Lyrics by Shakespeare
Notes on the Program by Steven Blier
After over a hundred years of corrupt texts and re-written endings, Shakespeare's plays were restored to their original glory in the mid-nineteenth century. In their newly refurbished form, the freedom and generosity of the Bard's plays resonated perfectly with the Romantic era. Renewed enthusiasm for Shakespeare swept first through Germany, later through France, and ultimately conquered all of Europe. The rediscovery of Shakespeare's plays coincided with the birth of the European art song, as a repertoire of vocal music grew to meet the demand of that newly indispensable piece of parlor furniture, the piano. It's not surprising that practically every serious composer who wrote for piano and voice eventually set this poet's verses to music.
If there were a locus classicus of Shakespearean song, I'd nominate the settings by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Roger Quilter. These two musicians were members of a second generation of British composers, after Arthur Sullivan and Hubert Parry, who raised the nineteenth century's ubiquitous parlor ballads to the loftier ideals embodied by the German art song. It's true that the unpretentious sensitivity of Quilter's music evokes the drawing room as much as it does the concert hall; but his beautifully crafted details of harmony and word-setting, not to mention his depth of feeling and compositional skills, have proven surprisingly durable. Underneath their gentleness there is an appealing core of strength, and they are gracious to sing and play.