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400 Years of Shakespeare

June, 2017

Program Notes by Sanford Dole

Last year, on April 23, the world toasted William Shakespeare on the 400th anniversary of his death. Around that time, as I was planning the programming for this season, I thought it might be fitting to honor The Bard of Avon by exploring all the wonderful choral music that his work has inspired over the centuries. My goal was to create a survey of musical styles and techniques as they evolved from one era to the next. Unfortunately, Shakespeare’s own 17th century proved difficult.  Although there are plenty of song lyrics found in his plays, I was unable to find any true choral music, in the sense that we think of it today. So our concert may be more aptly titled “Four Centuries of Shakespeare,” with an array of delightful works from the 18th to the 21st centuries.

Moving chronologically, the program is divided into four large sections. To represent the 18th century I have selected three English composers. Thomas Arne was the leading British theater composer of his time, but is best known today as the composer of Rule Britannia and the version of God Save the King that became the British national anthem. Shakespeare’s Blow, blow, thou winter wind is a solo song performed by one of the characters in As You Like It. Arne also set these words as a solo song, most likely accompanied by a lute. In our version the lute part has been arranged for the lower three voices of the choir as they support the melody in the soprano part.

Benjamin Cooke was a music publisher based in Covent Garden and the organist/choirmaster at Westminster Abbey. But he was best known in his day for his small-scale popular, secular choral music, such as Hark, hark the lark, and Hand in hand with fairy grace. Known as glees, catches, and canons, these ditties became the standard repertoire of the many clubs and singing societies that sprang up throughout Britain in that era. Another proponent of this popular form was Samuel Webbe, a prize-winning composer in the style, who published nine books of glees between 1764 and 1798. Intended for an all-male singing club, When shall we three meet again casts the three witches standing over their bubbling cauldron from the opening of Macbeth as tenor, baritone, and bass.

As we move on to the 19th century, you’ll hear a distinct change of style as the harmonies of the Romantic era take hold. David Emlyn Evans was one of the foremost figures in the Welsh musical life of the late 19th century. As an editor, critic, and adjudicator he was fearless in expressing his views on the “prevailing over-indulgence of glee-writing” and the “lack of discrimination and taste in hymn-singing in Wales,” according to the Dictionary of Welsh Biography. Nonetheless he wrote many glees himself, as well as anthems, part-songs, and hymn-tunes, many of them winning prizes in competitions in Wales, England, and America. How Sweet the Moonlight Sleeps sets the opening monologue from Act V of Merchant of Venice in a very evocative, atmospheric way.

Our next composer, born Amy Marcy Cheney, was the first American woman to achieve success as a composer of large-scale art music. She was also an acclaimed pianist and thought of herself primarily as a performing artist, often touring in Europe. But after her marriage to a Boston surgeon, 24 years her senior, she agreed to limit her performances to twice a year and to devote herself more to composition. In concert programs and in her published works she was identified as Mrs. H. H. A. Beach. After her husband’s death she returned to an active performing career, now as Amy Beach. She also worked as a music educator, coaching young composers and musicians, and helped to create “Beach Clubs,” which taught music to children. Through the house give glimmering light is from a set of three Shakespeare choruses for women’s voices.

Little is known about the composer of our next work, Alan Murray, other than that he was a Major in the British Army and may have been Welsh by birth. Perhaps you might have heard his popular songs I’ll walk beside you and Madame Jeanette. O mistress mine sets a ditty from Twelfth Night, sung by the Clown for the entertainment of Sir Toby Belch.

The music of Charles Wood completes our 19th-century set. Irish by birth, Wood went on to study with Charles Stanford at the Royal Academy of Music, and later at Cambridge. Like Stanford he is primarily known for his Anglican church music, particularly his anthems accompanied by organ, such as O Thou, the Central Orb. The Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians cites him for his “fastidious taste and fine scholarship,” qualities that are evident in this setting of Full Fathom Five from The Tempest.

No Shakespeare survey would be complete without the best known settings in the choral repertoire, Three Shakespeare Songs by Ralph Vaughan Williams. In 1951 he was asked to create one of the “test” works for a choral competition at the Festival of Britain. Choirs from around the UK would demonstrate their technical abilities in the competition by performing such test pieces.  At first he declined, saying choirs should sing an established piece, not something new. But later, the conductor of the Festival choir, Armstrong Gibbs, received a package out of the blue with a manuscript and the note “Dear Armstrong. Here are three Shakespeare settings. Do what you like with them… Yours ever R.V.W.” In a fun juxtaposition, the first of the songs, Full Fathom Five, uses the same text that just concluded our 19th-century set.  There are three more such “repeats” of text on the remainder of the program, inviting you to compare and contrast the approaches of different composers to the same text.

