Performance explores Bard’s ties to music

Yale Collegium Musicum, a graduate and undergraduate student music ensemble, performed Elizabethan music at the Beinecke.
Yale Collegium Musicum, a graduate and undergraduate student music ensemble, performed Elizabethan music at the Beinecke. Photo by Harrison Korn.

On Wednesday afternoon, visitors to the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript library got a taste of William Shakespeare’s writing playlist.

Under the direction of music professors Grant Herreid and Robert Mealy, the Yale Collegium Musicum performed a repertoire of musical pieces that influenced the Bard’s plays at the library. Dedicated to exploring music from before the 1800s, the graduate and undergraduate student music ensemble highlighted the function of Shakespeare’s musical choices in his plays.

“In a theatrical tradition that utilized very little in the way of painted scenery and props, the power of music to amplify the setting and emotional tone of a scene was exploited by Shakespeare and his colleagues,” said Herreid.

While singers in the Collegium Musicum sang Shakespeare’s lyrics, the musicians played instruments dating from the Bard’s day, including drums made from cow’s skin and a viola da gamba, a string instrument used during the Renaissance and Baroque periods.

In most of the performances, Herreid sang and played the lute, flanked by singers dressed in black. The works played included Desdemona’s “Willow Song” from “Othello,” dance numbers featured in several plays and Feste’s musical ponderings on love in “Twelfth Night.” In between songs, performers read lines from Shakespearean plays, giving the event the feel of a theatrical production.

Although many of the lyrics in the music performed were written by Shakespeare himself, the music was written by outside composers, said Collegium Musicum vocalist Emily Langowitz ’12, adding that she was interested in learning how the Bard’s words had been interpreted into music.

In a talk preceding the performance, Herried explained that while almost all of Shakespeare’s plays contained music, lyrics were never accompanied by a score, and it was up to each theater company to put the words to a tune. Most of the songs in Shakespeare’s plays do not directly develop the plot, Herreid added, but rather contribute to the overall mood of the show.

The Collegium Musicum is tied to a course currently taught by Herreid called “The Analysis and Performance of Early Music,” which Herreid said gives students a unique chance to both perform and analyze a specialized variety of classical music. In addition to researching manuscripts and prints from the Beinecke’s collection, the Collegium Musicum also uses the library as a performance space several times a year.

By the end of the lecture, the upper level of the Beinecke where the performance took place was been filled to capacity with spectators. Audience members interviewed said they appreciated the authenticity of the performance.

Next Wednesday, the Beinecke will feature a talk entitled “Vulgar Venus and Politic Poetry: Reading Shakespeare in the Renaissance.”

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