Shakespeare in Step and Song
From early country dance to folk and bluegrass, music drawn from and inspired by Shakespeare
Booking and details
Dates Fri, Mar 17 — Sun, Mar 19, 2023
Duration 80 minutes, no intermission
As part of the Folger’s First Folio celebration (the 400th anniversary), the Folger Consort returns to its home repertoire of music from Shakespeare’s time with the uniquely English broken consort, an “orchestra” of three plucked stringed instruments, flute, fiddle, and bass viol. Folger Consort’s co-Artistic Directors have often noted the similarities between this engaging style, featuring some fancy pickin’, to the music of the Appalachian descendants of British settlers – bluegrass. In this program, they explore that connection as well as songs from Shakespeare and the shared stories of ballads from both traditions.
Artistic Director, Viol, Violin
Agnes Coakley Cox
Agnes Coakley Cox
Flute, Recorder, Percussion
Playlist | Early Music Seminar
Pre-Concert Discussion – Friday, March 17
Join Christopher Kendall and Robert Eisenstein, co-Artistic Directors of the Folger Consort, for a lively discussion with guest artists from 7:00pm-7:30pm before the Friday, March 17 performance of Shakespeare in Step and Song.
Free entry with concert ticket.
Program and Notes
Shakespeare in Step and Song
Thomas Morley (arranged): The Early of Oxenford’s Masque
Thomas Morley (arranged): O Mistresse Mine (text from Twelfth Night)
English Country Dance: Kemp’s Jig
John Dowland: Now, oh now, I needs must part
Thomas Morley (arranged): The Frog’s Galliard
Traditional Ballad: Barbara Allen
Tobias Hume: Deth and Life
Richard Allison: Batchelar’s Delight
Jacob van Eyck: The English Nightingale
John Playford (arranged): Jon come kiss
Thomas Ravenscroft: The Marriage of Frogge and Mouse
Traditional Ballad: Froggy Went a Courtin’
Thomas Morley (arranged): Allison’s Knell
Traditional Ballad: When that I was a little tiny boy (from Twelfth Night)
Traditional Appalachian Bluegrass: Shady Grove
Broadside Ballad: The ballad of King Leir and his three daughters
Anthony Holborne: Fantasy
Traditional Ballad: Lord Randall
Thomas Ravenscroft: Three country dances in one
Richard Allison: De La Tromba Pavin
Thomas Ravenscroft: The leaves be green/Browning
Elway Bevin: Browning
Lester Flatt and Bill Monroe: Why did you wander?
Thomas Morley: Joyne Hands
Notes to Shakespeare in Step and Song
by Robert Eisenstein
Although music is an integral part of Shakespeare’s plays, and serves many dramatic purposes, it is a more difficult problem to identify what music was used in the plays than one might think. There are more than one hundred songs or quotations of songs found in the plays. These range from lyrics specially written by Shakespeare for art song settings, or adaptations of existing art songs, to popular ballads and other traditional material. However, for almost all of these we have no proof that any known tune was used in a performance by the King’s Men. In the case of instrumental music, things are even worse. With ballads and art songs there are likely candidates. Often one or more tunes with the right title or words can be found in manuscript or printed sources from Shakespeare’s time. However, almost no contemporary instrumental music from the popular stage survives. Here, though, we do have something to go on – a lot of the music for Stuart court masques is extant, and from these we can probably get some idea of the kinds of arrangements used in the theaters. All in all, while we cannot say with any certainty what specific songs and instrumental pieces were used in the plays, we can say with a good deal of assurance what kinds of music would have been used in most dramatic contexts. As always, we are indebted to our friend Ross W. Duffin, whose work (much of which has been conducted at the Folger) on the music and musicians in Shakespeare, including plausible tunes for the songs, continues to inform and inspire us.
