The Tempest – William Shakespeare and Robert Johnson

As we all know, 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. After four centuries Shakespeare still remains at the top of the list as the most loved, copied, performed, stolen from writer in history. The New Grove Dictionary of Opera lists some 400 stage-works (operas for the most part) based on plays by Shakespeare. The Shakespeare-idolatry began in 1769, with a Stratford-upon-Avon becoming a place of pilgrimage: everyone who was someone, traveled to that small market town that had given birth to a genius, happy to dance around in the muddy streets with their courtly shoes. Music was part of the service, with composer Thomas Arne. Arne was not however the first one to toy with Shakespeare’s works: there seems to be evidence of a quite strict collaboration between the Bard and court composer Robert Johnson, on at least one of Shakespeare’s most famous works: The Tempest.

Music was a family tradition for Robert Johnson, his father having been a lutenist to Elizabeth I. After his father’s death, Robert became, in 1596, an apprentice to George Carey, 2nd Baron Hunsdon, and his wife Elizabeth Spencer, patrons of the famous lutenist and composer John Dowland.

The Tempest - George Romney

Carey was a great art supporter and, among other things, a patron of the theater company to which William Shakespeare belonged, known as the “Baron Hunsdon’s Men” first, then as the “Lord Chamberlain’s Men” and finally as the “King’s men”. His compositions connected to the King’s men theater have been dated to the years 1610-1617, which means he worked with Shakespeare on his latest works, including the Tempest. What’s fascinating here, is the fact that we are assisting to the birth of opera barely a decade after the “official” birth of opera in Italy: a combination of theater and music to reach the zenith of drama. Now, there is no direct evidence of it, and the idea that the entire play was conceived only to be sung is far fetched. It was by no means a libretto. However, there are at least two songs that Johnson wrote for the play – “Where the bee sucks” and “Full fathom five” – as well as stage directions (either written by Shakespeare or by someone who had seen the show in its early performances) indicating that the music had a special role within the work. Musicians where hidden by a silk curtain: silk was effectively hiding the musicians, while offering very little obstruction to those strains of magic melodies. In The Tempest They played all the incidental “solemn and strange music”, “marvelous sweet music”, “heavenly music”. But they also accompanied the lyrics of Ariel’s songs.

That Shakespeare loved music is quite a known fact. That he held it into high consideration can be assumed by his writings. For example:

The man that bath no music in himself

Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds

Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils,

The motions of his spirit are dull as night

And his affections dark as Erebus.[1]

William Shakespeare - portrait by John Taylor

Maybe The tempest was written with music in mind as intermezzo or maybe it was more like a film soundtrack, with music playing a fundamental character in the plot. An absolutely modern way of conceiving the theater. But, after all, what’s not modern even to this day when it comes to Shakespeare?

The tempest has frequently been described as Shakespeare’s most lyrical play. It comes as no surprise that it inspired famous composers like Tchaikowsky (with his symphonic fantasia) or Sibelius (with his incidental music for the Copenaghen Theater). More recently, it was also turned into an opera by English composer Thomas Ades as well as into a chamber opera by Joseph Summer for his Shakespeare Concert Series. No matter the era in which one lives, it seems like Shakespeare is an endless source of inspiration for composers and artists in general, from Purcell to Verdi, Bernstein, and Elvis Costello.

 

An immortal mirror on our loves, our flaws, our hopes.

 

If you’re interested in the film version of The Tempest and in a summary of the play and its characters, take a look at this:

Notes:

 

[1] – The Merchant of Venice (V, I, 83-85)

Resources: Cambridge Digital Library: http://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/collections/music

Internet Shakespeare Edition: http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/

The Tempest: Critical Essays by Patrick M. Murphy: excerpts from the book

Cover photo by Matt Hardy

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