Colloquy XV: Mediating Music in Middleton’s The Witch

Hello everyone – Liz here again to blog for Colloquy XV: Mediating Music in Middleton’s The Witch in Masonic Muilding – Blue Room. This live blogging session runs from nine to ten fifteen in the morning.The chair for this session is Linda Austen from Northwestern University. The presenters are Katherine Brokaw from the University of California, MercedScott A.  Trudell of the University of Maryland, College ParkSarah Williams of the University of South CarolinaAmanda Winkler of Syracuse University, and Jennifer Wood of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Austen thanks the attendees for their presence and turns the floor over to Trudell.

Trudell explains that this session focuses on the mediation of a song in performance within the text. He also explains his fascination with media transformations that adapt and re-imagine that bring us closer to the original performance of the song. Trudell is part of a project to create an open-source internet media to interface with to hear early modern songs. This project hopes to give archival and historical contexts for lyrics. Trudell and his team want to avoid giving the impression of original musical representations. Trudell explains that songs existed in variants, rather than one authorial version. Through this project, Trudell hopes that teachers and theatre practitioners can find, hear, and download songs for research and performance.

Trudell then gives an example of lyrics in Middleton’s work and explains different ways to view the lyrics. First, one may look at the meter of the song. One may also choose to speak the lyrics. Then, he brings the lyrics into the context of a larger song within the scene with Hecate and her followers singing. Trudell shows some early prints of the play, including a 1778 edition that has the voices “in the air.” He explains that the song itself was first printed in 1774 which numbers the voices, rather than assigning the lyric lines to characters. Middleton’s song appears, in part, in print, in Shakespeare’s Macbeth in 1623. In 1625, the song also appears in print from scribe Richard Cane, which is attributed to Robert Jonson from the 1620s. Trudell hopes that his interface will allow users access to more modern versions of the musical score and to link to other sites that would elaborate on the performance and images of early modern witches. He states that many current links online to recordings of early modern music is of poor quality. His project hopes to work with collaborators to provide cleaner recordings. He hopes practitioners will be able to use this interface to include early modern music in their performances.

Austen then takes the stage to talk about reproduction of early modern music in today’s theatre. Music, in early modern drama, acted on the body it found to change its emotions. Austen shows an image of a recreation of the Blackfriars Theater with a third floor known as the music house. She then shows a photo of our own Blackfriars Theater. She points out a version of The Witch with the stage direction [Music] to indicate music would start before the lyrics to the song begin. She then shows a photo of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in London to illustrate another location where performance of music can occur.

Austen moves on to a photo of musical notation in a songbook for the song from The Witch. She explains that this print would be for home usage and allows little room for harmony and chords. She shows a modern notation of the song and explains that modern musicians have to fill in the gaps left by early modern song books. She gives a list of all musical instruments called for by name in the second Blackfriars Playhouse. She divides these into loud and soft instruments, and explains that only the loud band instruments would be used for this scene. The introduces the violin family, associated with May Pole dances and disreputable spaces and performers. She likens violins to saxophones today. She explains that images of cats playing the fiddle abounded, rather than witches playing the fiddle. Then, she shows pictures cornettis and sackbuts with their brass and woodwind-esque sound and explains that they would be versatile. There is debate as to which voices would accompany these instruments.

Williams then takes the floor to speak on witches on the stage. England in the early modern period was less concerned with demonic possession and more concerned with misdemeanors and disruptive behavior. Middleton based his portrayal of witches heavily on The Discovery of Witchcraft. The broadside ballad trade assisted in the spread of stories of witches in a performative manner. Witches were described as hybrid creatures, half-man and half-beast, which Williams illustrates with a woodcut. Boys would play the attendants of witches and men would play the grotesque witches. She points to several textual examples of the grotesque features of witches in literature. Several Jacobean witches sing and dance, as expressed in several texts and illustrated in several woodcuts. The witches’ world was see as similar to our own, but backwards, which Williams illustrates with textual examples.

The seventeenth century illustrated hags onstage through song and dance within the bounds of the century’s language. The dance music would be rustic and abound with language reminding the audience of the bad intentions of the witches. She then introduces the first performance, informed by these evidences. The actors, including Trudell, Austen, and Josh Williams – a Mary Baldwin graduate student -, Wood, and Brokaw perform the scene, accompanied by Williams on the piano.

Brokaw explains her experience as a professor and a theatre practitioner. She talks about directing The Winter’s Tale at Merced last February. She decided to set the first three acts in the 1950s. Then, she had acts four and five take place in the 1970s. She explains her options for the music composition with the possibility of collaborating with a composer to create the music for the show. The Royal Shakespeare Company in 2013 commissioned an indie songwriter to compose music for their performance. Brokaw soon realized that she did not have all of the RSC’s resources at her disposal and could not compose new works. She explains that she finally decided to incorporate modern songs into the play. She also decided to add more music where the text does not indicate music. For example, she had Hermoine and Perdita sing Blackbird at the end of the play as the reunited family looked on at a 1950s portrait of Mamilius. She states that this began a conversation within the community on music on the early modern stage. She shares that this experience allowed non-academic theatre-goers to ask about her scholarship and research. Brokaw explains that she could also have placed Shakespeare’s lyrics into a 1950s and 1970s musical score.

She then introduces the next performance, where this final option is utilized. The performance will use the original lyrics, but will incorporate the tune of a Frank Sinatra song, performed by Wood and Winkler.

Winkler takes the stage to say that working on the edge of scholarship and practice has allowed her to research in a very different way. She states that performing Hecate allows her to experiment with different versions of Hecate, including an option that allows her to emphasize Hecate’s incestuous qualities. She explains that the original text allows for the actor to infuse the song with dramatic choices that can alter the audience’s views on Hecate. She points out that everyone has an imagined version of the song from reading the text. But these imagined versions cannot all appear on the stage at once.

Winkler speaks that the witches in Middleton’s play sip on blood before singing and that by placing the lyrics within the tune of Sinatra’s song gives a shadow of Sinatra’s presence over the witches’ grotesque presence. She states that she hopes to start a dialogue on whether theatre practitioners should adhere to early modern lyrics and music or experiment with contemporary music.

A scholar asks if many audience members were upset by the use of modern songs in The Winter’s Tale, citing that many of her students were curious about the ASC’s use of modern music in the performance. Brokaw questions if we are excising anything by incorporating contemporary songs, but she also states that she feels that lyrics are easier to alter or switch out than the words themselves. Austen mentions that many times she experienced shocked theatre practitioners who did not realize that there were early modern versions of songs within the texts. Trudell speaks that the ASC’s Winter’s Tale did not use any early modern music. He acknowledges this worked very well, but he also calls for greater experimentation with early modern music and ballads.

About bitsybetsy

Shakespeare and Performance graduate student.