The broken consort was the Elizabethan equivalent of a modern Broadway pit band. Our first two selections are from the First Booke of Consort Lessons, Made by Divers Exquisite Authors, published by Thomas Morley in 1599. Morley, who was Shakespeare’s London neighbor, and seems to have had some sort of connection with him, was one of the greatest Elizabethan musicians. He was an educator, theorist, and publisher as well as a composer, and his text A Plaine and Easy Introduction to Practicall Musicke is still an excellent guide to late Renaissance practice today. Morley wrote and published in all the popular genres of his time, including this highly entertaining publication for the broken consort. This was a peculiarly English ensemble, consisting of violin, bass viol, recorder, lute, cittern, and bandora. “Broken” refers to the “breaking”, or dividing of the melody into many little ornamental patterns, and possibly to the fact that the scoring is not for whole consorts of instruments (i.e. five viols, or six recorders), but for very different sorts of instruments. The lute, violin, and recorder often trade embellished passages, while the viol provides a firm bass line and the wire-strung cittern and bandora act as a rhythm section. The overall effect is similar to that of a good bluegrass band. We thought to have a little fun with this idea later in the program, by arranging a couple of bluegrass tunes for broken consort. Lord Oxenford’s Masque is a keyboard piece by William Byrd, arranged for instruments by Morley. O Mistresse Mine, sung by the clown Feste in Twelfth Night to bon vivants Sir Toby and Sir Andrew, is one of the best-known songs from Shakespeare. Three musical settings of the tune survive, but none with the lyrics found in the play. Although it does not match up very well with the poem (lines have to be repeated to make it work at all), we use the version from Morley’s First Booke of Consort Lessons simply because it is so good. Kemp’s Jig is a tune named after Will Kemp, the famous clown in Shakespeare’s company who once danced from London to Norwich in nine days. The word ‘Jig’ has two meanings: either the lively dance itself or a bawdy theatrical entertainment which followed the main play performance, sung and danced mostly to popular tunes. The problem with early 17th-century dance tunes is that there are often several with the same title. We have solved the problem here by making a medley of the three tunes called Kemp’s Jig. The source for these tunes is John Playford‘s collection of 1651 called The English Dancing Master, or Plaine and easie Rules for the Dancing of Country Dances, with the Tune to each Dance. Many of the dances in the 1651 collection are much older – a number of them go back at least as far as 1560. Unlike the dances in French court tradition, which are mostly for couples, these country dances (or contredanses) are danced in “squares”, “rounds”, or “longways”. In other words, they are for groups of people dancing together. As far as the tunes are concerned, they are simple, memorable, and timeless. Many have a characteristic minor but merry flavor, some are exuberant, others may be ballad tunes. Although Playford printed these dances as simple fiddle tunes, we have arranged them, as Elizabethans often did, for the instruments at hand.
The English ayre for solo voice and lute (sometimes with the bass viol) surely must be considered one of the happiest mediums for lyric poetry ever conceived. The lute is not too loud and will not overwhelm even the smallest voice. Yet it is extremely flexible, capable of a variety of dynamics and articulations, and in good hands, offers the performer everything from simple chords to complex four-part polyphony. It can support and follow a singer’s every phrase and enrich and complement the meaning of the words. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Elizabethan ayre for lute and voice was one of the most popular, published genres of its time. We offer from this genre a wonderful song in the form of a galliard by the greatest of English lutenist composers, John Dowland (1563 – 1626). We know quite a bit about Dowland’s life – more than we know about most of his contemporaries. This is because, as his biographer Diana Poulton says, he was “far from reticent about his own affairs.” In the preface to The First Booke of Songes, Dowland writes about “the ingenuous profession of Musicke, which from my childhood I have ever aymed at, sundry times leaving my native country, the better to attain so excellent a science.”
Inspired by our broken consort/bluegrass connection across the centuries, we have included on this program several ballads that were current in Shakespeare’s time as well as surviving in various English, Scottish and American traditions. Probably the most famous of all of these is Barbara Allan. In the 17th century these songs were mostly printed in inexpensive broadside ballad sheets, often with the instruction to sing them ‘to the tune of’ a familiar melody’. It helps to realize that these are indeed oral tradition tunes that constantly undergo transformations as they are passed from singer to singer, sometimes over many generations. The same thing is true of later versions, either printed or transcribed from live performances. The versions of Barbara Allan and Lord Randall that we perform here are recorded in the encyclopedic 18th-century collection The Scots Musical Museum, but we could have just as easily used other tunes and lyrics. There is no one ‘original’ or ‘correct’ version of a given ballad.
