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THE MUSIC IN THE PLAYLinda Phyllis Austern

Othello is neither as musical as Shakespeare's late romances, nor as simply reliant on the realistic musics of state and battlefield as the history plays. Musically speaking, it is probably best known for the 'willow song' assigned to Desdemona in Act 4, Scene 3, whose oldest complete version has become one of the most performed extant pieces of early modern English music (see Discography below), and whose hauntingly lyrical melody remains memorable even apart from its theatrical context. Othello is a work in which each musical scene, and each musical piece, is highly significant to the unfolding of the narrative, or to the establishment of setting, or to revelation of the psychological states and motivation of the characters—or to some combination of these. Even the most seemingly casual piece of music can serve to establish a sense of social reality and location on the relatively bare Elizabethan stage.1

(i) Trumpet Signals

Trumpets at, 4.1.205, and announce the arrival of important personages or summon guests to a ceremonial meal, as they would have done in the world outside the theatre. Each of these will have consisted of a fairly simple, primarily rhythmic call, for the early modern trumpet was more limited in its range and melodic capacities than its descendants. Each, however, must also be distinctive; for not only is Iago able to identify Othello by the sound of his trumpet before he enters (, but to speculate that an unfamiliar trumpet heralds 'something from Venice' (4.1.206). The final use of the instrument is doubtless pg 446the most intricate, for the dialogue indicates that multiple trumpets—'these instruments'—perform (4.2.170). They do not herald the imminent arrival of military or political officials, but instead call invitees to a formal state supper, the sort of occasion famous for the elaborate use of music.

(ii) Drinking song fragments (Act 2, Scene 3)

The first fully musical episode in the play occurs in Act 2, Scene 3, in which Iago sings fragments of two songs as part of his drunken revelry with Cassio and Montano. These belong to the stylistically simple repertoire of ballads and tavern songs, a body of orally circulating works condemned for their desultory style of performance and negative moral effect by many of the same Elizabethan writers who censured stage plays. Music for both songs has been reconstructed several times. The original tune for the first, 'And let me the cannikin clink', has yet to come to light; it has been suggested that the song may have been specially written for the play in the style of the era's drinking songs, but the text is simple and metrical enough to be fitted to several extant popular tunes. Two are given here.

And let me the can - ni - kin clink. clink, And let me the can - ni-kin clink. A sol - dier's a man; O man's life's but a span- Why then let a sol - dier drink, drink.

Ex. 1

pg 447

And let me the can - ni - kin clink, ________ clink, And let me the can - ni - kin _ clink ________ clink. A sol - dier's a man; O man's life's but a ___ span- Why then let a sol - dier drink, ____ drink.

Ex. 2

The second, 'King Stephen was a worthy peer', is the seventh of eight stanzas from the ballad 'Take Thy Old Cloak About Thee', whose text was collected as part of Thomas Percy's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), and is probably originally from Scotland or the north of England. The same section of the same song is alluded to in The Tempest (4.1.221–2), when Trinculo says 'O King Stefano, O peer! O worthy Stefano, look what a wardrobe here is for thee!', which attests to its popularity. The tune (or at least a later variant that works with the text Shakespeare uses) was also collected in Percy's era, and is given here.
King Ste - phen was and a wor - thy peer, His bree - ches cost him but a crown, He held them six - pence all too dear, With__ that he called the tai - lor lown. He was a wight of high re-nown, And thou art but of low de-gree: ‘Tis pride that pulls the coun-try down, Then take _ thy _ old _ cloak a - bout thee.

Ex. 3

pg 448Apart from contributing to the social realism of the carousal scene, and altering the audience's sense of the passage of time, these songs help to shape the relationship between Iago and Cassio, suggesting that Iago is (no doubt deliberately) drinking less than his companions—since, after all, one cannot simultaneously drink and sing. Moreover, since many of Shakespeare's contemporaries considered music itself to be a potentially dangerous intoxicant, the songs may have helped the audience to sense the increasing 'rouse' that Cassio begins to feel even before Iago calls for wine by way of preface to his first song.

