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The Tempest: 'O brave new play, that hath such music in it...'

The Shakespeare play is to be performed with the score by a lutenist to James I. But is it the real thing?

Matthew Bell
Sunday 23 January 2011 01:00 GMT

If music be the food of love, play on, as Shakespeare wrote. But when it comes to The Tempest, the bard's last play, which celebrates its 400th anniversary this year, music is the fuel firing an angry debate.

A new production claims to have reunited the text with a score of the music not heard since the play's first performance in 1611. It will be staged at the Barbican Theatre in London in the autumn. But, with ambiguity worthy of the bard's most ethereal play, leaked details before its official launch have left scholars scratching their heads.

Robert Johnson, a lutenist to James I, the first Stuart king of England, who came to the throne in 1603, is long thought to have written music to accompany The Tempest. Jericho House, the theatre company staging the production for the Barbican, says it has "reconstructed and relocated what survives" of Johnson's music and will "reunite it with the text for the first time since its premiere".

But David Lindley, professor of renaissance literature at Leeds University and author of several books on Shakespeare and music, is puzzled by the claims.

"Robert Johnson did write dance music for masques, and it's possible that he may have written music for The Tempest beyond the two song settings," says Professor Lindley. "But, as far as I'm aware, it doesn't survive, and is certainly not attributable to the play."

Christopher Wilson, a professor of music at the University of Hull and an expert on Johnson, has argued that his settings that survive were almost certainly not used in The Tempest.

While songs appear in many of Shakespeare's plays, music has a particular significance in The Tempest, which features a masque, featuring music, in the fourth act. Some scholars believe this was added at a later date, although others argue that Shakespeare co-wrote it with Johnson.

In 1608, Shakespeare's theatre company had taken over the Blackfriars Theatre, which had its own musical ensemble. This has led some scholars to believe Shakespeare wrote The Tempest with these musicians in mind.

"Music is certainly an important part of The Tempest," says Professor Lindley. "It is an important means by which Prospero exercises his power, and it moves the characters round the stage. It puts the characters to sleep, it wakes them, it cures them of their madness, it propels the action."

While the Barbican's production may claim to be the most authentic musical rendition, it is by no means the first. The Tempest has been a popular subject for composers ranging from Henry Purcell to Ralph Vaughan Williams, and there are at least 46 operas based on it. More modern versions include a recording by Marianne Faithfull of "Full Fathom Five", one of two songs attributed to Johnson.

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