Deth and Life by Tobias Hume are from the first of his two publications, the First Part of Ayres, printed in 1605. Hume was an army captain and amateur violist. His two books of music are for the viol played lyra-way – in other words, a style making much use of the instrument’s chordal possibilities. It was the prickly captain’s contention that the viol was as good for this sort of thing as the lute, and he argued his point with the greatest lute player of the time, John Dowland. Batchelar’s Delight, by Richard Allison, is another broken consort arrangement by Morley. The English Nightingale is from the Dutch carillon, organ and recorder player Jacob van Eyck’s large collection of recorder tunes, Der Fluyten Lust-hof, first published in 1644. Our version of Jon come kiss is from Playford’s 1652 A Booke of New Lessons for the Cithern and Gittern, but the tune is featured in many other collections as well.
We continue with a couple of frog stories; or rather two versions of a frog, mouse, and rat story. The earliest version we know is in Thomas Ravenscroft’s publications of 1609-11 called Pammelia, Deuteromelia, and Melismata, subtitled Musicall Phancies Fitting the Court, Citie, and Countrey Humours. This charming collection is a rich source of the less sophisticated music of the early seventeenth century, including rounds, simple part-songs, and some country dances. We point out the timelessness of ballad tradition here by conflating Ravenscroft’s version with that sung by Bob Dylan. After Alison’s Knell, another Morley consort lesson, we offer the ballad When That I was a Little Tiny Boy, used in Twelfth Night. There is also a reference to it in King Lear. There is no evidence that this song had any existence outside of Shakespeare. While there are possible candidates for tunes contemporary with Shakespeare, the version we perform here is an early eighteenth-century theatrical setting.
Shady Grove is the first of our reverse-engineered bluegrass tunes. Just as in the ballad tradition, there are several tunes with this name. The version we have arranged here for broken consort is probably the best known, as performed by Doc Watson, Jerry Garcia and many others. We can’t say that bluegrass music is directly descended from the 17th-century English broken consort, but the similarities are striking. The fiddle has the same role in both traditions, and the lute can stand for mandolin – both capable of some fancy pickin’. We’ve given the ‘vocal’ function to the recorder/flute in these arrangements, while the bandora, cittern and bass viol are a credible rhythm section. In thinking about these arrangements and for his provision of some inspiring fiddle breaks from his collection, I am grateful to my friend from Louisville Jack Ashworth, who among his many talents is a great fiddler and harpsichordist.
We return to the world of the country ballad for The Ballad of King Leir and his Three Daughters. It was printed with the instructions to sing it to the tune of a catchy melody called Flying Fame. The ballad was first printed in 1620 but could have easily existed before Shakespeare’s King Lear was printed in 1608. The lutenist Anthony Holborne (c.1545 – 1602) provides us with the fantasy for lute which follows. Holborne was highly regarded by his contemporaries (Dowland dedicated a song in his Second Booke to Holborne). He published collections for cittern and lute as well as five-part consort.
The leaves be green, or Browning, appears as a three-part round in Ravenscroft’s collection. We include it here as an introduction to Elway Bevin’s fantasia on the tune – really a set of variations on the folk song. After our arrangement of the great bluegrass tune Why did you wander? we conclude with a canzonet in three parts, See mine own sweete jewel, which was also included in Morley’s instrumental collection First Booke of Consort Lessons with the title Joyne Hands.
Please note: All attendees are required to wear a mask. Fully vaccinated artists will not be wearing masks while performing. The Folger is committed to maintaining the highest level of health and safety precautions around COVID-19. Learn more about how we are keeping our audience and performers safe: COVID-19 safety protocols