Music for Shakespeare's Lyrics

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 33

The majority of Shakespeare’s plays call for singing — sometimes it’s part of the action, sometimes it seems to spring out of nowhere.  And while the lyrics to the songs appear to have always been a part of the text, the musical notes for those lyrics have been lost over the years.  
Over four centuries of staging Shakespeare, directors have explored different approaches to filling in these musical gaps. David Lindley, professor emeritus of literature and music at the University of Leeds, is our guest for this episode of Shakespeare Unlimited. His book Shakespeare and Music appeared in 2006 in the Arden Critical Companions series. He is interviewed by Neva Grant.
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From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © October 7, 2015. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, "Ay, Prithee, Sing," was written and produced for the Folger Shakespeare Library by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is associate producer. Edited by Esther Ferington and Gail Kern Paster. We had help from Melissa Marquis at NPR in Washington and Gareth Dant in the University of Leeds Communications Office.


MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.

This podcast takes a look at a subject that has surprisingly been relatively absent from Shakespeare scholarship: the custom of making up music to go along with the lyrics in Shakespeare’s plays. The majority of the plays call for singing. Sometimes it’s part of the action, sometimes it seems to spring out of nowhere. And while the lyrics to the songs appear to have always been part of the text, the musical notes those lyrics were to be sung to have been lost over the years.

One of the few people who has written on this subject is David Lindley, professor emeritus of literature and music at the University of Leeds. He joins us for a tour of this 400-year-old tradition. We call this podcast “Ay, Prithee, Sing." David is interviewed by Neva Grant.


NEVA GRANT: Could you tell me, how old is musical notation, as we know it today? Did they even have it in Elizabethan times?

DAVID LINDLEY: Oh, certainly, and had for two or three centuries beforehand, at least. I mean, there are traces of Greek notation, though nobody quite knows what they mean. But by the 14th century, notation was around and quite complex. By the 16th century, it was being printed as well, you know. There was printed music, printed notation, which we can recognize now.

GRANT: And in Shakespeare’s time, did they have the tools for a printer to print musical scores?

LINDLEY: Yes, they did. I think they were engraved. Music printing was relatively new in England, but it had, at the end of the 16th century, begun to take off, and people were buying the music from Italy and so on, early in the 17th century, buying the madrigals and so on, and singing them at home.

GRANT: So, there is printing…


GRANT: …and we can find musical notation, and it’s being published, so then, why is there no musical notation in the First Folio, in Shakespeare’s first collection of published plays?

LINDLEY: Well, not only is there no notation in Shakespeare’s plays, but I can scarcely think of any printed dramatic text in which there is any notation. An exception would be Thomas Campion’s court masque, where he printed some music at the end. But I think music printing was probably expensive and, most of the time, people weren’t necessarily interested in acquiring the exact musical score. I can make it more complicated than that, in the sense that the songs, many of the songs anyway, would have been sung to tunes that were popular tunes, that one might assume many readers would actually know and latch onto.

GRANT: And when you say “readers,” I guess you also mean the actors, as well.

LINDLEY: Yep. Yep. Oh, I think it’s very likely that the actors, certainly in the earlier part of Shakespeare’s career anyway, would get the script of a song, which included a song and some idea of the popular tune to which those words were fitted, in the same way that the broadside ballad, the printed broadside ballad, would often say “to the tune of…” but not print that tune.

GRANT: So you say it’s very likely that this is the way the actors would have known the tune that they had to sing for a given lyric or a given set of poetry, but how do we really know that? I mean, what clues do we have?

LINDLEY: Well, I think we… There are two or three different sort of clues. One is that quite a number of the songs are rather like popular songs. If you think of Ophelia’s songs that she bases... As it were, her lyrics are based on popular ballads. Desdemona’s “Willow Song." There are lots of near parallels to them, which suggest that Shakespeare’s writing with half an ear on that ballad. Now I should say that, just occasionally, it would seem that Shakespeare borrowed a printed song. So that he took, for example, “It Was a Lover and His Lass” in As You Like It. It possibly came from the publication by Thomas Morley of that song, roughly at the time that Shakespeare was writing.

[CLIP of "It Was a Lover and His Lass":]

It was a lover and his lass,
     With a hey, and a ho, and a hey-nonny-no,
That o'er the green cornfield did pass
     In springtime, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing...

GRANT: And when you say he took that song, you don’t mean just the music. You’re… are you talking about the lyrics in this case, that he actually sort of pirated it?

