Sound the trumpet

Music really mattered to Shakespeare. Which is why the Globe's Philip Pickett is determined to make his sennets, retreats and tuckets as true to the Elizabethan model as possible. By Andrew Stewart
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The Independent Culture
Actors are prepared to spend years unlocking the full sonority and rhythmic life of Shakespeare's words, their aim to find suitably alluring inflections for what might easily pass as a banal phrase and to imply the meaning of even the most cryptic passage. Strange, then, that so many productions of the Bard's plays confound their best efforts, along with the music of his verse, by introducing limp, inexpressive settings of his song texts. And there is no excuse for including miserable passages of underscoring that would shame the average first- year student of harmony and counterpoint.

Music clearly mattered to Shakespeare, who made over 500 references to the art in his work and expected his actor-musicians to sing, dance and play for their money. Trumpet fanfares and flourishes, exit and entrance pieces, popular tunes and freshly composed songs were an essential part of Elizabethan drama, setting up a "mirror of sound" to reflect changes in mood and aspects of character. While many of Shakespeare's musical directions, obvious enough to players at the time, may be elusive today, it seems unnecessarily cruel to subject audiences to mind-numbing improvisations on synthesiser and drums, especially so when greater authenticity is within reach.

Philip Pickett says amen to that, citing the contributions of his period band to Mark Rylance's Globe Theatre production of The Chronicle History of Henry the Fift while cursing those who devalue Shakespeare's music. Pickett's theatrical pedigree sets him apart from most early musicians, his career shaped by lengthy spells working with the Royal Shakespeare Company and at the National Theatre. Many of his projects with the New London Consort have explored the relationship between music and drama, whether sacred or secular, and he has also compiled scores for radio plays and feature films. "When it became known there was this crazy American with this crazy scheme to build this crazy theatre," he recalls, "it occurred to me that I had the academic background and an understanding of the symbolism of theatre music, together with the theatrical experience necessary, to be the ideal man to provide the music at the Globe. I would want to be as authentic as it was possible to be, and yet I would want to make the music work theatrically."

Sam Wannamaker accordingly invited Pickett to become director of music at the Globe Theatre, expecting the highest degree of musical authenticity to match the attention to period detail invested in the building itself. The musician's Shakespearian detective work has so far pinpointed the exact trumpet calls prescribed for military use, unearthing genuine sennets, retreats and tuckets of the period, along with a repertoire of songs and instrumental dances that might have featured in original Globe productions. "Wannamaker's idea was to find somebody from the early music world who could be authoritative and command a certain profile."

Supported by the backing of an extensive record deal with Philips Classics, Pickett put together a team of enthusiastic young players to serve as the Musicians of the Globe. Besides performing in the Bankside theatre, the group has established a life independent of the Globe and has already recorded seven discs ranging from songs and dances included in Shakespeare's own productions to Henry Rowley Bishop's incidental scores for Covent Garden's early 19th-century Shakespeare revivals. Two years ago, the band ventured into the Globe itself for a series of musical experiments, returning this season to the advantage of the theatre's inaugural production of Henry V. Pickett points out the importance of music to the play's dramatic flow, easy to miss when merely reading the text on the page: one alarum, or so it would seem, is much the same as the next trumpeter's tucket. Not so, he explains, offering the evidence of military treatises and the ordinances of war to show that each call had a distinct tune and rhythm.

"We can be sure of certain things that Shakespeare demanded, such as the various trumpet calls and several references to drumming. I would always say that he knew what he was doing, since not only did trumpet calls signal precise directions in the field but they also instilled certain feelings and moods in the listener. If we're in the middle of a battle, then the trumpet call is going to heighten the emotions experienced by the audience and the players. For Henry V, we also discovered some late 16th-century camp songs, one of which is a march, and added those to the play. They effect the feeling of comradeship and unity among the soldiers in the play, just as they would have done in real life."

While Pickett can mount a strong case for the true reproduction of Shakespeare's military signals, he admits that it is much harder to unearth songs and instrumental pieces that might have been heard by the original Globe audiences. Only a handful of Shakespeare song settings has survived from the playwright's lifetime, including tunes by his one-time neighbour Thomas Morley and by Robert Johnson, a member of his King's Men company from 1609 until 1623. "The words of many song titles that appear in the plays would have been well known at the time. There are only around a dozen texts that exist in contemporary settings, but it is likely that others were fitted to popular ballad tunes of the period, several of which became associated with up to 15 texts each." Likewise, suitable candidates for the dances mentioned in the plays can be tracked down in the many anthologies of keyboard, lute and consort pieces published around 1600.

"There is nothing musically in the Globe production of Henry V that could not, would not or should not have been done at the time, except for the African drumming called for at the beginning by the director. The more `authentic' the early music, the more it seems to serve the play. I don't see any other way of doing it, since you risk the collision of cultures as soon as you get away from music of the period. That can be exciting, but most often the collision is counter-productive."

So far, the positive audience reaction to Pickett's choice of simple, plain-speaking music and colourful combinations of old instruments has verged on the fulsome, proving its value to the overall impression and dramatic force of the play and vindicating the musician's approach. "The audience responds to it in a very strong way, cheering when the musicians come on stage and commenting on the aptness of the pieces we've chosen."

One aspect of Shakespearian authenticity on which Pickett and his Globe colleagues can rely is the uncertainty of the British weather, with shows in the open-topped theatre subjecting notoriously temperamental ancient instruments to the elements. In fact, Pickett says, period instruments adapt remarkably well to the Globe's often damp and chill playing conditions, reducing the frequency of retuning and giving confidence to the musicians.

One might think that the acoustics would act against sustaining the unamplified sounds of the plucked and bowed instruments employed in the band, and although the trumpets, cornetts and sackbuts used by the Musicians of the Globe in Henry V are blessed with sufficient carrying power, it must be admitted that the so-called "broken consort" of soft wind and string instruments is not always victorious in the battle against noisy audiences. "Maybe people came into the public playhouses to listen to the entertainments which were offered before and after plays," observes Pickett. "Generally, though, people can hear very well and clearly in the reconstructed Globe. My experience of playing in various parts of the theatre is that music sounds best played from the musicians' gallery than from anywhere else. The theatre builders knew their craft and constructed the building to amplify the sound at that point."

Far from mixing up a pastiche of Elizabethan art music, Pickett has rooted out the published versions of pieces mentioned in Shakespeare's text, such as the soldiers' march in Henry V, and then stripped away obvious "improvements" made by high-brow composers. "You have to delve deep using your knowledge of folk music to imagine how a piece might have sounded if presented in a simple, straightforward way. Over-elaborate things do not work in the theatre, especially not at the Globe. It's important to end up with something that truly expresses the text. You get to a point where you have something that might have been done in the theatre, which you discover works better than anything else".

The Musicians of the Globe play two evening concerts on stage at the Globe Theatre, offering a programme of Elizabethan and Jacobean ballads on Sun 27 July, and a collection devoted to Music and Musicians at the Court of Elizabeth I on Sun 31 Aug. Their album of `Shakespeare's Musick' is on Philips Classics 446 687-2