The songs in The Tempest have always attracted composers. While many musicians since the 17th century have set them, we believe James Primosch’s Songs and Dances from “The Tempest” to be the first using the instruments of Shakespeare’s time. It is a difficult assignment for a contemporary composer to use old instruments in a manner that is appropriate to their techniques and timbres, without making them sound stylized and quaint. James Primosch has succeeded admirably, in these sometimes atmospheric, sometimes humorous, and altogether beautiful settings from The Tempest. It is gratifying that he has not limited his choice of texts to the ones that were probably sung in the original staging, but has also produced marvelous settings of some of the greatest poetry in the play – Caliban’s “Be not afear’d” and Prospero’s “Our revels now are ended.”
The following notes on Songs and Dances from "The Tempest" are by the composer:
This piece came about because Folger member Christopher Kendall, who knew my work as composer and pianist from his "other" Consort – the 20th Century Consort, also based in Washington, D.C. – had heard my Four Sacred Songs, a set of arrangements of plainchant melodies for soprano and a sextet of modern instruments. Christopher wondered if an arrangement of those songs could be made for the old instruments of the Folger Consort. I thought about that for a bit but ultimately decided I would rather write a fresh piece for the Folger, eventually realizing that a piece composed for the ensemble in residence at the Folger Library really should be a Shakespeare piece. My first plan was to concoct an anthology of texts from various Shakespeare plays, but I set that aside in favor of focusing on a single play, perhaps the most musical of Shakespeare's creations, The Tempest. My suite of short pieces includes settings of songs from the play as well as a few speeches. I have also included some instrumental music, as suggested by the evocative stage directions. I hope lovers of the play will forgive me for re-ordering the texts so as to create a satisfying musical sequence that does not in all cases correspond to the sequence of the play itself. The texts are by turns playful, drunken, evocative, and profound. Throughout they are imbued with a magical atmosphere that is unique in Shakespeare. I hope I have reflected some of this atmosphere in my music.
The challenge for a modern composer to write for the instruments of another time is formidable. You spend your life as a composer building up an image in the inner ear of what, for example, the cello sounds like in various contexts – it is difficult to set these things aside when presented with a cello-like object such as the vielle. But, at least to some extent, set them aside you must. As a pianist I feel especially ill-equipped to write for these instruments since my own instrument's repertoire begins about a century after the newest music the Folger Consort normally plays! I lack a personal connection with the repertoire of these instruments. Still, I love the sounds of the ancient instruments and love the repertoires that the Folger so beautifully engages. So I have tried to create a sound world that would both suit the instruments and perhaps challenge them a little, all the while serving Shakespeare's texts. The endless patience and goodwill of the members of the Consort has played no small role in the pleasure of creating this piece. I am grateful for the chance to adventure with them to Prospero's enchanted realm where we might enjoy the "sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not."
As John Dryden pointed out in the Preface to The Tempest, or the Enchanted Island, first staged in 1667, his adaptation of Shakespeare was not the first to be based on the original. Nor would it be the last, of course. Most of the 17th-century music heard on this recording is from a slightly later production, the “operatic” adaptation by Thomas Shadwell of Dryden and Davenant’s version, first staged in 1674. In his Preface, Dryden singles out his colleague Davenant as the one who thought of their major departure from Shakespeare:
“...Sir William Davenant, as he was a man of quick and piercing imagination, soon found that somewhat might be added to the Design of Shakespear, of which neither Fletcher nor Suckling had ever thought: and therefore to put the last hand to it, he design’d the Counterpart to Shakespear’s Plot, namely that of a Man who had never seen a Woman; that by this means those two Characters of Innocence and Love might the more illustrate and commend each other.”
Not satisfied with this addition, Dryden also provides Miranda with a sister, Dorinda, gives Caliban a sister, adds more spirits to Prospero’s retinue, and throws in a few sailors. For a reader already familiar with the original, the play is a strange experience. Long passages of Shakespeare are left intact, but they are interspersed with new material in Dryden’s very different style. Most unsettling are the speeches in which Dryden has kept to Shakespeare’s intent and plot but altered the verse, or the character speaking the lines. Apparently, audiences at the Duke of York’s Theatre (one of two commercial theaters in London during the 1660s) didn’t mind a bit. Commercial success no doubt inspired Shadwell’s adaptation, which further added to the play with more songs, a suite of instrumental music by Matthew Locke, and interpolated masques with elaborate set, scenery, and dance. This version, too, was successful by the usual standard. According to the company’s prompter, John Downes:
“...having all New in it; as Scenes, Machines; particularly, one Scene Painted and Myriads of Ariel spirits, and another flying away, with a Table Furnisht out with Fruits, Sweetmeats and all sorts of Viands; just when Duke Trinculo and his Companions were going out to Dinner all things perform’d in it so Admirably well, that not any succeeding Opera got more Money.”
