Three Shakespeare Songs

Last updated

Three Shakespeare Songs
by Ralph Vaughan Williams, setting of text by William Shakespeare
Three Shakespeare Songs.jpg
The vocal score of Three Shakespeare Songs
Other nameFull Fathom Five; The Cloud-Capp'd Towers; Over Hill, Over Dale
Period 20th-century classical music
Genre Classical Part song
Language Early Modern English
ComposedJune 1951 (1951-06)
Publisher Oxford University Press
Duration7 minutes approx
Vocal SATB a cappella choir
Date23 June 1951 (1951-06-23)
Location Royal Festival Hall, London, UK
Conductor Cecil Armstrong Gibbs

Three Shakespeare Songs is a piece of classical choral music written for an a cappella SATB choir. It was written in 1951 by the British classical composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. The work comprises three short pieces which are settings of text from two plays by the English playwright William Shakespeare. It is published by Oxford University Press.


Composition and first performance

Composer Ralph Vaughan Williams Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1954.jpg
Composer Ralph Vaughan Williams

In 1951 the British Federation of Music Festivals (of which Vaughan Williams was president) held its annual National Competitive Festival during the Festival of Britain. The festival included a choral competition in which choirs from around the United Kingdom would demonstrate their technical abilities by performing test pieces. Vaughan Williams's associate composer, Cecil Armstrong Gibbs, tried to persuade him to compose a new test piece. Vaughan Williams was reluctant at first, and was of the opinion that the choirs should perform established test pieces rather than introducing a new composition. [1] Disappointed that Vaughan Williams had apparently failed to answer his letter, Armstrong Gibbs appeared to have given up on the idea:

Soon afterwards I was stricken down with some illness and was in bed when a fat envelope, registered and bearing the Dorking postmark, was brought up. Inside was the MS. (manuscript) of the Three Shakespeare Songs dedicated to me and the briefest of notes which ran: "Dear Armstrong. Here are three Shakespeare settings. Do what you like with them... Yours ever R.V.W."

Cecil Armstrong Gibbs [1]

The songs were premiered in the Royal Festival Hall on 23 June 1951, conducted by Armstrong Gibbs.

Harmonic style

Stylistic comparisons have been made with Vaughan Williams's Sixth Symphony which was composed only four years earlier, notably of the second song, The Cloud-Capp'd Towers. Although the published version begins in the key of F♯ minor, the composer's original holograph was in E minor, which is also the key of the Sixth Symphony. The shifting between E minor and E♭ minor triads, as heard on the words "shall dissolve" has been compared to the conclusion of the Epilogue movement of the symphony. [2] Vaughan Williams himself later suggested that the meaning of the symphony's last movement could be summed up in the lines from The Tempest: "We are such stuff / As dreams are made on; and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep." [3]


The text of each song is derived from plays by William Shakespeare:

Full Fathom Five

The first song is a setting of Ariel's Song to Ferdinand from The Tempest . It refers to Ferdinand's father — Alonso, King of Naples — who is presumed drowned in a shipwreck and whose body undergoes a magical transformation in the ocean depths. [4] The spirit Ariel sings this song to a prince of Naples. Prince Ferdinand falsely thinks his father is drowned in the ocean. [5]

The Tempest, Act 1 scene 2:

Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them, – ding-dong bell.

The Cloud-Capp'd Towers

The second song also uses lines from The Tempest, spoken by the sorcerer Prospero to conclude the masque at the wedding of his daughter Miranda to Prince Ferdinand. The characters, Prospero announces, will all fade away, and this play within a play itself becomes a metaphor for the transience of real life, the globe symbolising both the world and the Globe Theatre in London. [6]

The Tempest, Act IV scene 1

The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind: We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

Over Hill, Over Dale

Text from A Midsummer Night's Dream forms the basis of the third song, the Fairy's Song to Puck. The furiously rhythmic verse evokes the mythology of Titania, the Fairy Queen. [7]

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act II scene 1

Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough briar,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire
I do wander everywhere.
Swifter than the moonè's sphere;
And I serve the fairy queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green.
The cowslips tall her pensioners be;
In their gold coats spots you see;
Those be rubies, fairy favours,
In those freckles live their savours:
I must go seek some dew-drops here,
And hang a pearl in every cowslip's ear.

