Music in the Age of Shakespeare


2016 marks 400 years since the death of the great playwright William Shakespeare, who died on April 23rd 1616. For the majority of his career, Shakespeare was working at a time when England was under the rule of Queen Elizabeth I, a great patron of the arts. Elizabeth was particularly fond of music and was a talented musician herself, much like her father Henry VIII before her.


“Greensleeves” is attributed to King Henry VIII. Hear more on Songs for William Shakespeare.

Her patronage encouraged the genius of composers such as William Byrd, Thomas Tallis and Orlando Gibbons. Outside the court chapels, a popular music scene was also thriving, with composers such as Thomas Morley writing charming tunes to lyrics written in English, which were often very witty.

“The Frog Galliard” by Thomas Morley, from Great Music from the Court of Elizabeth I.

Working in this environment, it’s no surprise that Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets are full of references to music and song. Similarly, although the stage directions in the earliest versions of Shakespeare’s texts can be extremely limited, they nevertheless often specify which musical instruments are to be deployed at specific points.


In Antony and Cleopatra, for example, an important distinction is made between the wood and string instruments; woodwind is frequently associated with Cleopatra and with the “exotic” land of Egypt, whilst strings represent the logical Romans. It’s interesting to note that Samuel Barber uses a similar distinction in his famous operatic setting of the play.

There are several plays which include whole songs written by Shakespeare. Many of them have been put to music, and some of the most intriguing settings are by Shakespeare’s contemporary Thomas Morley. It’s fascinating to think that these songs may have been heard in early performances of Shakespeare’s plays during his lifetime. For example, “O Mistress Mine” is a song from Twelfth Night sung by the clown Feste. It acts as an exhortation for lovers to live in the moment, since “present mirth hath present laughter, what’s to come is still unsure.” Listen to Thomas Morley’s setting:

“O Mistress Mine” by Thomas Morley, from All the World’s a Stage.

This performance is based on the instrumental version in Thomas Morley’s book of Consort Lessons (1599), where it is most likely a setting by Morley himself of an old tune, although there is a more elaborate version by Byrd in the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book.

The Elizabethans believed that the world was governed by the “harmony of the spheres”, that is, a musical harmony, inaudible to fallen human ears, by which the universe functioned. This concept of musicality lay at the heart of the Elizabethan world view, and consequently informed much of the cultural production of the day. For Shakespeare, this was a particularly powerful idea and perhaps helps to explain both why there are so many metaphors of tuning and harmony in his plays, and why his works have been reinterpreted in music again and again over the last 400 years.

The Renaissance diagram below shows the Muses (who inspire poets, composers and artists), the planets and the musical ratios which relate to them:


The language of flowers in music through the ages


Flowers have intrigued artists, writers and musicians for centuries. Their colour, liveliness and fragility mean that they have been the direct inspiration for poetic and musical works from the medieval era to the present day. To coincide with National Gardening Week 2016, we’ve picked out some of our favourite examples.

Image: via Stefan Lochner/WikipediaRoses
Since the middle ages, the rose has been a potent symbol, used in both sacred and secular contexts as a metaphor for women. In the medieval era in particular, the rose was closely associated with the Virgin Mary. In the carol “There is no rose”, the Virgin Mary is described as the “rose that bare Jesu”. The language is compelling and beautiful: “for in that rose contained was / Heaven and earth in little space”. Listen to it below:

Find this track and others on “Deo Gracias Anglia: Medieval English Carols”

The beautiful amaryllis flower is celebrated in the music of Giulio Caccini, whose madrigal setting “Amarilli mia bella” is one of his best known works. According to classical legend, Amaryllis was a nymph who fell in unrequited love with the shepherd Alteo. All Alteo searched for was the most beautiful flower in the world. Desperate to please him, Amaryllis pierced her breast with an arrow until a red flower sprang up from her blood on the ground. Ever since, the amaryllis has stood for both determination and exceptional beauty.


In Scarlatti’s 1694 opera, Pirro e Demetrio, the hero sings a playful aria in which he addresses a patch of violet flowers wondering whether he will find his love requited. The accompaniment is light and fanciful, echoing the fragile nature of these tiny flowers. Violets are often thought to represent modesty, but they are also associated with a love that is fragile and delicate; Scarlatti leaves it up to the audience’s imagination as to which characteristic he is invoking in this aria.


Although Puccini is best known for his operatic classics such as Madama Butterfly and La Boheme, he also composed some beautiful chamber music. One example is his string quartet, Crisantemi, a melancholy and moving work that is rarely heard today. The title means “chrysanthemums” and was reportedly written in one night as a response to the death of the Duke of Savoy. The chrysanthemum is the Italian flower of mourning and they are often placed on tomb stones.


Lavender is valued for its calming properties, and it is traditionally associated with purity and silence. This makes is a particularly appropriate flower for a song intended to rock children to sleep, such as “Lavender’s Blue”. Versions of this nursery song date back to the 17th century, and there are numerous recordings in various styles, including a well-loved version by Donald Peers.

Gardens, flora and fauna have been celebrated in music for centuries, from the beautiful melodies of the middle ages to the foot-tapping tunes of the 1940s and ’50s. Listen to a couple of examples from either end of the spectrum; “Sumer is Icumen In”, a tune first composed in the mid-13th century, and “Rosy Apples”, a jolly celebration of the fruit that keeps the doctor away by Evelyn Knight.

