Play On 1: Musing About Musicals

Banner - Play On Red 1591 MBTB deVere musician author Shakespeare

8 September 2021
· #1 in a series about music in Shake-Speare’s life and work ·

I can write a lot about music, but I can’t write it all at once. I like the idea of musical posts popping up now and again, like midnight mushrooms in a grove. Topics as they come to me. Length, variable. Schedule, none. We’ll see how it goes.

Please forgive the extra time needed for the audio and video to load. Hard to avoid if one’s musical post is to contain music.


William Byrd was a Composer of the WeekThe links to the episodes have expired, though I did tweet about the series at the time. If you’re not a Twitterer you can keep a weather eye on my feed in the GONE A-BIRDING section of the sidebar (below the post on mobile). I don’t tweet a lot but the timely bits go there first because it’s fast. on BBC3 Radio in July. The five-part series returned me to my aural past, even though The Earl of Oxford’s March was not in the set list, nor was I mentioned as one of Will’s friends and patrons in the episode Friends and Patrons. I want my licence fee refunded.

Plenty of Will’s sublime music can be found online, but this post and this series must commence with my signature tune.
The Earle of Oxfords MarcheIf you’re a Spotifier, it’s the opening three minutes of the suite called The Battell.
Philip Jones Brass Ensemble (1981)


The nostalgia trip got me musing about musical paths not taken. In addition to my talents as a poet and dramatist, I was a competent tunesmith. Pastime with good company my music was and not more (see Castiglione), but in another sort of life I could have become the forebear of Andrew Lloyd Webber. Cole Porter. Sullivan and Gilbert combined.

In my sort of life it would have been hard to find the time for the extra work. Words, words consumed all my scribbling hours. Shows full of show tunes would have been much bigger jobs, as well as a considerable departure in form. Music in English drama in the second half of the sixteenth century was almost always found inside the story being told, not outside as the method of its telling. Songs and dances were performed by the characters within the action of the plot. (Post-play jigs are a different subject.) Traditional lyrics might be modified but the melodies were familiar to the audience. And although operatic productions and recitative were beginning to appear in Italy at the turn of the century, dialogue on English stages was spoken, not sung.

The writers of the 2015 Broadway musical comedy Something Rotten! based their story on this contrast in form. Small nutshell: In London in 1595, brothers Nick and Nigel Bottom struggle to write a hit play, but they languish in the shadow of you-know-who. Nostradamus (Michel’s nephew Tom) predicts that the coming thing in theatre will be singing, dancing, and acting at the same time, so the Bottoms set out to outdo The Bard by writing the first musical. Show tunes ensue.

If much of the world has been carelessly or carefully mistaught that Willy wrote my work, at least something witty like Something Rotten! can come from the error.

Now comes the time to muse about my plays
And how Euterpe worked in divers ways
To make a mood; Emotion thus conveyed
’Twas she through Music gave me her best aid

Othello, Act IV, Scene 3

Perhaps the canon’s best-known musical example. Desdemona foreshadows her imminent death as she sings my adaptation of the traditional ballad A Lover’s Complaint being forsaken of his Love, also known as The Willow Song.

See Sources below for more about this recording.

The ballad tells of a spurned male lover. In the play I flipped the gender, gave it some backstory, cut the length, and put a sting in its tail as Desdemona goes extempore.

First Folio text, tweaked for readability.

  • Des. My Mother had a Maid called Barbarie,
  • She was in love, and he she loved proved mad
  • And did forsake her. She had a Song of Willow,
  • An old thing ’twas, but it expressed her Fortune
  • And she died singing it.
  • […]
  • The poor Soul sat sighingIt’s printed as singing in the Folio, but the compositor (probably Leason, the apprentice) botched it. Don’t get me started on all the typos. by a Sycamore tree.
  • Sing all a green Willow:
  • Her hand on her bosom her head on her knee,
  • Sing Willow, Willow, Willow.
  • The fresh Streams ran by her, and murmur’d her moans
  • Sing Willow, etc.
  • Her salt tears fell from her, and softened the stones,
  • Sing Willow, etc.
  • Willow, Willow.
  • Sing all a green Willow must be my Garland.
  • Let no body blame him, his scorn I approve.
  • […]
  • I called my Love false Love: but what said he then?
  • Sing Willow, etc.
  • If I court more women, you’ll couch with more men.

