the falling glissando lines that accompany the iteration of the incantation and by a middle section whose slower tempo refers to their unctuous nature; I can envision them rubbing their hands with evil glee. This middle section is capped off by a speaking of part of the spell that gets successively louder, as though the witches cannot contain their excitement about creating this curse. The manic energy with which the piece ends conjures up a scene of Saint Vitus dancing.

As tonight's program demonstrates, Shakespeare's eloquence inspired many composers. Considering the first work heard tonight, however, one has to wonder if Shakespeare himself valued music even more highly than poetry. How ironic it would be if the ultimate wordsmith found the art of music to be an even more profound art than his own.

© 2016 Mary Beekman. All rights reserved. No portion of this document may be quoted or reproduced without the author's permission.