LINDLEY: Possibly, quite possibly. This is one of the things we can’t really be certain of. That song appears in a play written about 1600 and is published in 1600, so it is theoretically possible that Thomas Morley set Shakespeare’s words, and that was the song that was used in the first performance of the play. That’s one possibility.

GRANT: When you say Thomas Morley “setting” Shakespeare’s words, he was a composer, he…

LINDLEY: He was a composer.

GRANT: …he was writing the music, right?

LINDLEY: Yeah. Yeah.

GRANT: And so he might have taken Shakespeare’s words, but it seems like you’re suggesting it could have worked the other way around, right?

LINDLEY: It could equally well have worked the other way around, or another possibility is that in the text that we have, the song “It Was a Lover and His Lass,” that particular set of words, might have been inserted at any time later on. Because one of the things about the song texts in many of the plays of the period is they changed them, as production, you know, as the plays lived on in the theater. So, the songs might be changed.

GRANT: I just want to spend a little more time on this song, because I think it may be familiar to some people. It’s from As You Like It. It’s a commentary on love, right?


GRANT: And it’s sung, I believe, about two of the lovers in the play, Audrey and Touchstone. And it’s got some lovely… I don’t know quite how to describe them, I mean, in a way they’re sort of nonsense words. I mean, we’re hearing “hey-nonny-no,” and “hey ding a ding,” and it’s delightful and it’s very, I think, characteristic of a lot of songs of that period, madrigals and so forth.


[CLIP of "It Was a Lover and His Lass":]

     In springtime, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding.
Sweet lovers love the spring.
This carol they began that hour,

LINDLEY: The words are… they’re not actually great words, they’re quite jolly, and they’re sung by two pages, as you say, with Touchstone. But it’s a very odd song, in other ways, in the play, because there’s no dramatic reason for it to be there.

There’s also the similar sort of question in Twelfth Night about Feste’s singing of “Come Away, Death,” which, if you remember what happens in that scene is, they first say, well... the Duke says, well, come, Cesario, "that old and antique song we had last night,” as if he’s inviting Viola or Cesario to sing the song. Then somebody pipes up, who "is not here... that should sing it," my Lord. And Feste comes in, it, there’s all kinds of improbabilities here.

GRANT: Feste, who is the clown.

LINDLEY: He sings other songs in the play, but he seems… It seems to be at least possible that originally Cesario/Viola was going to sing a song in this scene, then, for whatever reason, Shakespeare either had to or chose to change his mind, and so Feste is rather uncomfortably wheeled in to sing this song.

It works, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s one of those things that academics get really worked up about, about whether this is a sign of revision. Shakespeare first started off with one intent, and then either changed his mind or circumstances changed, and the play was adapted. And songs are particularly vulnerable to that.

GRANT: Right.

LINDLEY: Because quite often in a lot of the texts of the period, it just says “Song,” it doesn’t even say what the song was.

GRANT: Yeah. I’m going to move us forward in history a bit to the English Civil War. So during this period, the Puritans closed the theaters for a while, for several years, so there’s no Shakespeare for a while, happening anywhere. And then during the Restoration, Shakespeare’s plays are being performed again. But it’s been a while since anyone has sung the songs that go with those plays, so what happened? Were new tunes brought in at that time? New melodies?

LINDLEY: Well, it would seem so. There’s two things there. One is that, of course, the plays themselves tended to be very heavily adapted and often a lot more music was being introduced into them. But essentially, this music would be recomposed, new composed for the performances. There are one or two songs, where it’s long been thought possible that theatrical tradition preserves even the pre-Commonwealth setting. The fact that Ophelia’s song is sung to a tune rather like the tune, the ballad tune Walsingham, that may be a continuous theatrical tradition.

GRANT: Mm-hmm, but it sounds like you’re saying, for the most part, the songs were no longer in the Elizabethan style. They were moving forward.

LINDLEY: Yep, they’d be written very much in the post-Restoration musical style.

[CLIP of "Where the Bee Sucks, There Suck I" (instrumental):]

GRANT: Well, let’s talk about a composer during this period, who, I think, set many words by Shakespeare, and that would be Thomas Arne. Do I have that right?

LINDLEY: Yep. He’s a bit later, he’s a half century later. So we’re into the second half of the 18th century with Thomas Arne. But he was a hugely active composer for the theater, during those middle years of the 18th century. And he wrote a number of the settings of Shakespeare’s lyrics which have survived, both on stage, but also as concert songs and so on, as they do to this day.