(iii) Cassio's aubade and other musical references (Act 3, Scene 1)

Act 3 opens with Cassio's misguided morning serenade to Othello and Desdemona. This scene, often omitted in performance, is predicated as much on an understanding of the multi-level early modern meanings of music as on the evidently opposed social customs of the serenade and the charivari.1 Dialogue makes clear that the music in this scene is performed on wind instruments by hired professional musicians. The Clown's bawdy puns draw attention to the phallic shape and nasal timbre of the instruments. Early modern town bands, known in England as waits, performed predominantly on such loud 'outdoor' instruments as shawms or hautbois pg 449(hoboys), which had a nasal resonance not unlike the modern oboe. Thus the band available to Cassio is entirely in keeping with cultural custom; presumably, they are the municipal waits of Shakespeare's imagined Cyprus, paid for a one-off job in the manner of their English counterparts. However, the Clown's punning references to a hanging tail and to a bag imply that at least one of the instruments may be a more rustic bagpipe, age-old butt of phallus-and-flatulence jokes across literary and visual media, and an equally obvious and venerable signifier of male impotence. The original music probably belonged to the classic and widespread morning genre of the aubade (or hunts-up); one such example, from a manuscript of C.1588–1609 in the Folger Shakespeare Library (Folger MS 1610.1), is given here:

Ex. 4

Ex. 4

pg 450Although the Folger arrangement is for lute, the piece is readily playable by up to five musicians; and in this case a bagpipe drone should probably be added to three or four shawms.

Even more important than audible music in this scene are the references to 'music that may not be heard' and to Othello's lack of interest in musical art. In addition to the contrast between the sounding music meant to induce love and the silent music of love itself, any mention of unheard music would have suggested the perfect, eternal music of the spheres—the ultimate concord of true harmony so conspicuously absent from the world of this play whose clumsy musicians cannot evoke it. At the same time, the Clown's statement that 'to hear music the general does not greatly care' resonates both with Castiglione's portrait of the early modern professional soldier as one who eschews music as effeminate artifice, and with Lorenzo's chilling depiction of 'The man that hath no music in himself in The Merchant of Venice (5.1.83–8).1 The idea that unmusical individuals were untrustworthy, savage, and possessed of 'affections dark as Erebus' was so widespread in Shakespeare's England that the earliest full-length English-language treatise on music (1586) prominently cites Polydore Virgil's statement that 'if I made any one which cannot brook or fancy music, surely I erred and made a monster'.2 Thus Othello's indifference to music, especially when taken in conjunction with his own description of Desdemona as 'an admirable musician [who] will sing the savageness out of a bear' (4.1.182–3), may hint at one of the underlying causes of their tragedy.

(iv) The Willow Song (4.3.37–52)

It is, in fact, that admirable musician's performance that stands at the heart of the most famous musical scene of the play: the 'willow song' of Act 4, Scene 3. No song from any of Shakespeare's works has attracted pg 451more attention or inspired more composers. New settings of it have been written by many from the late seventeenth century onwards, among them Pelham Humphrey, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Arthur Sullivan, Percy Grainger, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, as well as Giuseppe Verdi in his magnificent operatic version of Shakespeare's play.

During the sixteenth century and early seventeenth there were so many English laments for lost love with refrains evoking the willow tree as to constitute a distinct genre, of which Shakespeare clearly took advantage in Othello—though his is the only known example in which the lamenting lover is a woman. There is no evidence that any previously existing song-text or music served as a direct model for the one assigned to Desdemona, but Shakespeare's lyric may have subsequently inspired a number of broadsides. Some willow songs were disseminated as poetry without musical notes, while others were preserved in versions for instruments alone with only a 'willow' title. Several early modern English music manuscripts include willow songs that music scholars have modified with varying degrees of success to fit Shakespeare's lyrics. However, only one roughly contemporary tune fits Shakespeare's text with minimal alteration—'The poore soule sate sighing' from British Library MS Add. 15117 (fol. 18).1 This musical miscellany, dating from c.1614 to 1616, preserves a significant quantity of music from the final quarter of the sixteenth century as well as newer pieces, including a number of other songs used in the Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre; and, since the nineteenth century, its willow song setting has been the one most often considered 'authentic', becoming traditional in modern productions with period music, as well as on recordings of Shakespearian songs. The first stanza, refrain, and several other lines of 'The poore soule' show marked resemblances to Desdemona's lyric (albeit using the conventional masculine narrative voice); however, this may simply reflect the fact that the two versions (as well as the famous broadsides later included in the Percy and Roxburghe ballad collections) made use of a common (lost) source. Shakespeare's version, with the music from the British Library manuscript, follows:

The poor soul sat sigh - ing by a The fresh streams ran by her, and Let no - bo - dy blame him, his I call'd my love 'false love'; but sy - ca - more tree, mur - mur'd her moans, scorn I ap - prove-what said he then? Sing all a green_ wil - low. Her hand on her bo - som, her head __ on her Her salt tears fell from her, and sof - ten'd the If I court more wo - men, you'll couch with more knee. Sing wil - low, wil - low, wil - low, wil - low; Sing wil - low, wil - low, wil - low, wil - low must be my gar - - land. Sing all a green wil - low: wil - low, wil-low, wil - low; Sing all a green wil - low must be my gar - land.