Related Research Articles

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Ralph Vaughan Williams</span> English composer (1872–1958)

Ralph Vaughan Williams was an English composer. His works include operas, ballets, chamber music, secular and religious vocal pieces and orchestral compositions including nine symphonies, written over sixty years. Strongly influenced by Tudor music and English folk-song, his output marked a decisive break in British music from its German-dominated style of the 19th century.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Prospero</span> Character in William Shakespeares The Tempest

Prospero is a fictional character and the protagonist of William Shakespeare's play The Tempest. Prospero is the rightful Duke of Milan, whose usurping brother, Antonio, had put him to sea on a "rotten carcass" of a boat to die, twelve years before the play begins. Prospero and Miranda had survived and found exile on a small island. He has learned sorcery from books, and uses it while on the island to protect Miranda and control the other characters.

Caliban, son of the witch Sycorax, is an important character in William Shakespeare's play The Tempest.

"Ariel's song" is a verse passage in Scene ii of Act I of William Shakespeare's The Tempest. It consists of two stanzas to be delivered by the spirit Ariel, in the hearing of Ferdinand. In performance it is sometimes sung and sometimes spoken. There is an extant musical setting of the second stanza by Shakespeare's contemporary Robert Johnson, which may have been used in the original production around 1611

Ralph Vaughan Williams composed his Symphony in E minor, published as Symphony No. 6, in 1944–47, during and immediately after World War II and revised in 1950. Dedicated to Michael Mullinar, it was first performed, in its original version, by Sir Adrian Boult and the BBC Symphony Orchestra on 21 April 1948. Within a year it had received some 100 performances, including the U.S. premiere by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky on 7 August 1948. Leopold Stokowski gave the first New York performances the following January with the New York Philharmonic and immediately recorded it, declaring that "this is music that will take its place with the greatest creations of the masters." However, Vaughan Williams, very nervous about this symphony, threatened several times to tear up the draft. At the same time, his programme note for the first performance took a defiantly flippant tone.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Symphony No. 9 (Vaughan Williams)</span> Musical work, premiered in 1958

The Symphony No. 9 in E minor was the last symphony written by the English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. He composed it during 1956 and 1957, and it was given its premiere performance in London by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Sir Malcolm Sargent on 2 April 1958, in the composer's eighty-sixth year. The work was received respectfully but, at first, without great enthusiasm. Its reputation has subsequently grown, and the symphony has entered the repertoire, in the concert hall and on record, with the majority of recordings from the 1990s and the 21st century.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">John Westbrook (actor)</span> English actor (1922–1989)

John Aubrey Westbrook was an English actor.

<i>A Midsummer Tempest</i> 1974 fantasy novel by Poul Anderson

A Midsummer Tempest is a 1974 alternative history fantasy novel by Poul Anderson. In 1975, it was nominated for the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel and the Nebula Award for Best Novel and won the Mythopoeic Award.

<i>The Tempest</i> (Sullivan) Suite of incidental music for Shakespeares play composed by Arthur Sullivan

The Tempest incidental music, Op. 1, is a set of movements for Shakespeare's play composed by Arthur Sullivan in 1861 and expanded in 1862. This was Sullivan's first major composition, and its success quickly brought him to the attention of the musical establishment in England.

<i>The Tempest</i> (1979 film) 1979 British drama film

The Tempest is a 1979 film adaptation of William Shakespeare's play of the same name. Directed by Derek Jarman, produced by Don Boyd, with Heathcote Williams as Prospero, it also stars Toyah Willcox, Jack Birkett, Karl Johnson and Helen Wellington-Lloyd from Jarman's previous feature, Jubilee (1977).

<i>Scene from Shakespeares The Tempest</i> c. 1736–1738 painting by William Hogarth

Scene from Shakespeare's The Tempest, also known as Ferdinand courting Miranda is an oil painting by the English painter William Hogarth. It has been displayed at Nostell Priory since 1766, and was acquired by the National Trust in 2002. The National Trust claims that it is "the first known painting of a scene from Shakespeare".

