Shakespeare and Irish Music

From A History of Irish Music by William H. Grattan Flood

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Chapter XVII....concluded

6. "Whoop! do me no harm, good man," twice referred to in "A Winter's Tale" (Act IV., Scene 3), is better known in Ireland as "Paddy Whack," and adapted by Tom Moore to "While History's Muse."

7. "Welladay; or Essex's last Good-night," is of Irish origin, dating from the early part of the sixteenth century. New words were set to it in 1576, on the death of the unfortunate Walter Devereux, Earl of Essex, in Dublin; and it was also used as a tune for the Anglo-Irish lamentation-song written for Robert, Earl of Essex, Viceroy of Ireland, who was beheaded on Ash Wednesday. 1601. It has all the well-known characteristics of the Irish caoine, and was printed by Margaret Allde in 1603.

8. "The Fading," or "With a fading"—mentioned in the fourth act of "A Winter's Tale," is, even on the testimony of the late Mr. William Chappell (an uncompromising advocate of English music), undoubtedly an Irish dance tune. It is none other than the once-familiar Rinnce Fada, which was danced before King James II., when he landed at Kinsale in 1681; a dance which is to this day called "The Faddy," in Cornwall. Of course, all are agreed that the Rinnce Fada means the Long Dance, but it has been more generally called the Contre Dance—or dance in which the performers are opposite each other—a name which is corrupted as "Country" dance. The English Country Dance is merely the Irish Rinnce Fada, as is quite evident from the second name given it in the early editions of Playford's Dancing Master, between the years 1651 and 1701—wherein we read, "The Long Dance for as many as will"—the best known survival of which is "Sir Roger de Coverley." Thomas Dineley, who made a tour of Ireland in 1680, says that "the Irish of this day are much addicted to dance after their country fashion, that is, the Long Dance, one after another, of all conditions, master mistress, servants, etc." Another favourite Irish dance mentioned by Shakespeare in the fourth act of "A Winter's Tale" (1611) is the hornpipe, Urran, that is, the corn-pipe of the mediaeval Irish. He says: "There is but one Puritan amongst them, and he sings psalms to hornpipes."

9. "Light o' Love" is another English annexation from the Emerald Isle.[1] Shakespeare, in his "Much Ado About Nothing" (Act III., Scene 4), says, "Clap us into 'Light o' love,' that goes without a burden; do you sing it and I'll dance it." Burden is the same as a drone or drone-bass, generally being a vocal accompanyment of Fa le la, or Hey troly, loly, lo, as quoted by Piers Plowman in 1362, or else the more usual Shakespearian "Hey, nonny, nonny." Strangely enough, the Irish of the sixth and seventh centuries were acquainted with the musical art-form known as the drone-bass; whilst it is a commonplace of musical history that our own John Scotus Erigena is the first writer to allude to the free organum of the fourth, about the middle of the ninth century.

10. "Yellow Stockings" is an undeniably Irish tune. The very name has a reference to the saffron truis of the mediaeval Irish. Shakespeare introduces it in "Twelfth Night," and the air dates from the sixteenth century, being known by the natives as Cuma liom, "It is indifferent to me," or "I don't care." Playford printed it as early as 1680, and in 1705, Dean Swift adapted a nursery song, "Hey my kitten, my kitten," to it. Other verses for our Irish tune are "Mad Moll" (1698) and "The Virgin Queen" (1703); and, finally, Tom Moore set it to his lyric, "Fairest put on awhile."

11. Shakespeare, in "King Lear" (Act III., Scene 6), makes Edgar say, "Wantest thou eyes at trial, madam? Come o'er the bourn, Bessie, to me." This quaint Irish melody dates from the second half of the sixteenth century, and was very popular in England. As regards the play itself, Mr. Sidney Lee says that it was mainly founded on Holinshed's Chronicles, from our Irish Stanihurst. The air is intensely characteristic.

That Shakespeare was a tolerable musician is almost self-evident, and, in addition, he had good taste—in fact he may well be described as a cultured amateur. We know from his writings that he was acquainted with the works of Orlando di Lasso. His plays are invariably heralded by three flourishes on a trumpet by way of overture, and the orchestra was represented by a band of fiddlers in an upper balcony, over what is row termed the stage-box, and who played music between the acts. We can have a tolerable idea of the orchestra of his day from the constitution of Queen Elizabeth's Band of Music in 1587, viz., 16 trumpets, lutes, harps, a bagpipe, 9 minstrels, 2 rebecks, 6 sackbuts, 8 viols, and 3 players on the virginals. But of all who enjoyed the intimate acquaintance of Shakespeare, his "very intimate friend" (a man admittedly the greatest lutenist in Europe and a really charming composer) was an Irishman, John Dowland. In 1599, Richard Barnfield's sonnet, reprinted in Shakespeare's "Passionate Pilgrim," has the following couplet:—

"Dowland to thee is dear, whose heavenly touch
Upon the lute doth ravish human sense."