[CLIP of "Where the Bee Sucks, There Suck I," Thomas Arne:]

Where the bee sucks, there suck I,
In a cowslip’s bell I lie.
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly

LINDLEY: So, you can still hear somebody singing Arne’s setting of “Where the Bee Sucks” on Radio 3 in the UK today.

GRANT: “Where the Bee Sucks,” that’s from The Tempest, right?

LINDLEY: Yep, yep.

[CLIP of "Where the Bee Sucks, There Suck I," Thomas Arne:]

Where the bee sucks, there suck I,
In a cowslip’s bell I lie.
There I couch when owls do cry.
On the bat’s back I do fly

LINDLEY: By the time you get to the 18th century, well, even in the Restoration and the 18th century, the songs tend to be written in a way that demands that the person who performs them really is a singer. So they’ll have long runs, you know, “on the bat’s back do I fly-y-y-y-y,” sort of thing.

[CLIP of "Where the Bee Sucks, There Suck I," Thomas Arne:]

On the bat’s back I do fly...

LINDLEY: And I think that has a profound effect on the way the songs function in the plays.

GRANT: If I’m not mistaken, I think I’ve seen playbills from this period that would advertise the vocal capabilities of the performers.

LINDLEY: Yeah, well, yes, indeed. So, you’d get advertised on the playbills, “Ariel will be sung by” such-and-such an actor, so that the fact of the music and the singing was very important, partly because, as I say, a lot of the 18th-century adaptations of Shakespeare tended to add songs, rather than take them away.

[CLIP of "Where the Bee Sucks, There Suck I," Thomas Arne:]

Merrily, merrily shall I live now
Under the blossom that hangs on the bow.

GRANT: You know, there’s a song, I think, also from this period, from a composer I had never heard of at all, who was referred to, I think, as the English Mozart. His name was Thomas Linley.

LINDLEY: That’s right, yes. The kind of lost genius of English music, really. His father was a theater musician. And his son, Thomas Linley, was a precocious violinist and performer, who turned to composing, really very young, and he contributed music to a revival of The Tempest under Sheridan’s direction in the 1770s. And it’s some wonderful music, I think, and it’s not just because his name’s nearly the same as mine. There isn’t much of his music that survives, because he died at the age of 22 in a boating accident. So we never got to hear the best of Linley, as it were.

GRANT: But there is a beautiful recording that I’ve heard from The Tempest, called “Come Unto These Yellow Sands."

LINDLEY: Yep. That’s right.

GRANT: And, just as you say, it is a real piece, and you could imagine it being a showstopper, it’s a very elaborate musical piece.

[CLIP of "Come Unto These Yellow Sands," Thomas Linley:]

Come unto these yellow sands,
     And then take hands...

LINDLEY: It was written with a particular singer in mind. And there, what you’re getting, whereas in a modern production, we would tend to see songs as integrated into the action, or expressive of the character of the particular individual that’s singing them, clearly this is a song which says, "I, the singer, can do great things."

[CLIP of "Come Unto These Yellow Sands," Thomas Linley:]

Come unto these yellow sands,
     And then take hands.

GRANT: Now, you know, these elaborate performances we’re talking about, do you think this might have happened initially by accident, where someone sort of did this breakout performance, and the producers were thrilled, the audience was delighted, and they said, “Hey, let’s make a habit out of this. People like it."

LINDLEY: Yeah, sort of. I think it was really that the fashion for opera, and so on, was very strong, very powerful. And that influenced the way in which people attended to dramatic performance. So, as I say, most of the adaptations of Shakespeare, in comedy, in particular, in the middle of the 18th century, all added more songs.

GRANT: You know, and in the same light, as we’re moving into the 19th century, the orchestras in theaters are getting bigger and bigger, which means altogether, we’re getting a grander sound.

LINDLEY: Yeah, I think that’s right. I mean, orchestra size varied, and in the 19th century, you might have an orchestra of as many as 30 players, which is reasonably substantial. And there would be strings, oboes, clarinets, flutes, trumpet, drums. But certainly that sense of there being a real orchestra is one that grows throughout the 19th century.

GRANT: And at the same time, I’m imagining that there’s a considerable amount of time and expense involved in writing these scores and adding all of this music. So I’m guessing that producers would rather than, rather than sort of reinventing the wheel each time, they would reuse musical scores.

