Thomas Morley’s song, “It was a lover and his lass:” music from Shakespeare’s plays, presented in celebration of Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary. 4K video from our January, 2016, concerts in San Francisco. Jennifer Ellis Kampani, soprano; William Skeen, viola da gamba; Hanneke van Proosdij, harpsichord, David Tayler, archlute.
Shakespeare referenced dozens of musical works in his plays, but only a few manuscripts and prints survive from his time; most of the musical settings that we hear nowadays were composed much later. Nonetheless, there are a few good sources for music for the plays, although the question of authorship for the music is problematic, as most of the sources are without attribution. Of these, by far and away the best example of a work for which we are certain of the author is Thomas Morley’s “It was a lover and his lass;” Shakespeare quotes the song in full, in “As you like it.” Morley and Shakespeare lived in the same neighborhood in London–St. Helen’s parrish, Bishopsgate; it’s likely that Shakespeare used Morley’s song in the play.
This work is presented here for the first time in 4K, ultra high definition video.
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There’s a number of small differences between the text in the song and the one in Shakespeare’s play; for example, modern editions of the play give “corn field” instead of the plural “cornfields.” A small difference, and yet, somehow it shifts the tone of the poem from a local tryst to a journey of sorts. The corn, of course, is grain, usually from barley or wheat, although maize–sometimes called Indian corn–was known by this time in Europe, along with Turkeys and Tomatoes. Shakespeare frequently uses the term in a political context as the grain was a sort of currency or basic staple, as in Coriolanus:
I’ll give my reasons,
More worthier than their voices. They know the corn
Was not our recompense, resting well assured
That ne’er did service for’t: being press’d to the war,
Even when the navel of the state was touch’d,
They would not thread the gates. This kind of service
Did not deserve corn gratis.
In Titus Andronicus, the term is used as a metaphor for political unity:
You sad-faced men, people and sons of Rome,
By uproar sever’d, like a flight of fowl
Scatter’d by winds and high tempestuous gusts,
O, let me teach you how to knit again
This scatter’d corn into one mutual sheaf,
These broken limbs again into one body;
In Morley’s song, and in “As you like it,” the term is used as a sort of Arcadian affect, as sheep would graze in fields of “corn.”
The main difference between the texts in the two versions is in the last verse, the play has:
“And therefore take the present time/For love is crowned with the prime,” and the song reads “Then prettie lovers take the time/For love is crowned with the prime.”
The line in the songs transfers the word “prettie” from “time” to “love”, as if the poet is using a rhetorical device to say “It’s time for love.” It’s pretty nifty, actually, as we hear the term quite a lot one way–maybe too much–then suddenly the emphasis shifts; in contrast, the play is a straightforward invocation to carpe diem (and the vanitas/gather ye rosebuds theme), more suitable, perhaps, to address a theatrical audience.
The term “carrell,” often used as a spelling variant for “carol” has a number of meanings, pun deliberate. In addition to song, the term also referred to a dance, as well as a small room.
The print from the First Book (1600) has a part for the “base viol”, arranged upside down so that the music can be shared with the book open on a table. Musically, the song is notable for the density of the counterpoint and the prevalence of open fifths in the lute part when the singer has the third of the chord; this would facilitate a kind of just tuning.
Here’s the link to the original print: http://voicesofmusic.org/Images/It_was_a_lover.jpg