The Grant Park Chorus performed at the Columbus Park Refectory on July 24, 2016, to an overflowing audience. So many eager attendees thronged into the hall that the performance was held up by the necessity of adding new rows of seats for the newcomers still streaming in after 3 pm. Choral member Matt Greenberg, who recently celebrated nearly twenty years of performing with the GPC, began by welcoming everyone. Participating in Chicago’s Shakespeare 400 Celebration, he said, gave the chorus a welcome opportunity to stand out from The Grant Park Orchestra with which they usually collaborate. Moving chronologically through history, the chorus began with Shakespearean songs set to music by early modern composers before performing present-day renditions. First they sang two instantly recognizable songs from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, the first being “It Was a Lover and His Lass,”set to music by Thomas Morley (1557/1558-1602) in his First Book of Balletts (1595). Their united voices echoed throughout the rectangular
space and Columbus Hall and its wooden rafters in a hair-raisingly lovely sound.
Pausing the performance after the chorus had imitated the harsh, gusting blast in “Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind” by Thomas Augustine Arne arr. Radcliffe (1710-1778), Director Christopher Bell faulted the audience’s applause for being too polite, “sounding as though we’re here to entertain you on a summer afternoon!” After the audience obliged with greater applause, Bell made the first of several remarks on Shakespearean music and drama, pointing out that no main characters would be singing these songs in the plays. “Some lowlife, some wandering minstrel would sing the song, which would reflect in some way on what was occurring in the drama,” he observed. Divorced from the cultural contexts in which Shakespeare’s songs were originally performed, however, musicians are free to experiment with the playwright’s words according to their own inclinations. In terms of why he himself chose these particular songs for the Shakespeare 400 program, Bell explained, “True, a wide variety of composers have composed Shakespeare arrangements. In my particular choices for this performance, my one criteria is—I have to like the music.”
Fortunately for this critic throughout the next hour, Bell’s musical tastes seemed to accord well with my own. As exemplified by the first two songs, the selections either tended to the rollicking comical, or the wistfully solemn, reflecting in a way the tenor and variations of Shakespearean drama in its two extremes. “Full Fathom Five” (The Tempest) was the first of the next set of three Shakespearean songs by composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), which seemed to me to, in conjunction, describe the different moods in which the playwright approaches Faery: in wonderment, in delight, and occasionally with somber respect and fear. Underwater bells tolled in a shimmering sound voiced by the female part of the chorus, giving way to a funereal, magical, very playful dirge as the male parts sang the verses in an undulating rhythm. The bells and words built up to a purpose and then just as intangibly slipped away into silence, ending on slow bells punctuating the stillness. Next came the joyous, lilting “Over Hill, Over Dale,” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), an arrangement clearly influenced by English and Irish folk songs or madrigals in the style of John Farmer (ca. 1570—ca. 1601). Finally, “The Cloud-Capp’d Towers” (The Tempest) was slow and stately, carefully enunciated and held in choral unison, bass sinking meanwhile and soprano rising steadily and clearly above the middle parts.
Three songs from Jaakko Mäntyjärvi (b. 1963) followed, which all played with the power of the human voice to enact Shakespeare’s jarring poetry in song. “Come Away, Death”(Twelfth Night) in F major was mysterious, grave, thrilling, and eerie. The adjuration “to weep” hung out impossibly. As for “Lullaby” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), any baby hearing that opening note would be as far from sleep as humanly possible regardless of waves of rhythmic intoning from the bass section! Chanting in unison throughout its rendition of “Double, Double, Toil and Trouble” (Macbeth), high-pitched shrieks from the alto and soprano sections mimicked the witches’ frothing brew. As all parts joined, the slower recitation of the lines “Eye of newt, and toe of frog, / Wool of bat, and tongue of dog” soon escalated again into harsh and unrelenting cacophony. The choir transformed into a witches’ Sabbath driven wild in gibbering excitement, emitting sliding yelps and occasionally expressing themselves. with outlandish physical gestures I can only describe as “magical jazz hands.” Though only the female sections sang the concluding lines, a powerful ending stamp from all members imitated the opening door as Macbeth enters in the play itself. This song, obviously, was a big hit with the audience!
Two of the final arrangements hinted towards the future potential of re-envisioning and re-framing Shakespeare’s verses within a variety of musical styles. At the start of Matthew Harris’s (b. 1956) Who is Sylvia (The Two Gentlemen of Verona), soprano Corinne Wallace left the rest of the group and sashayed down the aisle while the choir and she engaged in a gospel call-and-response. In time with the beat, Director Bell often fist-pumped and excitedly bounded around as he directed the chorus, clearly “feeling it.” For the penultimate song, tenor Hoss Brock sang Kevin Olson’s (b. 1970): “A Summer Sonnet” (Sonnet 18), with its famous opening line, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” in the style of a nightclub singer such as Frank Sinatra while the choir backed him up. Many similar musical projects have been done lately that aim to convert Shakespeare’s Sonnets into pop or folk music using Elizabethan instruments such as the harp, flute, and viol. This kind of modern exploration of preexisting conventions and historical recovery injects twenty-first century sound into Shakespeare, allowing his words to be sung to music that has significant cultural meaning for us. The Grant Park Chorus’s performance, in gesturing to past “interpretations” of Shakespeare throughout history and incorporating contemporary renditions, both celebrates the expressive power of music and indicates the extraordinary flexibility and endurance of Shakespeare’s verse in adapting itself to a variety of genres and purposes across every century.
Lydia Craig is a doctoral candidate at Loyola University Chicago, where she specializes in Victorian studies, with an additional focus on early modern drama. She holds an MA in English literature from Loyola University Chicago and a BA in English and history from the University of Georgia. Read more about Lydia…