Friday, March 25, 2016

Shakespeare's Hit Parade

The Complaint of a Lover Forsaken of His Love, 1611-1656

A Poore Soule sate sighing, by a Sicamore Tree.
     O Willow, willow, willow:
His hand on his bosome, his head on his knee,
     O Willow, willow, willow,
     O Willow, willow, willow,
Sing O the greene Willow shall be my Garland.

(mp3 recording:

This old English ballad above is perhaps best known to contemporary audiences from its inclusion in Othello, Act 4, Scene 3, as sung by Desdemona:

DESDEMONA [Singing.]
The poor soul sat singing 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;
Lay by these:
[Singing.] Sing willow, willow, willow;
Prithee, hie thee; he'll come anon: --
[Singing.] Sing all a green willow must be my garland.

In her Folger Shakespeare Library 400th Birthday Lecture on March 17th, 2016, "From Script to Stage to Script," Oxford Professor Tiffany Stern, author of Documents of Performance in Early Modern England,  sourced Desdemona's song to the ballad sheets from the wonderful EBBA website hosted by the University of California, Santa Barbara; a treasure trove of the type of songs most famously published by Bishop Thomas Percy in 1765 as Reliques of Ancient English Poetry.  

Professor Stern did a thorough and scholarly job of tracing origins and uses of these sorts of popular ballads in Shakespeare's plays, and argued that these sorts of songs, both in performance and in print, promoted Shakespeare while Shakespeare’s plays, on stage and in print,  in turn promoted ballads.

In her talk, Professor Stern made it clear that whether the song had been written by Shakespeare, or whether Shakespeare inserted a hit song from a ballad sheet, it was notable that Shakespearean drama had parallels to contemporary product placement and franchising in hits like Star Wars. Songs in Shakespeare's plays were in a sense the "Top 40" of the Elizabethan and Jacobean ages; theatrical performances concluded with wild dancing as the cast performed a jigg by the likes of Jan Pieterszoon Sweelinck, Samuel Scheidt, and others Europeans. Hence, "the jig is up" for The End. 

As Professor Stern pointed out, ballad-sellers likewise hawked their wares at the theatre door, in markets, and along the highways and byways of rural England, just like local bands performing cover versions of Rock & Roll Hits. 

My guess is that while sometimes Shakespeare paid the ballad-seller for a song, there may also have been time when payola and plugola at work (though Professor Stern did not go into that) as ballad-sellers 'paid to play,'  to plug their songs on the stage of the Globe or Blackfriar's theatre, or into Hamlet or Othello or The Tempest

However, although Professor Stern is active in the British theatre, as well as a consultant to Shakespearean companies, at her Folger talk appeared to miss the ordinary quality of Shakespeare's musical relationship between song and stage, thus underestimated the extent to which songs have been integral to the stage and screen from Shakespeare's time to the present day. 

What Professor Stern described as an apparently unusual phenomenon struck this listener as merely the way playwrights and scriptwriters have been tied to popular music, whether live or on screen, from Aristophanes to Spielberg.

In her concluding remarks, Professor Stern suggested a need to further investigate whether songs began in plays, or plays utilized pre-existing songs, or something else. That may be a suitable academic project for individual cases. But rather than there being an overarching rule governing this pattern in all the theatre, my educated guess would be that in Elizabethan England, as today, inspiration could go either way: Songs could be written for a play, plays could be based upon a song, or a song and play could be composed simultaneously. 

While there are many possible approaches, I doubt there could be a firm rule, because of the nature of show business itself, where as screenwriter William Goldman famously said, "no one knows anything." The only formula is that there is no formula.

For example, the American Society of Composers and Performers (ASCAP) has an interesting website entitle: Music, Money, Success & the Movies, which states:

Whether the score is dramatic, soothing, romantic, comedic or foreboding, it is an integral part of the fabric of any motion picture.

Music in the movies is an essential element of the filmmaking process and is one of the main factors that helps to determine box office success or failure. Think of a motion picture without music - whether it's an orchestral or synthesizer score, a brand new hit song or a long time standard - and you'll begin to realize the value and contribution of music and lyrics to film. And whether you're a producer, a director, an agent, a composer, a songwriter, a studio executive, a music supervisor, a business affairs executive, or anyone involved in film, or who wants to get involved.
What ASCAP says shows that not much has changed. A song could be a "brand new hit song" or "a long time standard" or something composed just for the film--ditto for a play. Understanding the way music is used today goes a long way to explaining what Shakespeare was up to, as a showman, businessman, writer, producer, actor, and impressario. He included songs of his day because of their value and contribution of lyrics and music to the production.
As ASCAP explains:


Most successful motion pictures use hit songs to create a period flavor, establish a mood...
Most successful motion pictures use hit songs to create a period flavor, establish a mood, give an actor a chance to sing, make people laugh, make people cry, elicit emotions, and create interest in the movie through successful soundtrack albums and hit singles. A film producer who wants to use an existing song in a motion picture must secure the permission of the music publisher to use the composition in the film. Once an agreement is reached as to a fee, the producer will sign what is known as a synchronization or broad rights license, which will give the studio the right to distribute the film theatrically, sell it to television, use the song in motion picture theater trailers or television and radio promos, and sell videos. The synchronization fee received by the music publisher is shared by contract with the songwriter.
As Part One of this website concludes, the ballad-sellers of Shakespeare's day had much in common with Tin Pan Alley, the Brill Building, and ASCAP of today:
Part Two reveals what you need to know about getting your songs into movies and making the right deal. There is nothing worse than to see a film open to rave reviews with a hit soundtrack and an Oscar nomination and know that your song could have been in it... but wasn't...
Likewise, Part Two notes that music composed for a motion picture soundtrack could also be quite lucrative:
The world of the feature film background music composer is not only one of the most creatively stimulating and financially rewarding areas of music, it is also one of the most demanding in terms of musical expertise and training, conducting experience, and discipline in the meeting of rigorous timetables and deadlines...Having a song in a motion picture or composing a score to a film can open up an unlimited number of opportunities and prove to be a lifetime annuity for writers and music publishers.
Bottom Line: Shakespeare's ballad-sellers would probably have been quite familiar with ASCAP's world-view. To understand the relationship between song and stage in Shakespearean  Theatre, it might be a good idea to start with a description of the relationship between composers and producers today, which may not be as different or as hard to understand as one might fear. Shakespeare used music then the way Hollywood uses music now:

For as Lorenzo concludes in The Merchant of Venice (Act IV, Scene 1):

Since naught so stockish, hard, and full of rage
But music for the time doth change his nature.
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved 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.
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.