Even Davey, the most recent and most eugolistic historian of English music, is forced to admit that "the grace, tenderness, and frankness of the best Irish character are all present in Dowland's works." Whether as the composer of "Awake, sweet love," "Now, ah now, I need must part," the translator of the Micrologus of Ornithoparcus (probably an Irishman also), the author of excellent lessons for the lute and bass viol, Dowland's Lachrimae, the Frog Galliard (which was danced by Queen Elizabeth in her sixty-ninth year), or as an incomparable performer on the lute, Dowland was a marvellous musician. In 1598, he became lutenist to Christian, King of Denmark, at the then unprecedented salary of 500 thalers a year (getting an extra 600 as a douceur in 1600), but returned to England in 1605. Luca Marenzio, the great madrigal composer, wrote to Dowland from Rome on July 13th, 1595. It is not at all unlikely that Shakespeare was indebted for many details of his "Hamlet" to his friend Dowland, whose residence as Court lutenist in that country gave him peculiar advantages, more than could be derived from books. Mr. Sidney Lee says that Shakespeare owed all his information with regard to the Continent and Ireland to the verbal reports of travelled friends or to books, the contents of which he had a rare power of assimilating. It is only to my present purpose to add that Dowland died in March, 1626, surviving his "intrinsic friend," Shakespeare, by ten years.

There are some other Irish musical allusions in Shakespeare, like "Jig off a tune," in "Love's Labour's Lost," and "All my merry jigs are quite forgot," in the "Passionate Pilgrim,"—jig, however, in this instance, meaning any metrical composition, generally applied to second-rate drama, whence Shakespeare adverts to "garlic jigs,"—which Mr. Sidney Lee explains as "indifferent entertainments interspersed with dances in the smaller play-houses." To jig off a tune is a common phrase to this day—meaning to lilt or "la la" it, as is still done in some country places From this fact we are able to draw the conclusion that jig and lilt were originally forms of the geige and the lilt-pipe—whence we read in Chaucer of a lilt-pipe and a corn-pipe, the name of the instrument being transferred to the dance tune, even as the name choir, meaning persons who sang in the choir portion of a church, was evolved from the place where the singers were. This question naturally brings into notice another Shakespearian allusion to the music of the people or the old folk tunes. The great Bard of Avon has one famous passage describing the effect of old songs of occupation, those sung by spinners, weavers, knitters, etc.

I have stated that Shakespeare was indebted for most of his information regarding Ireland to Stanihurst and Blessed Edmund Campion, S.J., in Holinshed's Chronicles; also, to Captain Barnaby Rich, who spent forty years in Ireland, and to Sir John Harrington, John Dowland, and Edmund Spenser. Indeed, as regards Irish music, Dowland and Spenser would appear to be Shakespeare's chief sources of information. It is a singular circumstance that in the fiant of Elizabeth apportioning Kilcolman Castle and lands to Spenser, on October 26th, 1590, he was to hold it for ever in fee farm by the name of "Hap-Hazard." More singular still, notwithstanding the harsh things which the author of the Faerie Queen has left on record regarding Ireland, he himself succumbed to the charms of a fair daughter of Erin named Elizabeth Boyle, of Youghal, whom he wedded, in June, 1594.

Shakespeare, in "Richard III.," alludes to Irish bards, one of whom, he says, had told him "that he would not live long after seeing Richmond." Again, Rosalind in "As You Like It" (Act III., Scene 2), says: "I was never so be-rhimed that I can remember since Pythagoras's time, when I was an Irish rat"—alluding to the doctrine of the transmigration of souls. Many writers of Shakespeare's day allude to the power of Irish bards of being able to rhyme men as well as rats to death. Senchan Torpest, chief poet of Ireland in the seventh century, is said to have uttered a aer (satire) on rats which killed ten of them on the spot.

Thus, Shakespeare's acquaintance with Irish music is much greater than has been previously pointed out by any of his commentators.

END OF CHAPTER XVII.

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NOTE

[1] In the "Two Gentlemen of Verona" (Act I, Sc. 2) allusion is made to "the tune of `Light o' Love.' "


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