It isn’t only Desdemona whose death is presaged. When Emilia the maid is mortally forsaken by her mad, bad husband, she dies singing Willow, Willow. I’ve always liked that parallel, the second echo.

The Pepys Library at Cambridge has a broadside copy of a many-versed version of A Lover’s Complaint printed around 1615, but the words are obviously older. The melody as sung above has become the default, but there’s an older variation as well.

Hamlet, Act V, Scene 1

While he makes room in the earth for drown’d Ophelia, the gravedigger sings, mangling the words of a poem from Songes and Sonettes, or Tottel’s Miscellany, published in 1557. It’s the book that Slender refers to early in The Merry Wives of Windsor. This first printed anthology of English poetry contained previously unpublished work by Thomas Wyatt and my uncle Henry Howard, the creators of the English sonnet. Nine editions of Tottel had been published by 1587. You can still buy new ones.Singing gravedigger, Hamlet (1996) deVere musician author ShakespeareThe unmangled words belong to stanzas 1, 3, and 8 of Thomas Vaux’s poem The aged lover renounceth love. Vaux wrote it in poulter’s measure, but I turned it into (bad) ballad metre to make it easier to sing.

Vaux’s stanzas, 3-3-4-3 beatsThey’re iambs, but never mind that for now.:

  • I loathe that I did love,
  • In youth that I thought sweet,
  • As time requires for my behove,
  • Methinks they are not meet.
  • For age with stealing steps
  • Hath clawed me with his crutch,
  • And lusty life away she leaps
  • As there had been none such.
  • A pickaxe and a spade,
  • And eke a shrouding sheet,
  • A house of clay for to be made
  • For such a guest most meet.

What the gravedigger singsFirst Folio text, tweaked., 4-3-4-3 (intentionally bumpy in spots):

  • In youth when I did love, did love,
  • me thought it was very sweet:
  • To contract O the time for a my behove,
  • O me thought there was nothing meet.
  • But Age with his stealing steps
  • Hath caught me in his clutch:
  • And hath shipped me intil the Land,
  • as if I had never been such.
  • A Pickhaxeanother typo and a Spade, a Spade.
  • for and a shrouding-Sheet:
  • O a Pit of Clay for to be made,
  • for such a Guest is meet.

The tune is fungible. Before pop music was set down in notation and printed, singers used whatever they knew that fit the words. Ballad metre allowed poems to work as lyrics with any number of interchangeable tunes. It still does: you can sing the gravedigger’s words to anything from Amazing Grace to the theme from Gilligan’s Island. It’s unlikely that my delver knew either of those, but the all-purpose melody Rogero was one of his options. Another is found in Ross Duffin’s Shakespeare’s Songbook (2004), and another in Tom Kines’s Songs from Shakespeare’s Plays and Popular Songs of Shakespeare’s Time (1964), which mentions more yet. This one comes from Vincent Jackson’s English Melodies from the 13th to the 18th Century (1910).

Gravedigger's song in Jackson - sm - deVere musician author ShakespeareClick on the image to see an
enlargement in a new tab.

Twelfth Night, epilogue

Whether you call this song When that I was and a little tiny boy or The wind and the rain, it’s the exception that proves the rule. The lyrics are mine, the tune has stuck, and the clown Feste sings directly to the audience after the play is done and the rest of the cast has left the stage. It’s my proto-Sondheim moment, as close as you’ll find in my work to a modern show tune, assuming the show includes an introspective solo sung by a wise observer of human foolishness. I gave Lear’s fool another verse to the same melody in a scene where the wind and the rain had more literal relevance. Feste’s song still gets some play, in and out of the play.coronet-spacerTraditional rendering by Tom Kines with lute and harpsichord, from his LP Songs from Shakespeare’s Plays and Popular Songs of Shakespeare’s Time (1961). A quibble: he botched the words, it’s little tiny boy, not tiny little. Richard Burton did the same when he sang the line in Zeffirelli’s The Taming of the Shrew. Petruchio’s hangover was probably not an act.

coronet-spacerBen Kingsley as Feste sings epiloguishly around the end credits in Trevor Nunn’s 1996 Twelfth Night, music (adapted) by Sean Davey.

coronet-spacerA different take, from the 1997 album Terror & Magnificence by saxophonist John Harle. The singer is Declan McManus, better known by his pseudonym Elvis Costello.
When that I was and a little tiny boy
Elvis Costello, vocal; John Harle, saxophone (1997)

I could add to this list until tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, but then where would my series be? I’ll have other opportunities to post other examples.
coronet-spacerBeyond the limitations of time and form, another obstacle to putting more vocal music into my plays was the fact that good actors were rarely good singers. Even today many aren’t, though the percentage has risen with better training. It’s still a leg up at auditions to be able to sing, dance, and act at the same time.

