Shakespearean music, on two continents

Halfway through a concert at the Whitney Humanities Center Monday afternoon, 13 singers hopped across the pond, switching from British to American interpretations of Shakespeare’s lyrical texts mid-performance.

In the “Shakespeare in Song: American vs. British” performance, members of Music professor Richard Lalli’s MUS ’86 “Performance of Vocal Music” course each chose and performed two songs of either early 19th-century British or 20th-century American composition, which interpreted lyrics from various Shakespearean plays. Part of the “Music at the Whitney” concert series, the performance was intended to allow audience members to compare the two styles.

“The British pieces tend to have more pronounced emotional peaks. The American pieces tend to be a little more level in terms of emotional contour,” Lalli said. “That’s a big generalization, but it’s true.”

Lalli added that the songs from Britain, written during the Romantic Victorian Period, take a more emotional approach to interpreting Shakespeare’s language, while the 20th-century American pieces tend toward the theatrical, as they were often written for staged productions.

This stylistic disparity was clear in the two interpretations of “When Icicles Hang By The Wall,” a song from “Love’s Labour’s Lost.” The bass vocalist Tobias Kirchwey ’14 performed a darker British interpretation of the song written by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1925, while soprano Liang Yu ’14 performed a more dramatic American version of the song by Dominick Argento from 1970.

Lalli’s “Performance of Vocal Music,” which has a different theme each term determining the repertoire, is focusing on songs written for Shakespeare’s texts this semester in light of the campus-wide Shakespeare at Yale festival. Students in the class chose songs to perform from a collection of about 100 different versions of Shakespearean lyrics and worked individually with Lalli and Sara Kohane, a Music Department lecturer, to receive coaching on the pieces’ performance.

In order to perfect the British versions of the songs, the students listened to British actors reciting sonnets to “get the sound of the British inflection in [their] ears,” Lalli said.

“There was definitely a difference [between the British and American performances] in terms of the way you pronounce things,” said Terrence Chin-Loy ’14, who participated in the concert. “[The] British would roll all the r’s, and in an American song you wouldn’t do that.”

Lalli said that rather than focusing their energy on the text’s dramatic interpretation, students were encouraged to improve their skills as vocalists. Nevertheless, he had the students research Shakespeare’s plays and read their songs in context to better understand the text.

Lisa Zhang ’15 said this helped her perform “She Never Told Her Love” by Joseph Haydn in 1795. Based off the text of “Twelfth Night,” the song describes Viola — the play’s disguised protagonist — and her inability to tell Duke Orsino she loves him.

“[The song is] literally dialogue; it wasn’t a very important piece for the play,” Zhang said. “But knowing [the story] changed the way I performed the song … Looking at the song’s text, you can see the foreshadowing and how it plays into the plot.”

Sarah Norvell ’15 said that it struck her as “unfair” that the texts of Shakespeare’s songs are so often overlooked in his plays.

“The lyrics really do add to the play in an emotional sense,” Norvell said.

The concert ended with a duet by Chin-Loy and Aria Thaker ’14, who performed an 1851 interpretation of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet by Stephen Foster, called “Wilt Thou Be Gone, Love?” The happy, lilting melody of the song plays out over a discussion between Juliet and Romeo on whether the birdsong they hear is that of a nightingale or lark, which would signal either the coming of the night or morning and whether Romeo had to leave or not.

“The sound of it is very 19th-century America,” Chin-Loy said. “It’s not a very romantic take, but it has the American sense of charm to it.”

For the remainder of the term, “Performance of Vocal Music” students will study Shakespeare’s lyrics in French and German translation.

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