I fell in love with Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day, a setting of Sonnet 18 by Swedish jazz pianist Nils Lindberg, when we performed it as part of our Poets Corner program three years ago. The lush harmonies and gentle rhythms are a perfect match for the breezy images that Shakespeare evokes.

Although his cantata for chorus and orchestra, A Child’s Christmas in Wales, is frequently performed in the US and the UK, New York-based composer Matthew Harris is best-known in the choral world for his settings of Shakespeare texts. He has produced six books of Shakespeare Songs, each containing three to four works that set lines from the Bard’s plays for unaccompanied chorus. I have chosen to conclude the first half of tonight’s show with Book IV. These delightful pieces sound very American to me, especially the country twang in When Daffodils Begin to Peer.

The second half of our show is devoted entirely to music composed in the 21st-century. We begin with a collection of sonnet settings by Oakland composer Paul Crabtree. After growing up in the UK and later graduating from the University of Edinburgh and the Musikhochschule in Cologne, Crabtree emigrated to the Bay Area, where he’s lived since his early 20’s. Here he has developed a musical style that strives to combine popular culture with art music. In his Three Rose Madrigals, he deftly conjures the many images of the rose: praised for its fragrance and colors, finding itself under the canker’s threat, and (when personified) its devotion unto death.

All this season BCG has been presenting new works that we have commissioned from local composers. Aaron Lington is a Grammy Award-winning baritone saxophonist and composer who is a professor at San Jose State University, where he is the Coordinator of Jazz Studies. In addition to directing the San Jose Jazz High School All Stars he is an active performer and arranger with various big bands and smaller ensembles. His latest recording project, a collaboration with Paul Tynan, titled Bicoastal Collective: Chapter Five, was just released on May 19th. On today’s program we premiere Like as the waves, a setting of Sonnet 60 for eight-part choir. The composer wishes the listener to take to heart Shakespeare’s important message that “despite our small and brief role in this world, we are all a part of the greater whole.”

If you attended our last concert you may recall the lush setting of Ave maris stella by London-based composer Cecilia McDowall. As I was in email contact with her about that work, I mentioned that we were planning this program of Shakespeare settings. She replied that her most recent a cappella piece, which had been premiered last year by the BBC Singers, was in fact a group of three Shakespeare songs, When time is broke.  For the set, McDowall assembled her own libretto, cobbling together less well known excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays, all of which in some way reference elements of music: harmony, rhythm, discord. The first song is an unappealing appraisal of marriage spoken by Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing. Marriage begins, she says, all “hot and hasty, like a Scottish jig” (sung here in “mouth music,” a traditional Scottish song form). After that, everything’s downhill. The second is a setting of an extract from Sonnet VIII that takes quite a different view of marriage. This is Shakespeare’s exhortation to a young man to marry, because matrimony brings concord, happiness, and “mutual ordering”. The last song is a wry joke about how bad music can sound if the rhythms are wrong, hence “When time is broke.” We are pleased to present the West Coast premiere of these songs.

A rising star in the American choral world, Dominic DiOrio received his DMA in conducting from Yale School of Music and is a professor of choral conducting at Indiana University. There he directs NOTUS: Contemporary Vocal Ensemble, which specializes in music of the past 50 years. His compositions are frequently performed at choral music conferences. The composer writes: “Cuckoo, Cuckoo is a jaunty little work on a text from Love’s Labour’s Lost, one of Shakespeare’s earliest comedies. The tongue-in-cheek text talks of married life and the woe that comes from being unable to pursue the frolicsome fruits of spring.”

A native of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Nancy Wertsch is an accomplished pianist who graduated from Curtis Institute of Music as a voice major. Since 1979 she has lived and worked in New York, where she sings with The New York Virtuoso Singers and Voices of Ascension. As a composer she has received many commissions from prestigious New York organizations as well as the Dale Warland Singers. In addition to publishing through commercial houses such as G. Schirmer, these days she runs a thriving self-publishing business with the help of her son and daughter, who handle marketing/distribution and her website. Wertsch writes of her Shakespeare Suite: “The three Shakespeare poems I chose for this trilogy all reflect youth, love, and springtime. The music is meant to evoke the amorous thoughts and feelings of young lovers in Shakespeare’s England.”

Thank you for attending today’s show and for supporting us all season. Do make plans to join us next year! We have another group of exciting concerts on tap, and we can’t wait to share all the beautiful music with you. Look for the line-up on the inside cover of this program. Have a happy summer! We’ll look forward to seeing you in December.