Here’s a song about springtime and wonderous music. The author of the words is William Shakespeare, and it was written to be sung* as part of a play, an art that invites instant appreciation of itself simultaneously by a crowd and a group of people who present it. To merely read a play is like looking over the score of an orchestral work. If you are musically literate you may appreciate the ingenuity of the notes and musical parts, but it’s only a map or tool guiding musicians to the creation of the actual, momentary, and simultaneous thing.**
Stuck in the melting ice/snow, a tiny stick hosts some March fungi trumpeting spring! photo by Heidi Randen
So, as we await the onset of spring and its ancient and age-tested paradox of everything fresh and new, let us return to another warm day that was once fresh and new. It’s 1613, and we’re in London where there’s a new Shakespeare play opening at the Globe Theater, that wooden O that has made his career, the entertainment center that the Bard himself is part owner and begetter of.
Yes, Shakespeare at this time was an established force in English entertainment — but this play has a tough balancing act to perform. The new piece is entitled Henry VIII, or All is True” and unlike Shakespeare’s older history plays, this one deals with events within the childhood memory of the oldest inhabitants of London. The time Henry VIII, or All is True is set in is no more past than the first season of The Crown on TV is today. The theater and his company, The Kings Men, exist partly on the support and permission of the royal family.
The Globe is an entertainment business. Of course, Shakespeare uses his prodigious artistic talents as a draw for this enterprise, and much has been made about how Shakespeare used words uttered by actors alone to do what modern movies and TV shows spend a small nation’s budget worth of money to make with computers and craftspeople now—but the Globe company is not beneath practical special effects to boost the spectacle.
Near the end of Act 1 of the play, there’s a scene where Henry VIII enters with a celebratory cannonade to announce his arrival. If we were there, in that simultaneous artistic moment in 1613, beneath the bang and above us, some sparks from the cannonade equipment (located off-stage near the thatched roof attic of the theater) set the roof afire. For a short time, the play continues until the fire lapped around that wooden O*** and interrupted that moment before the play would come to its third act where today’s song would have been performed.
So, let us leave the simultaneousness of 1613, and ask about what context today’s piece would have been presented in if they had gotten to the third act. At the end of Act 2, Queen Catherine of Aragon has just begged Henry VIII and the play’s chief villain Cardinal Wolsey to not divorce and cast her out. As the third Act would have begun (if that theater fire hadn’t broken out) she asks a servant — who in what seems to be musical theater logic, is also a skilled lutenist who has her instrument at hand — “Take thy lute, wench. My soul grows sad with troubles. Sing, and disperse ’em if thou canst.”
In the course of the play, the song doesn’t work. At the end of the song, Wolsey appears to further seal Catherine’s fate.
Simplified map, not the thing itself: the Esus4 riff is repeated twice, and I think I played a CMajor7 over the final “die”
Taken out of this context today’s lyric may seem like a simple song in praise of music — one that references the mythological character of Orpheus, who the Greeks held as the first and finest lyre player, and one whose music was so powerful that it was said to cause trees to travel to be nearer to his music.**** The poem includes more examples of this most well-known power of the marvelous musician Orpheus, but even as the first section ends there’s a subtle undercurrent introduced. Orpheus’ song can control nature the poem says, double-stating a claim that he has “sprung…spring” — but there’s some fine print, or rather a promise is made that we know nothing can fully deliver: it’s a “lasting spring.”
We who sit today in the North on the verge of spring know spring will come. We also know it will go. There’s no such thing as a lasting spring, or a never-ending song. Shakespeare’s new play can start, we can all watch as it occurs before us, but in an instant we might be hot-pantsing it out of the moment and dowsing it with ale. We can be a faithful lover and be denied.
I may be misreading, but the end of the poem seems to add further ambiguity. The servant singing Shakespeare’s song to the soon to be deposed queen says music can kill care and grief, but the sentence continues into the next and final line of the poem: “Fall asleep, or hearing, die.” Is care and grief killed, or is it just beguiled and sleeping for the length of the song? Is the listener to the song — the other hearer besides care and grief — distracted only for a time, for a moment of spring, as one asleep? And then the song ends on that most falling of notes, the word “die.”
Shakespeare’s play can have cannons. And then it can have little 12-line songs.
Today’s song performance has bass and acoustic guitar, organic instruments that have known trees, and then one of my favorite fakeries: the Mellotron. Long time readers here will know my fondness for the Mellotron, a primitive yet overly complicated approximation of orchestral instruments that was used around 50 years or so ago to suggest a bigger recording budget for certain vinyl records. It’s a failed approximation of the things it suggests, but there’s a tragic richness to that failure for some. To hear my performance of “Orpheus with his lute made trees” you can use either this highlighted hyperlink to play it, or if your blog reader favors us with the appearance of the player gadget below, you can fire it off with that.
*Alas, the music to which the songs in the plays were sung during Shakespeare’s time is lost, though today’s lyric has been set to music by a number of composers.
**As we approach a year into our current pandemic, doesn’t this art, the art of live performance in one crowded place, seem even more strange and marvelous?
***Art and time passed aside; you may wonder: three thousand people in a packed wooden theater with at most two exits. How many died? Apparently, no one. Eyewitness accounts include this detail of one notable casualty, “One man had his breeches set on fire, that would perhaps have broyled him, if he had not by the benefit of a provident wit, put it out with a bottle of ale.”
****I wonder if Willy Shakes wasn’t engaging in some wordplay with the songs opening line. As a player of the guitar, an instrument that is something of a successor to the lyre and lute, we know the reverse of his opening: our “lutes” are largely made of trees. And rather than having musical power to enchant trees we sometimes think as that wood shifts and changes the playing action of our instruments, or it boggles tuning stability, that our wooden guitars have not quite gotten over being wild trees, ones not totally enthralled to our powers.