Hear more medieval music for the outdoors in “A Garden of Music”

Hear more classic tracks in “Music for a Lady Gardener”

Bach and the organ at Easter


JS Bach and music for Easter have become almost synonymous. At this time of year, concert halls everywhere echo with Bach’s Easter Oratorio and his two stunning settings of Christ’s Passion. This year, Bach’s birthday (21st March) also falls in Holy Week.

Image: via Wikipedia

Image: via Wikipedia

Even Bach’s works which are not nominally intended to celebrate Easter are full of a joy, intensity and dynamism that seem perfectly suited to the festival of Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. This is particularly true of his works for organ, an instrument to which he dedicated much of his life and talent.

In this blog post, we hope to take you beyond the usual Easter pieces from Bach and introduce a few alternatives for your Easter morning listening. Here are some of our favourite Bach works for organ:

Toccata and Fugue in D Minor BMV 565

This work by Bach probably constitutes the most famous piece of organ music ever written. It might surprise you, therefore, to know that some musicians believe the piece was not originally written for the organ; some people don’t even think it was written by Bach! Nevertheless, everyone will be familiar with its dramatic opening:

“The Great Fantasia”

Bach’s fantasia and fugue in G minor (BMV 542) was named “The Great Fantasia” in order to distinguish it from the “little” fantasia and fugue in the same key, which is much shorter. It opens with a particularly dramatic and free fantasia, before settling into a virtuosic fugue that reportedly derives its theme from a Dutch folk song.

Prelude and Fugue in C Major 

Bach’s prelude in C major is written in a cheerful and lilting style, whilst the fugue is a masterpiece of counterpoint, a musical device which Bach helped to develop. In this work, Bach makes use of the organ’s capacity for lightness and joy, proving it an instrument capable of something other than the thunderous drama it is usually associated with.

Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C Major

Not to be confused with the above, this work in C major is similarly joyful and even more virtuosic. The adagio includes a haunting solo accompanied by a repeated motif played by the feet, whilst the fugue dances along in triple metre. All this is fronted by the wonderful toccata. Listen to a sample:

Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor

For something a bit different, try a Bach passacaglia. Robert Schumann once said of this work that its variations are “intertwined so ingeniously that one can never cease to be amazed.” Passacaglia is a term taken from the Spanish pasar (to walk) and calle (street). Bach’s version has 20 different variations and is followed by a double fugue, a form where two subjects are developed simultaneously. The effect is complex but magical.

For more Bach for Easter morning, or any other day of the year, try Bach Great Organ Works performed by Martin Souter on an original 1732 organ. Click here to see more.


Women composers through the ages


The month of March is designated Women’s History Month and also plays host to Mothering Sunday and International Women’s Day. At The Gift of Music, we’re all for celebrating wonderful women, and we’ve put together a list of female composers from the medieval era to the present day.

Women composers have often been sidelined by history, but there’s actually a strong tradition of women writing beautiful music in both secular and sacred contexts. Here are some of the greats:

1. Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)

Image: via Wikipedia

Image: via Wikipedia

Abbess Hildegard was one of the extraordinary creative personalities of the middle ages. In her youth she saw vivid mystical visions, and she turned these into poetry and music. Both her music and lyrics are extraordinarily free by the standards of the time; Hildegard once wrote ‘my new song must float like a feather on the breath of God.’ Her sacred songs celebrate the range of the virtuosic female voice, which is extremely rare in early music.

Listen to a sample of Hildegard’s O Vos Angeli below

Click here to discover more of Hildegard’s music in Music from a Medieval Abbey

2. Francesca Caccini (1587-1641)

Image: via Wikipedia

Image: via Wikipedia

Born in the city of Florence, Italy, at the beginning of the Baroque era, Francesca Caccini was a prolific composer of chamber and stage music. She was employed by the wealthy Medici family and by 1614 she had become their highest paid musician. She produced a series of works for enormous pageants and elaborate staged performances, and she is credited with producing the earliest opera ever written by a woman. Sadly, however, very little of her work survives today.

3. Fanny Mendelssohn (1805-1847)

Image: via Wikipedia

Image: via Wikipedia

Often overlooked in favour of her more famous brother, Fanny Mendelssohn composed a huge number of works over the course of her life. Her piano music was sometimes published under Felix Mendelssohn’s name and much of it is written in a similar style. In fact, some claim that Fanny was composing “songs without words” before her brother made them famous. It’s said that when Queen Victoria met Felix Mendelssohn, she proposed singing Italien, her favourite piece of his, which the composer then had to admit was actually by his sister.

4. Amy Beach (1867-1944)

Image: via Wikipedia

Image: via Wikipedia

Amy Beach was the first successful woman composer in the United States. Originally an acclaimed pianist, after her marriage (to a man 24 years older than herself) she agreed to limit her public performances to two recitals a year, and devoted herself more fully to her composing. She produced large-scale works, including her well-known Gaelic Symphony and Mass in E-flat Minor. The latter became the first piece by a woman to be performed by the Handel and Haydn Society, well-known for its conservatism.

5. Judith Weir (b.1954)

Image: via BCMG

Image: via BCMG

Judith Weir is one of the best known women composers working today. Growing up, she was taught by Sir John Tavener before studying composition with Robin Holloway at the University of Cambridge. She is best known for her operatic works, which include Blond Eckbert and Armida. Her compositions often draw on stories from Medieval history or her homeland of Scotland.