Charles II actively encouraged the London commercial theater, and attended performances frequently. He encouraged and expected his musicians to participate in the productions at the King’s Company’s theater in Covent Garden and the Duke’s Company’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. At early performances of The Tempest in 1674 there were more than 30 singers, swelled by the ranks of the Chapel Royal, and the normal orchestra of 12 augmented by members of the King’s 24 Violins.
The music for this splendid production survives almost intact. As was typical for theatrical productions, many composers were responsible for the music. Most of it is by the two main composers for the Twenty-Four Violins and the London stage, Matthew Locke (and possibly his student, Robert Smith) and John Banister (1624/5-1679), but there are contributions by Humphrey, Reggio, Hart (a singer in the Chapel Royal), and Draghi. Only the dances by Draghi are lost. (In this recording, we have followed the suggestion of Michael Tilmouth and substituted suitable dances from a manuscript of music by Locke called The Rare Theatrical, & Other Compositions by Mr Mathew Lock. These are indicated by an asterisk in the program listing.) The songs by Banister and Humphrey probably were used in the 1667 version
Banister became the de facto director of the Twenty-Four Violins in 1662, when Charles II directed him to set up the “Select Band” of fiddlers that became the English counterpart to Lully’s “Petits Violons” so much admired by the English King. Banister belonged to a family long associated with the official London town band, or Waits. Matthew Locke became Composer to the Violins in the first year of the Restoration. Although he wrote the music for over a dozen Restoration plays, only his music for The Tempest survives complete. In this recording, we present his incidental music together with selected songs from the opera. First and Second Musicks were performed to entertain audiences waiting for the play to begin. As reported by a French visitor to the Covent Garden house
“The Musick with which you are entertained diverts your time till the Play begins, and People chuse to go in betimes to hear it.”
Then there is the Curtain Tune, essentially an overture. In Shadwell:
“The front of the stage is open’d and the Band of 24 Violins, with the Harpsicals and Theorbo’s which accompany the Voices, are plac’d between the Pit and the Stage. While the Overture is playing, the Curtain rises, and discovers a new Frontispiece, joyn’d to the great Pylasters, on each side of the Stage.....Behind is the Scene, which represents a thick Cloudy Sky, a very Rocky Coast, and a Tempestuous Sea in perpetual Agitation. This Tempest (suppos’d to be rais’d by Magick) has many dreadful Objects in it, as several Spirits in horrid shapes flying down amongst the Sailers, then rising and crossing in the Air. And when the Ship is sinking, the whole House is darken’d and a shower of Fire falls upon ‘em. This is accompanied with Lightning, and several Claps of Thunder, to the end of the Storm.”
Modern cinematic versions of the opening scene of The Tempest are hardly more effective and Locke’s wonderfully idiosyncratic music fits the scene admirably. The rest of the suite consists of the Act Tunes, necessary since theatrical practice did not include intermissions between the acts, and the Conclusion, a complex double canon in the form of a galliard. Charles II had an aversion to the pre-Civil War English contrapuntal style, and favored the new French dance style, as these movements clearly demonstrate. But here the French style is transformed and in many ways made more interesting with its jarring dissonances and often jagged melodic motion. With Locke, things often take an interesting turn and progress quite unexpectedly. While we present this music in a “chamber” version with one fiddle to a part, the practice is quite normal for members of the King’s Twenty-Four Violins, whose members were often delegated to perform one to a part on tour or in the Chapel Royal. We kept to the proper basic distribution of parts, using two violins, viola, and bass violin, producing the characteristic sound of the 17th-century orchestra. The bass violin, slightly larger than a modern cello and tuned a step lower, plays the bass line without reinforcement at the lower octave by a double bass.
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Michael Witmore, Director, Folger Shakespeare Library
Janet Griffin, Executive Producer, Folger Consort
Donnajean Ward, Manager, Folger Consort
Curt Wittig, Recording and editing engineer
Jeanne Krohn, Graphic Design
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