It was a Lover and His Lass Theron Kirk, Michael Larkin, John Rutter
Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind Leah Hamilton
Orpheus with His Lute George MacFarren, Lloyd Pfautsch
The Poor Soul Sat Sighing John Beckwith
The Willow Song Ralph Vaughan Williams
For Thy Sweet Love Robert H. Young
Hark, the Lark Benjamin Cooke
From Cymbeline Steven Stucky
After Sunset Robert H. Young
O Mistress Mine Ralph Vaughan Williams, Robert Baksa, Judith Lang Zaimont
Sweet and Twenty Daniel Pederson
Ye Spotted Snakes Richard Stevens
Three Shakespeare Songs: Over Hill, Over Dale; Come unto these Yellow Sands; Through the House Give Glimmering Light Amy Beach
Sigh No More Ladies René Clausen

Program Notes

In Shakespeare’s England, custom required that there would be at least one song in every play, save the most profound of tragic plays. Shakespeare adhered to this custom and even expanded it, including songs in his later tragedies. The Elizabethan performance practice of these songs-within-dramas varied from production to production; in plays produced at court, lavish standards made instrumental ensembles available to accompany singers whereas in public theatres lacking of sufficient funds, songs were often performed a cappella by the one or two singing actors in the company. Shakespeare assigned most songs to minor characters: servants, clowns, and fools. Major characters rarely sang, except when in disguise or in distracted mental states. The original music for these songs has been lost leaving the door open for many composers, throughout the ages, to pen their own interpretations.

From As You Like It

There are seven songs in As You Like It, including ” It was a lover and his lass” and the famous ” Blow, blow thou winter wind.” In the play, Duke Senior’s throne has been usurped by his brother, Duke Frederick. Duke Senior has fled to the Forest of Ardenne, where he lives like Robin Hood with a band of loyal followers. Duke Frederick allows Duke Senior’s daughter, Rosalind, to remain at court because of her inseparable friendship with his own daughter, Celia. Rosalind falls in love with Orlando, whose brother, Oliver, has conspired to murder him in order to keep the family fortune for himself. Orlando decides to leave for the safety of Ardenne. Without warning, Duke Frederick has a change of heart regarding Rosalind and banishes her from court. She, too, decides to flee to the Forest of Ardenne and leaves with Celia, who cannot bear to be without Rosalind, and Touchstone, the court jester.

It Was a Lover and His Lass

from Act V scene iii

Touchstone looks forward to his marriage to Audrey, a simple goat-herd, on the following day. The couple meets two of Duke Senior’s’s pages. Touchstone, in a good mood, asks for a song. The pages oblige, singing of springtime and the blossoming of love. When the song ends, Touchstone claims that the song made little sense and that the music was out of tune. The pages disagree, but Touchstone is unmoved by their arguments. To him, the song was hopelessly foolish. Touchstone denies the idealized brand of love, dismissing the song, which compares love to springtime and indulges in every cliché from sweet lovers to trilling birds, as senseless. Although Touchstone is fundamentally correct in denying that love and budding springtime are one and the same, he remains blind to the song’s undeniable beauty. Spring may not, in truth, be only a matter of “green cornfield[s]” and a “hey ding-a-ding ding,” but the song captures something of the truth–the nonsense, irrationality, and sheer beauty of being in love, which Touchstone, on the eve of his wedding, sadly cannot understand.

It was a lover and his lass,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
That o’er the green corn-field did pass,
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

Between the acres of the rye,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
These pretty country folks would lie,
In the spring time, 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,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino,
How that a life was but a flower
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

And therefore take the present time,
With a hey, and a ho, and a hey nonino;
For love is crowned with the prime
In the spring time, the only pretty ring time,
When birds do sing, hey ding a ding, ding;
Sweet lovers love the spring.

Two of the three settings featured in this concert, draw inspiration from the established madrigal style popular in the Renaissance; a cappella secular pieces, pastoral in character. Theron Kirk’s (1919-1999) setting combines a madrigal shape with contemporary harmonies while Michael Larkin’s (b. 1951) setting remains harmonically straightforward. John Rutter (b. 1945) bends interpretation, using the vocal jazz idiom to breathe new life into the 400-year-old text.

Blow Thou Winter Wind

from Act II, scene vii

Lord Amiens is a faithful lord who accompanies Duke Senior into exile in the Forest of Ardenne. He is rather jolly and is called upon to sing to the exiled Duke and his new companion, Orlando. Octarium’s own Leah Hamilton, the composer of this particular setting, writes, “The text may be interpreted as a metaphorical commentary on the situations the Duke and Orlando both share: betrayal by their own kin. The text seems to suggest that even the most bitter of nature’s spells cannot compete with the bitterness of humankind and its ‘ingratitude.'”