LINDLEY: Particularly in the case of Shakespeare, it seems to be. For a lot of new plays, they would get new music, new scores, but with, particularly with Shakespeare, some settings, at least, had a continuous life.

GRANT: And by “settings," you mean the music that was put to the lyrics?

LINDLEY: Yep. And certainly, it’s more like, if you think about modern operatic productions, they will tend to revive a production, whereas if you think of the Royal Shakespeare Company or whatever, they will do a new production every time they do a play. While I think the 18th century is much more like operatic companies in that a production would be staged and the scenery created for it, the music created for it, and then that production would have a long life, relatively.

Well, when you get into the 19th century, particularly, what certainly has been the case in some of the production records I’ve looked at, is that there will be new incidental music, music that goes on under dialogue, but that the songs, particularly, would tend to have a continuous life that people would want to hear.

GRANT: Right. And isn’t that such an interesting aspect of musical performance, in that we want it, the audience wants it, to be familiar, whether we’re going to the Met or we’re going to a rock concert, you know, we want to hear the music as we remember it from the recording that we bought when we were teenagers, right?

LINDLEY: Yep. Well, I think this… it’s one of the interesting things, I think, about this whole question of the music of Shakespeare and its history, is that tension between wanting to hear the familiar and being pleased to hear the new.

GRANT: So, as we move into the 20th century, what’s happening? We are starting now to hear in Shakespeare’s productions, music that would be reinvented each time or, perhaps, almost every time.

LINDLEY: Well in, certainly in the Royal Shakespeare Company or, no doubt, in the Oregon Shakespeare Festival or the big places that do Shakespeare, that is almost universally true, I think, now. Though, again, there’s two different ways in which you can go. You can ask a composer to write a new score, which includes new settings of the songs, or you can compile a score from existing material, so you quote bits of anything, really, that suits the mood that you want to create. Does that make any sort of sense?

GRANT: Well, it does make sense, and I think this would be a great place to hear another example. There is, for example, I think you wrote about this in an article, a version of The Tempest, where the actor and singer Ian Charleson is featured. Tell us a little bit about that.

LINDLEY: Well, yes. There was an RSC production...

GRANT: Royal Shakespeare Company.

LINDLEY: Royal Shakespeare Company, for which Guy Woolfenden, their music director, wrote the music. I mean, he actually is one of the people in the world, one of the composers, theater composers, in the world, who composed music for every single Shakespeare play, many of them twice. I think there’s about half a dozen musicians of whom that’s true.

But he wrote this, I think, very atmospheric song for Ariel, which was sung as Charleson as Ariel descended from on high, and he sang this invitation to Ferdinand, “Come Unto These Yellow Sands."

[CLIP of Ian Charleson, singing "Come Unto These Yellow Sands," Guy Woolfenden:]

Come unto these yellow sands,
     And then take hands.
Curtsied when you have, and kissed
     The wild waves whist.
Foot it featly...

LINDLEY: And it was accompanied by the Royal Shakespeare Company’s wind band, and, luckily, a recording was made, because the other thing about most theater music is it vanishes.

GRANT: But in this version, because we have a recording, we can hear how this sounds almost like a Broadway musical from the 1970s, something like Pippin or Shenandoah or something like that. It has those elements.

[CLIP of Charleson, singing "Come Unto These Yellow Sands," Guy Woolfenden:]

  The watchdogs bark.
            A cock I hear.
The strain of strutting chanticleer
Cry cock-a-diddle-dow.

LINDLEY: And the production itself had a fairly modernist set, with a lot of black plastic, by Ralph Koltai, although the costuming, if my memory serves me right, was vaguely "Jacobethan." And it’s one of the interesting things to me, that whereas, often directors will set a play in a particular period, Elizabethan or 18th century or whatever, and be very precise about that historical context, they will supply it with music that has no reference, necessary reference, to that historical context at all.

GRANT: Tell me about some productions that are even more recent than that one. In other words, moving into the 1990s, which ones stand out for you?

LINDLEY: Right. Well, to continue the theme, really, of settings of “Come Unto These Yellow Sands” and The Tempest, one production that really impressed me actually, was just at the end of the '90s, just to the turn of the century, with music by Orlando Gough. And this music was very unlike the settings we’ve already heard, in that it was produced entirely by the voices of the actors, and Ariel joins them in this quite funky setting of “Come Unto These Yellow Sands."

