Composition Date: 2016
Duration: 40 Mins
First performed by Ex Cathedra & Academy of Vocal Music, and the City Musick conducted by Jeffrey Skidmore at Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, on 22 April 2016.
Commissioned by Ex Cathedra and Jeffrey Skidmore, in pertnership with the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and the Shakespeare Institute.
Writing A Shakespeare Masque has been in some ways a journey into the unknown. On receiving Carol Ann’s powerful and witty poems, I had to decide how best to approach creating a colourful pageant to celebrate this important anniversary.
The specified forces were unusual. A Broken Consort was not something I had any knowledge of. Although I had written for viols and recorder before, the Renaissance flute was new to me, as were the cittern, lute and bandora.
In a kind of denial, I began setting the poems for voices and piano – thinking I could sort out the scoring later. This certainly allowed me to work freely, but of course I was then faced with seemingly insurmountable problems in accommodating the restrictions of the Renaissance instruments.
However the unique, delicate and expressive sound of these instruments was very much in my ears as I wrote, and to some extent I found I had already taken them into account in the writing.
I am very grateful to lutenist Jacob Heringman, who patiently helped me sort out all the plucked parts, finding solutions and making suggestions. The recorder and flute lines were checked by William Lyons, and again, it was invaluable to have his expert advice.
Much of the music draws on the music of Shakespeare’s time. I have used the Galliard, the Pavan, the Morris – and also simple percussion, which reflects the use of drums and bells in the original staging of Shakespeare’s plays.
When work was underway, I had the opportunity to visit Shakespeare’s church in Stratford, and the atmosphere and layout was an inspiration in the visualisation of the piece. I sketched out an idea of where the singers and instrumentalists would be at each point, and knew quite early on that I would like an element of Dalcroze in the choreography of how the performers would move around, so that their movements would be a response to the music.
This plan was passed on to the director, James Farrell, and to Monica Wilkinson, a Dalcroze practitioner, and the discussions with both has enriched the process of creating the work.
Much of the work on A Shakespeare Masque took place on a residency generously awarded to me by Aldeburgh Music in 2015. As I composed in the Dovecot at Snape overlooking the reed beds, I couldn’t help but be influenced by Britten’s works for mixed forces, particularly Noye’s Fludde, with its use of different choirs and different age groups, as well as audience participation and percussion.
© Sally Beamish