Blow, blow, thou winter wind.
Thou art not so unkind
As man’s ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude.
Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.
Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
That dost not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot:
Though thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp
As friend remember’d not.
Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly:
Most friendship is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh-ho, the holly!
This life is most jolly.

Orpheus With His Lute

from Henry VIII Act III, scene i

Henry VIII (1613) was one of Shakespeare’s final plays. It depicts, with much historical accuracy, the life of Henry VIII. “Orpheus With His Lute” appears in a scene that depicts the rock and hard place between which Catherine of Aragon, Henry’s first wife, is caught. She has remained childless and Henry requires an heir. To complicate matters, the king as fallen in love with one of Catherine’s maids-in-waiting, Anne Boleyn. In the scene in which the song appears, Catherine, to take her mind off Henry, who is trying to force her to annul the marriage, has asked one of her women attendants to sing. At the song’s end, Cardinals Wolsey and Campeius enter to urge Catherine to reconsider the King’s command.

Orpheus with his lute made trees,
And the mountain tops that freeze,
Bow themselves when he did sing:
To his music plants and flowers
Ever sprung; as sun and showers
There had made a lasting spring.
Every thing that heard him play,
Even the billows of the sea,
Hung their heads, and then lay by.
In sweet music is such art,
Killing care and grief of heart
Fall asleep, or hearing, die.

The first setting, by George MacFarren (1813-1887), is classified as a Victorian Part Song: a composition with a melody harmonized non-chromatically by the lower voices. Lloyd Pfautsch (1921-2003) set the text as a part of his Triptych, three choral pieces extolling the virtues of music. His setting imitates the famous lute, as a solo soprano is backed by a four-part, text-less, vocal accompaniment.

The Willow Song

from Othello Act IV scene iii

Othello is one of Shakespeare’s most well-known tragedies, a timeless tale of love and jealousy entertwining. Desdemona, the doomed leading lady, is one of only two Shakespeare heroines who sing (the other being the equally-doomed Ophelia.) In the scene in which the song appears, Othello sends his wife Desdemona to bed, telling her that he will be with her shortly and that she should dismiss her maid Emilia. Desdemona seems aware of her fate as she prepares for bed. She says that if she dies before Emilia, Emilia should use one of the wedding sheets for her shroud. As Emilia helps her mistress to undress, Desdemona sings a song, called ” Willow,” about a woman whose love forsook her. She says she learned the song from her mother’s maid, who died singing the song after she had been deserted by her lover. The song makes Desdemona think about adultery, and she asks Emilia whether she would cheat on her husband. Emilia answers that she would not, but women have appetites for sex and infidelity just as men do, and men who deceive their wives have only themselves to blame if their wives cheat on them. Desdemona replies that she prefers to answer bad deeds with good deeds rather than with more bad deeds. She readies herself for bed. The song itself is melancholy, and it portrays an attitude of fatalism regarding love, a resigned acceptance of misfortune that Desdemona seems to embrace.

The poor soul sat sighing 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, willow, willow;
Her salt tears fell from her, and soften’d the stones;
Sing willow, willow, willow;
Sing all a green willow must be my garland.

John Christmas Beckwith’s (1750-1809) setting is a typical English Glee song, the primary form of secular part-singing in England in the time between the deaths of Handel and Mendelssohn. Beckwith modifies Shakespeare’s text substantially:

The poor soul sat sighing near a sycamore tree
Sing O the green willow,
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing O the green willow, the green willow tree.
The cold streams ran by her, her eyes wept apace,
The salt tears fell from her and drowned her face.
Farewell youth, false-hearted plaints end with my breath
Sing O the green willow.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) remains true to the text of Shakespeare, setting it to emphasize the function of the song in the drama: to foreshadow Desdemona’s eventual death at the raging hands of her jealous husband.

For Thy Sweet Love

A sonnet is a fourteen-line poem in iambic pentameter with a carefully patterned rhyme scheme. Shakespeare’s sonnets are known to have been circulated among “his private friends” and sent to his patron before a collection of 154 were published in the 1609 Quarto. Conventionally the sonnets fall into three clear groupings: Sonnets 1 to 126 are addressed to or concern a young man; Sonnets 127-152 are addressed to or concern a dark lady, and Sonnets 153-154 are fairly free adaptations of two classical Greek poems. In Sonnet 24, the author is in a state of despair, using words such as “disgrace” and “outcast” to indicate his despondency. As the author moves through the poetry, his mood slowly improves, with the words “Wishing” and “Desiring” both containing an anagram of “sing,” a word that alludes to the possibility of a happier disposition. The play on ‘sing’ fully develops with “Despising,” which improves to “arising,” developing to the explicit “sing” in the next line. “Brings”and “kings” conclude the play on “sing.” By the sonnet’s conclusion, the author has dismissed any desire to change his state in society, even to the level of kings, as he is quite content with being loved.