[CLIP of "Come Unto These Yellow Sands," Orlando Gough:]

  The watchdogs bark.
Hark! hark! I hear
The strain of strutting chanticleer
Cry cock-a-diddle-dow.

LINDLEY: It had nothing to do with the period in which the production was set, which was vaguely 19th century, but rather, this was music that was trying to imagine the strangeness of Prospero’s island, "full of ... / Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not,” as Caliban calls it. And I personally think that Orlando Gough managed to do it amazingly successfully. Though, interestingly, not all reviewers at the time agreed.

[CLIP of "Full Fathom Five Thy Father Lies," Orlando Gough:]

     Nothing of him doth fade.
But doth suffer a sea change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea nymphs hourly ring his knell.
            Ding dong...

GRANT: Yeah, elements of this piece, as it develops, it sounds almost like jazz.

LINDLEY: Yes. Well… What’s interesting is, I’ve tried that piece on quite a number of people and said, “How would you characterize this? What sort of music is it?” And you get a lot of different answers. It seems different people receive it in different ways.

And, most, I think, find it very effective, as a means of creating a dramatic atmosphere. So this is the opposite pole, really, from Linley’s setting, where you’re saying, “Here’s a singer giving a setting some welly," really singing it elaborately, professionally, and so on. That’s one end. I think the Orlando Gough is, in a sense, at the other end, saying, “Here’s a setting which is very specifically designed to create an atmosphere," and Ariel’s voice is simply merged in with everybody else.

GRANT: That’s fascinating.

[CLIP of "While You Here Do Snoring Lie," Orlando Gough:]

While you here do snoring lie,
Open-eyed conspiracy
     His time doth take.

GRANT: You know, Professor Lindley, in putting this podcast together, we looked around for additional scholarship on this subject and, really, we didn’t find a lot. And you have pointed out that it’s remarkable that very little’s actually been written about the contribution music makes to Shakespearean performance history. Why do you think that is?

LINDLEY: I think there’s several reasons. I mean, there are some very fine music histories, which tell us about the number of performers, perhaps tell us what music was performed, but very little that thinks about how that music worked. I think it’s, in part, a problem with the survival of the archive. A lot of theater music simply disappears. What happens to it, I don’t know, whether it’s the music director puts it in his pocket, or the composer takes it back, and, of course, even more difficult now, when a good deal of music in the theater is computer-generated and doesn’t turn into notation, or whatever.

But I think there’s also a problem that, while people are happy to talk about music in film, there is very much less, in fact, hardly anything, about theater music. And I think it’s to do again with the survival, with the fact that you can’t, as you can with the film, you can watch the film lots of times and hear the music, and see how it works, and you can analyze it. If you think about a production in the 1960s, you’ve got a promptbook with some music cues and you might have some of the music in musical score, which you might or might not be competent to read. So, there’s all kinds of barriers, I think, to writing about it, which I think is a pity.

GRANT: But in some ways does it also make it more interesting? I mean, as you pointed out in the past, it makes it a bit more like archaeology. I mean, you really have to go on a dig.

LINDLEY: You do, yes. That’s true. Well, if you’ve got the patience and the time and so on... It will probably get easier because, I think, as with everything else, technology may make it possible to scan the surviving scores and reconstruct them orally, so that you would be able to hear again music that otherwise, you would have to look at a complete score for. So I think it may become easier to do in the future. I know that efforts are beginning in that direction.

GRANT: Right. And do you ever hope or wonder whether someone might uncover some secret musical archive at some point? Make your job a lot easier?

LINDLEY: Oh, yes, that would be lovely, wouldn’t it? I mean, yes, any academic dreams of certain kinds of find, and I suppose, to find some of the earlier musical settings would be one of those things. You’d think, “Oh, yes. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

GRANT: Well, I wish you the very best of luck in that endeavor, and thank you so much for joining us. This has been an absolute pleasure speaking with you.

LINDLEY: Well, thank you very much, I’ve enjoyed it.


WITMORE: David Lindley is professor emeritus of literature and music at the University of Leeds. His book Shakespeare And Music appeared in 2006 in the Arden Critical Companions series. David was interviewed by Neva Grant.

“Ay, Prithee, Sing” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington. We had help from Melissa Marquis at NPR in Washington and Gareth Dant in the University of Leeds communications office.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.