Ex. 5

pg 452The dramaturgical effect of this song is carefully calculated: not only does the music itself contrast in every way possible with that used elsewhere in the play, but the circumstances of its performance help to emphasize Desdemona's chaste propriety. Othello has already spoken of her excellence as a musician, suggesting how intensely the exquisite sound of her voice, distracted though she is, can be expected to move the audience. At the same time, by linking her musicianship to her skill with the needle (4.1.182–3), he places it firmly in the world of feminine decorum. According to early modern English social codes, public musical performance pg 453of any sort by a woman was a sign of whoredom; and even to play or sing in front of a man in private was perceived as an invitation to dangerous erotic pleasure. In marriage, however, it could stand for the harmonious bond between husband and wife. Thus Desdemona, the 'admirable musician', whose music, like that of the unfortunate Orpheus, can tame a savage beast, restricts her skill to the culturally appropriate confines of feminine domesticity; yet even in this innocent display of musical propriety, the melancholy tone of Desdemona's song seems heavy with foreknowledge of her own death.

Select Discography

  • 'A Distant Mirror—Shakespeare's Music'
  • Delos DDD
  • Performers: The Folger Consort
  • Music from Othello: 'Willow Song'
  • 'As You Like It—Shakespeare in Music'
  • Sony Classical NPR SMK 61874
  • Performers: various
  • Music from Othello: 'Othello: The Willow Song'
  • 'The English Lute Song'
  • Dorian DOR-90109
  • Performers: Julianne Baird (soprano) and Ronn McFarlane (lute)
  • Music from Othello: 'The Willow Song'
  • 'Music of Shakespeare'
  • Channel Classics CCS 11497
  • Performers: Alba Musica Kyo
  • Music from Othello: 'Willow Song'
  • 'Shakespeare's Music'
  • Dorian DOR-90017
  • Performers: various (this is a compilation CD from other Dorian recordings)
  • Music from Othello: 'The Willow Song'
  • 'Shakespeare's Musick: Songs & Dances from Shakespeare's Plays'
  • Philips 446 687–2
  • Performers: Musicians of the Globe (directed by Philip Pickett)
  • Music from Othello: 'The Poor Soul Sat Sighing (The Willow Song)'
  • pg 454'Shakespeare Songs'
  • Harmonia Mundi Musique d'abord HMA 195202
  • Performers: Alfred Deller (counter-tenor) and Desmond Dupré (lute)
  • Music from Othello: 'Willow Song'
  • 'Songs & Dances from Shakespeare'
  • Saydisc CD-SDL409
  • Performers: The Broadside Band (directed by Jeremy Barlow)
  • Music from Othello: 'The Poor Soul Sat Sighing (The Willow Song)'


1 A comprehensive listing of all extant musical settings from performances of Othello from the seventeenth century to the late twentieth is included in Brian N. S. Gooch and David Thatcher (eds.), A Shakespeare Music Catalogue, 6 vols. (Oxford, 1991), ii. 1200–82. For the use of music in the Shakespearian theatre, including Othello, see Ross W. Duffin, Shakespeare's Songbook (New York, 2004); Richmond Noble, Shakespeare's Use of Song, with the Text of the Principal Songs (Oxford, 1923); F. W. Sternfeld, Music in Shakespearean Tragedy (London and New York, 1963); Peter J. Seng, The Vocal Songs in the Plays of Shakespeare: a Critical Study (Cambridge, Mass., 1967); John H. Long, Shakespeare's Use of Music: the Histories and Tragedies (Gainesville, Fla., 1971); John S. Manifold, The Music in English Drama from Shakespeare to Purcell (1956). The settings printed below are adapted from Sternfeld (1, 3, 5) and Long (2,4).

1 See Bristol, 'Charivari'.

1 See Baldassare Castiglione, The Courtyer, trans. Thomas Hoby (1561), sig. Jii.

2 The Praise of Musicke (Oxford, 1586), p. 74.

1 Available in facsimile as the first manuscript in Elise Bickford Jorgens (ed.), English Song 1600–1675: Facsimiles of Twenty-Six Manuscripts (New York, 1986), vol. i.

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