Music of Shakespeare Elizabethan music circa 1600 William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was not a composer: we do not know of a single piece of music composed by him. But we do know how much Shakespeare loved music from this quotation: How sweet sour music is, When time is broke, and no proportion kept! So is it in the music of men’s lives. Not only did he love music and frequently use it in his dramatic works, many passages from his works have been admired and set by composers throughout history, right up to the present day. In his plays Shakespeare used old folk songs (e.g. ‘Greensleeves’), popular songs (the ‘Willow Song’) and parodies of the day (‘Farewell Dear Love’, originally a dance called ‘Malsims’) and new settings of these songs by his contemporaries. The England of Shakespeare’s time boasted not only a flourishing literary scene but also a glorious musical world, with such great composers as William Byrd (1543-1623), Thomas Morley (1557-1603), John Dowland (1563-1626) and Robert Johnson (1582?-1633). We do not know whether these composers worked with Shakespeare, but we find Dowland’s name in ‘The Passionate Pilgrim’: If music and sweet poetry agree, […] Dowland to thee is dear, whose heavenly touch Upon the lute doth ravish human sense; […] It is interesting to note that, despite being the most celebrated lutenist of his age, Dowland did not apparently have much contact with Shakespeare, as he spent most of his musical life on the Continent, mainly at the court of Christian IV in Denmark. This is why we have not included any works by Dowland here. There is no doubt, however, that there was some kind of relationship between Shakespeare and the musicians of his day, especially Morley and Johnson.Download booklet
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