Stephano Tempest - deVere musician author ShakespeareMy clowns and fools, drunken butlers and tricksy thieves, even the occasional villain– they were game. Singing meant time in the metaphorical spotlight, and any deficiencies could be spun as intentional, done for effect. It was the leading men with their divo egos who had small ability and less desire to break into solo-loquies, or croon duets with the choirboys playing their fair ladies. The choirboys could sing like larks until their voices broke, but there was no help behind a microphone behind a curtain if the hero couldn’t do the job himself.

Once or twice I floated the idea of setting a small bit of dialogue to music I’d write for the purpose. The divi would have none of it. Dicky Burbage was so fractious he nearly came to blows with Lyly, though I’m sure it was me he wanted to hit (rank hath its privileges). The fellow couldn’t carry a tune in a galleon, and his brain had barely enough bandwidth to process acting and breathing at the same time. Only once (Lyly told me) did he ever attempt to sing in a rehearsal. “He gave the convincing impression of a man in urgent need of a trip to the jakes.”
coronet-spacerUltimately I had to work with the time and tools available to me, and so I wrote the plays as you know them. The Comedy of Errors, not The Boys from Syracuse. Hamlet, not The Lion King. Romeo and Juliet, not West Side of Verona. I left it to future tunesmiths to write Shake-Speare musicals. And so they have done, often to great acclaim.

More than they know, it’s me they owe.

His pipes are only moderately better than Burbage’s,
but oh how Bill can move. No, not that Bill.

coronet-spacerMy approach to citations, if citations matter to you.

  • • Banner image (initially):
  • · My Ladye Nevells Booke []
  • · f.13v, the marche before the battell (The Earl of Oxford’s March)
  • · music by William Byrd, circa 1588
  • · calligraphy by John Baldwin, 1591
  • · © The British Library Board

Will Byrd and I can be found together in my post A Flourish With Drums and Trumpets, about the march and why it was written, and the obvious reference I made to it in one of the plays. My information would have greatly improved the BBC host’s narrative, and cured his fretful dismay over the non-existence of any personal connection between the two Williams. As the children say: duh.

  • The Willow Song []
  • · Unquiet Thoughts from Mignarda blog
  • · 9 August 2011

I call your attention to My Lord of Oxenford’s Maske: Edward de Vere and his circle [CD or download], released in 2006 by the lute-and-vocal duo Mignarda. The album includes The Willow Song as featured above, My Mind to Me a Kingdom Is, and much else of interest to musical Oxenfordians. Dubious bonus feature: on the cover, the decapitation of my cap. As unfortunate as that French chapeau was to begin with, the surgery did not improve it.

The French hat goes from bad to worse - deVere musician author ShakespeareMy old (upper L) and new (upper R)
Welbeck portraits are described in this post.
Thanks again, De Vere Society.

  • • The University of Rochester (New York, not Kent) has an online archive of music connected to my plays []. I doubt that the amusing profile picture is intentional, but you never know.
  • • Photo: Billy Crystal as First Gravedigger (Clown) []
  • · Hamlet, directed by Kenneth Branagh, 1996
  • · budget $18 million, earned $4.7 million (my uncut text at 4 hours long, I’m not surprised)
  • Shakespeare’s Songbook []
  • · by Ross W Duffin
  • · W W Norton & Co, New York and London, 2004
  • · Hardcover, 528 pages
  • · It’s lovely to have lyrics and melodies compiled in a modern volume, but the commentary is zealously orthodox and often relies on wishful thinking that stretches credulity past the breaking point. Duffin’s words about my poem My Mind to Me A Kingdom Is are so wrong that I’m embarrassed for him. It’s the sort of nonsensical Stratfordist discord heard whenever the facts can’t be squared with Willy’s too-late timeline. But what isn’t editorially contrived is musically useful, and all the audio can be listened to here. If you want this book as a reference, find a cheap used copy and take the text with a salt mine.
  • Bill Feels Pretty []
  • · clip excerpted from Bill Murray singing a ‘West Side Story’ medley is unexpectedly marvellous
  • · 16 October 2017