400 Years of Shakespearean Songs

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Feb 19

400 Years of Shakespearean Songs is Musica Viva’s enchanting compilation of Shakespeare’s best lines set to music. Josiah Ng ducks the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune to highlight what not to miss

To many, Shakespeare is the symbol of classical literature, the figurehead of English excellence. Many balk at the idea of reading his plays because of the unfamiliarity with Tudor English, so few ever get to appreciate his lyrical and rhetorical mastery. And yet, beyond the language barrier, Shakespeare wrote of simple things. He wrote of love, betrayal, friendship and even the occasional risqué penis joke. 

His writing is accessible to all, beautiful to many who make the effort and immortal to all, whether they realise The Bard’s influence on the English language or not. It is fitting then that on the 400th anniversary of his death in 1616, Musica Viva is performing a one-of-a-kind concert specifically to honour the many legendary musicians who have immortalised Shakespeare’s words in song. With an estimated 2,000 songs set to lines from Shakespeare’s poetry and plays, the pool is wide, and Musica Viva is curating a wide selection of adaptations ranging from Baroque composer Henry Purcell to the highly modern Herbert Howells. The songs are being performed by mezzo-soprano Carol Lin, bass baritone Isaac Droscha, tenors Frankie Liu and Jasper Sung, and soprano Alison Lau. They are accompanied by pianists Natalia Tokar and Alexander Wong.

Shakespeare wrote a total of 37 plays and 134 sonnets, so there is a wealth of works to choose from. However, some of his pieces lent themselves to composition better than others, so we’ve highlighted a few plays and works to catch up on before heading out to enjoy Musica Viva’s marriage of stellar writing and evocative classical composition.

Twelfth Night
Touted as one of Shakespeare’s most musical comedies, the play begins with the line, “If music be the food of love, play on.” A pun on several levels, the play is a complex love triangle between the crossdressing Viola (also seen in the play as Cesario), the Duke Orsino, and the Countess Olivia who falls in love with Cesario. The play’s music is primarily sung by a pair of drunken knights and a jester, and given their many lines, composers have been able to mine that material for hundreds of years.

From this play: The concert opens, naturally, with Henry Purcell’s If Music be the Food of Love, written mere decades after Twelfth Night itself. Also of note is Roger Quilter’s impressive harmonic treatment of the lines “O mistress mine,” from the scene where Viola realises Olivia has fallen in love with her, as a man.

Perhaps the most famous Shakespeare play aside from Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet is a deep, psychotic tragedy in which Hamlet, an antihero of sorts, alienates everyone in his obsessive revenge plot against his uncle King Claudius, who murdered Hamlet’s father in order to marry Hamlet’s mother and seize the throne. Along the way, everyone in the play ends up dead. Perhaps the most riveting tragedy ever written, it is no wonder that many of the Romantic composers in the European programme take on the death of Ophelia, Hamlet’s amour. 

From this play: You’ll find the European segment of the night littered with songs based on Hamlet. Of note are the Romantic composers Berlioz and Saint-Saens’ treatments of La Mort d’Ophélie, both set to the same ballad written by French dramatist Ernest Legouvé, pairing the evocative poem with breathtaking music.

Sonnets 87 and 18
With 134 sonnets to choose from, we’re glad Musica Viva decided to go with only two – and two stellar ones at that – that discuss arguably Shakespeare’s most famous theme, love. Sonnet 18 is the immensely famous, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” sonnet, and it’s only right that Shakespeare’s intricate metaphor be unpacked in song. Sonnet 87 is about rejection and unrequited love: “Thus I have had thee, as a dream doth flatter/In sleep a king, but waking no such matter.”

From these works: There are two musical works dedicated to each sonnet. Hubert Parry does a fantastic rendition of Sonnet 87, Farewell, thou art too dear for my possessing, while Sonnet 18 is set to music by 20th century composer WA Alkin.

400 Years of Shakespearean Songs Feb 19, Hong Kong City Hall Concert Hall. Tickets: $150-$220, urbtix.hk.


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