When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself, and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possess’d,
Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, –and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remember’d such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

Hark the Lark

From Cymbeline Act II, scene iii

Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s final plays. In it Imogen, the daughter of the British king Cymbeline, defies her father and marries a lowborn gentleman, Posthumus, instead of the king’s oafish stepson, Cloten. Cloten is the son of Cymbeline’s new Queen, a villainous woman who has made the king her puppet. After an all night session of gambling, Cloten appears before the door of Imogen’s chamber, as he has decided to woo her with song. He does not shine in wooing, though he rises into verse for the occasion. He hopes that his efforts will pay off and that she will accept him. The scene is rife with sexual innuendo, with Cloten uttering phrases like “…if you can penetrate her with your fingering, so; we’ll try with tongue too:…”

Hark, hark! the lark at heaven’s gate sings,
And Phoebus ‘gins arise,
His steeds to water at those springs
On chaliced flowers that lies;
And winking Mary-buds begin
To ope their golden eyes:
With every thing that pretty is,
My lady sweet, arise:
Arise, arise.

Benjamin Cooke’s (1734-1793) setting of the text is another example of an English glee. The glee developed alongside the Catch, which often exhibited vulgarity and rude virility. Composers of glees historically preferred texts that reflected the literary tastes of the middle and upper-classes. Shakespeare would seem a safe bet for a glee, but one wonders if Cooke was quite aware of the bawdy background of the scene in which the song appears or if in fact he was, and the setting of the text as a glee is an elaborate in-joke. Steven Stucky (b. 1949) certainly seems aware of Cloten’s intent. Stucky’s harmonies are bare and blatant, with two solo women’s voices reflecting the plight of Imogen, who must fend off Cloten’s boorish advances.

After Sunset

Sonnet 73 is a sad, but vivid, reflection of the author in the Autumn of his years. The analogy of his limbs being the boughs of a tree in Autumn through which the cold wind howls replacing the birdsong of his Spring and Summer is paralleled by the analogy of the ruined churches of the Reformation where choirs used to sing. The analogy then shifts from a year to a day: he is in his life’s twilight; his sun is setting, his fire expiring, suffocated by the waste of the fuel that it once consumed. The sonnet ends with encouragement to make the most of what little time remains.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin’d choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou see’st the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west;
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death’s second self, that seals up all in rest
In me thou see’st the glowing of such fire,
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consum’d with that which it was nourish’d by.
This thou perceiv’st, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

O Mistress Mine

from Twelfth Night Act II, scene iii

In the kingdom of Illyria, a nobleman named Orsino lies around listening to music, pining away for the love of Lady Olivia. He cannot have her because she is in mourning for her dead brother and refuses to entertain any proposals of marriage. Meanwhile, off the coast, a storm has caused a terrible shipwreck. A young, aristocratic-born woman named Viola is swept onto the Illyrian shore. Finding herself alone in a strange land, she assumes that her twin brother, Sebastian, has been drowned in the wreck. A friendly sea captain tells about Orsino’s courtship of Olivia, and Viola wishes she could go to work in Olivia’s home, but she cannot because Lady Olivia refuses to talk with any strangers. Viola decides to disguise herself as a man, taking on the name of Cesario, and goes to work in the household of Duke Orsino. “Cesario” quickly becomes a favorite of Orsino, who makes “Cesario” his page. Viola finds herself falling in love with Orsino–a difficult love to pursue. When Orsino sends “Cesario” to deliver Orsino’s love messages to the disdainful Olivia, Olivia herself falls for the beautiful young “Cesario.” The love triangle is complete: Viola loves Orsino, Orsino loves Olivia, and Olivia loves “Cesario”–and everyone is miserable. Meanwhile, we meet the other members of Olivia’s household: her rowdy drunkard of an uncle, Sir Toby; his foolish friend, Sir Andrew Aguecheek, who is trying in his hopeless way to court Olivia; and Feste, the clever clown of the house. Feste moves between Olivia’s and Orsino’s’s homes, earning his living by making pointed jokes, singing songs, being generally witty, and offering good advice cloaked under a layer of foolishness. In spite of being a professional fool, Feste often seems the wisest character in the play. “O Mistress Mine” touches on the main theme of the play; how the uncertainty of “what’s to come” should not be prohibitive, but rather a driving force to take life as it comes and live life to its fullest. The song’s text also foreshadows the play’s resolution in which several characters are married (“Journeys end in lovers meeting”) The text even hints at Viola’s cross-dressing with the line “That can sing both high and low.”

O mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O stay and hear, your true love’s coming
That can sing both high and low.
Trip no further, pretty sweeting;
Journeys end in lovers’ meeting,
Ev’ry wise man’s son doth know.
What is love? ‘Tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty;
Then come kiss me, sweet and twenty;
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

These four settings could not be more different. Vaughan Williams highlights the dance inherent in the poetry, combining duple and triple rhythms; Robert Baksa (b. 1938) chooses a straight-forward setting, highlighting the text “what’s to come is still unsure” with transient harmonies; Judith Lang Zaimont (b. 1945) uses fast-moving rhythms to paint the picture of the mistress roaming; running away from destiny; and Daniel Pederson uses mixed meter to depict the uncertainty of life combined with lush, romantic harmonies illustrating the rewards inherent in living.

Fairies often sing in the plays Shakespeare, as music can be indicative of magic. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the fairies use “You spotted snakes” as a charm to protect their queen, Titania, from harm as she sleeps.

You spotted snakes, with double tongue,
Thorny hedgehogs, be not seen;
Newts and blind-worms do no wrong;
Come not near our fairy queen:
Philomel, with melody,
Sing in our sweet lullaby:
Lulla, lulla, lullaby; lulla, lulla, lullaby:
Never harm, nor spell, nor charm,
Come our lovely lady nigh;
So good-night, with lullaby.
Weaving spiders, come not here;
Hence, you long-legg’d spinners, hence;
Beetles black, approach not near;
Worm nor snail do no offence.

Richard John Samuel Stevens (1757-1837) arranges the text in a straightforward manner, painting a picture of rather bumbling fairies who, in the midst of scaring off bugs and other creepy-crawlies, sing so raucously that it would be difficult for anyone to doze off, even a fairy queen.

Amy Beach (1867-1944) set three fairy texts for women’s voices in 1897. The first, “Over Hill, over Dale” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is a fairy’s response to Puck’s question “Whither wander you?” in Act II scene i.

Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere,
Swifter than the moon’s sphere;
And I serve the fairy queen, To dew her orbs upon the green.
The cowslips tall her pensioners be:
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours,
In those freckles live their savours;
I must go seek some dew-drops here,
And hang a pearl in every cowslip’s ear.

In an early scene in The Tempest, devoted mostly to setting up the background story and introducing the play’s characters, Ariel, a gender-ambiguous sprite, sings “Come unto These Yellow Sands” to the shipwrecked Ferdinand, as he and Miranda, who has never seen a man other than her father and his servant, fall in love at first sight.

Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands:
Curtsied when you have, and kiss’d,
The wild waves whist,
Foot it featly here and there;
And, sweet sprites, the burden bear.

Through the House Give Glimmering Light,” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, takes place in the epilogue of the play. Oberon and Titania close the marriage banquet with this text, overtly stating that the influence of the fairies is now ubiquitous

Through the house give glimmering light,
By the dead and drowsy fire:
Every elf and fairy sprite
Hop as light as bird from brier:
And this ditty, after me,
Sing and dance it trippingly.
First, rehearse your song by rote,
To each word a warbling note;
Hand in hand, with fairy grace,
Will we sing, and bless this place.

Sigh No More Ladies

from Much Ado About Nothing Act II scene iii

In Much Ado About Nothing, Don Pedro and his soldiers, returning victorious from the wars to Messina, Sicily, are welcomed by Leonato, the governor of the city. Among Don Pedro’s retinue are his brother Don John (a vengeful malcontent), the young count Claudio, and Benedick. Claudio falls in love with Leonato’s daughter Hero and, with the help of Don Pedro, wins her hand. Meanwhile Benedick, who declares himself to be an eternal bachelor, and Hero’s cousin Beatrice, who is equally determined to remain single, are tricked into admitting that they love each other. Claudio is deceived by a plot laid by Don Juan and on his wedding day denounces Hero as unchaste. She faints and is believed dead, but recovers to be proved innocent by a chance discovery made by the local Watch. Hero and Claudio, and Beatrice and Benedick, are happily united. “

“Sigh No More, Ladies,” sung by Balthasar, a waiting man in Leonato’s household, laments how men can cheat on women while women must remain chaste; a reflection of patriarchal attitudes of that time as well as an ironic comment on the total unpredictability of love, which is at the heart of the play. Every attempt to corral love or thwart romance ends in failure and becomes a simple case of “much ado about nothing.”

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more;
Men were deceivers ever;
One foot in sea, and one on shore;
To one thing constant never:
Then sigh not so,
But let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny;
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into, Hey nonny, nonny.
Sing no more ditties, sing no more.

René Clausen (b. 1953) ironically sets much of the text to a series of musical sighs in the form of a half-note followed by a quarter-note in 3/4 time. The irony disappears when the musical sigh is displaced by the joyous, dance-like combination of duple against triple as the “sounds of woe” convert to the happier “Hey nonny nonny.”