(Albert) Meredith Davies CBE was a British conductor, renowned for his advocacy of English music by composers such as Benjamin Britten, Frederick Delius and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

<i>As Dreams Are Made On</i> 2004 New Zealand film

As Dreams Are Made On is a 2004 short film written and directed by Gabriel Reid.

<i>The Journey to Melonia</i> 1989 Swedish film

Voyage to Melonia is a 1989 Swedish-Norwegian animated adventure fantasy film directed by Per Åhlin, loosely based on William Shakespeare's The Tempest, with further inspiration from Jules Verne's Propeller Island and Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. It was Åhlin's first fully animated feature film, as his earlier films Out of an Old Man's Head and Dunderklumpen! had both used a mix of animation and live action.

<i>The Tempest</i> Play by William Shakespeare

The Tempest is a play by William Shakespeare, probably written in 1610–1611, and thought to be one of the last plays that he wrote alone. After the first scene, which takes place on a ship at sea during a tempest, the rest of the story is set on a remote island, where Prospero, a complex and contradictory character, lives with his daughter Miranda, and his two servants: Caliban, a savage monster figure, and Ariel, an airy spirit. The play contains music and songs that evoke the spirit of enchantment on the island. It explores many themes, including magic, betrayal, revenge, and family. In Act IV, a wedding masque serves as a play-within-a-play, and contributes spectacle, allegory, and elevated language.

The Norfolk Rhapsodies are three orchestral rhapsodies by Ralph Vaughan Williams, drafted in 1905–06. They were based on folk songs Vaughan Williams had collected in the English county of Norfolk, in particular the fishing port of King's Lynn in January 1905. Only the first rhapsody survives in its entirety, having been revised by the composer in 1914. The second exists in fragmentary form, and has been completed by other hands. The third is lost.

<i>The Tempest</i> (1963 film) 1963 Australian film

The Tempest is a 1963 Australian television play, an adaptation of the play by William Shakespeare. Directed by Alan Burke, it stars Reg Livermore.

<i>A Midsummer Nights Dream</i> (Seiji Ozawa recording) 1994 studio album of Mendelssohns A Midsummer Nights Dream by Seiji Ozawa

A Midsummer Night's Dream is a 55-minute studio album containing the overture and almost all of the incidental music that Felix Mendelssohn wrote to accompany William Shakespeare's play of the same name. It is performed by Kathleen Battle, Frederica von Stade, the Tanglewood Festival Chorus and the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Seiji Ozawa, with interlinking passages of verse spoken by Judi Dench. It was released in 1994.

<i>Folk Songs of the Four Seasons</i> Cantata by Ralph Vaughan Williams

Folk Songs of the Four Seasons is a cantata for women's voices with orchestra or piano by English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams written in 1949. Based on English folk songs, some of which he had collected himself in the early 20th century, the work was commissioned by the Women's Institute for a Singing Festival held at the Royal Albert Hall on 15 June 1950. The first performance featured a choir of 3,000 women, accompanied by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Adrian Boult. Ursula Vaughan Williams remembered that owing to the huge choir "the audience seemed far fewer than the performers".


  1. 1 2 Kennedy, Michael; Ralph Vaughan Williams (1992). The Works of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Oxford University Press. pp. 316–7. ISBN   0-19-816330-4.
  2. Byron Adams, Robin Wells (2003). "The Stages of Revision of the Sixth Symphony". Vaughan Williams Essays. Ashgate Publishing. pp. 13–14. ISBN   1-85928-387-X.
  3. Vaughan Williams, Ursula (1964). "XIII". R.V.W. A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams. Oxford University Press. p. 283. ISBN   0-19-282082-6.
  4. Schwerin-High, Friedrike Von (2004). Shakespeare, Reception and Translation: Germany and Japan. Bloomsbury Academic. p. 209. ISBN   9780826474766 . Retrieved 19 February 2018.
  5. "full fathom five thy father lies summary (Class 12)". Mero Notice. 11 March 2021. Retrieved 12 March 2021.
  6. "Such stuff as dreams are made on - eNotes Shakespeare Quotes". eNotes. Retrieved 19 February 2018.
  7. "SparkNotes: A Midsummer Night's Dream: Act II, scene i". Retrieved 19 February 2018.