Twelfth Night: Give me some music!

It struck me while watching the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival production again (yet again) that as the music used in the play goes, so goes the play.  Not too groundbreaking an observation, as it has to be a goal of production to fit any music used in a play to the rest of the staging – but the corollary of this, in my opinion, is: the more music there is in a production of 12th, the better it is.  

Not all directors see it this way, but music really is an essential part of Twelfth Night.  The first line, after all, is the oft-quoted “If music be the food of love, play on” – Duke Orsino is both soothing and exacerbating his passion, his unrequitedness, through music.  It is the most perfect expression of what he is feeling – until it isn’t any longer.  He’s a little like a heartsick teenager who lies on his bed wallowing in emo songs, or a cowboy who’s broken up with his girl and drowns his sorrow in beer and country songs – the sadder the better.  The songs he demands are not cheery jigs (“I am slain by a fair cruel maid”).  My overall take is that Orsino really thinks he really loves Olivia – but he is in fact enjoying the ride, enjoying the heck out of the emotions and the quest.  (The exceptions to that being the versions in which no one enjoys anything.) 

He has musicians as part of his court, and often the Lady Olivia’s Fool, a masterful singer – and when the Fool expects a tip from him he gets it, usually twofold: Orsino is a true Renaissance man, and patron of the arts.  (Art, anyway.)  Viola, fresh from her rescue, seems to sense this:  her plan is to disguise herself to join his household, and is confident that he’ll hire her because “I can sing And speak to him in many sorts of music” … It’s a pity that aspect isn’t followed through in more productions, but the lines are cut in many, and Cesario never sings a note.  In HVSF (though the line is cut) s/he sings her first lines as Cesario, and in Nunn s/he plays the piano for Orsino – and that’s it.  This is where I start having delusions of direction: in any production I put on I would want that bit in.  (‘Course, given all that I would want to do, my production would be two and a half days long.  Which is one reason I’ll never be a director.) 

Part of Sir Toby’s damning with faint praise of Sir Andrew includes the note that “he plays o’ the viol-de-gamboys”, though given how hollow his other accomplishments are I wonder if he could pick a viol-de-gamboys out of a lineup.  (It’s very tempting to add an “e” to that and make it a 21st century kind of skill: Gameboys… But I won’t.) He can dance, however – especially in HVSF – or at least put on such a performance that Sir Toby is mightily amused. 

Music also plays a part in the birth of Olivia’s infatuation for Cesario, for Viola tells her what she would do with a love like her master’s – surely thinking of her own love for her master:

Why, what would you?
Make me a willow cabin at your gate,
And call upon my soul within the house;
Write loyal cantons of contemned love
And sing them loud even in the dead of night;
Halloo your name to the reverberate hills
And make the babbling gossip of the air
Cry out ‘Olivia!’ O, You should not rest
Between the elements of air and earth,
But you should pity me!

This is usually the placement for Cupid’s dart getting its bull’s-eye – Olivia’s response “You might do much” is usually delivered as gobsmacked – and rightly so.  Done well this is a goosebump-worthy speech.  (Gentlemen, take note.)  (loyal cantons of contemned love = verses on the subject of spurned love)

So – music has the power to express deep emotion, and is considered an accomplishment (think of Lord Darcy’s accomplished lady) and something positive on one’s resume.  And it has the power to wake the dead … the dead asleep, any rate, as Maria and Malvolio in their own ways try to explain to Toby, Andrew, and the Fool when they have their party in the middle of the night. 

Would you have a love-song, or a song of good life?
A love-song, a love-song.
Ay, ay: I care not for good life.

Heh.  The love song is “O mistress mine, where are you roaming”, which can be jolly, or can be heart-breaking; HVSF does it up thoroughly merry, but both Nunn and Live @ Lincoln Center use it to reduce Sirs Toby and Andrew to tears.  “Youth’s a stuff will not endure” … “Very sweet and contagious”. 

Which is an interesting choice, bringing Sir Toby up in a strange and fey mood to change the tenor of the evening drastically, shattering the sweet intensity of “O Mistress Mine” and setting them to “make the welkin dance indeed”.  (“Welkin: the sky, the upper air, the firmament, the heavens or the Celestial sphere” – Wikipedia.  That’s not what I thought it was.)  They begin a catch, something like a round, “Hold thy peace thy knave” (I shall never begin if I hold my peace), which caterwauling is what drags Maria down to warn them.  Her chastisement of Sir Toby sends him off into another song, solo, of which Feste comments “Beshrew me, the knight’s in admirable fooling.”  Toby’s a witty drunk.

One of my favorite lines in the play – and one of the biggest disappointments when it’s underplayed – is Toby’s response to Malvolio’s chiding “Is there no respect of place, persons, nor time in you?”:

“We did keep time, sir – in our catches. Sneck up!” 

 One of my favorite puns.  (It’s only a matter of time before I tell someone to sneck up…) (Oh: to sneck – To fasten by a hatch; to latch, as a door.  Button it!)

Sir Toby pushes it further, mockingly bursting into song again as Malvolio continues to threaten him, and this time the Fool backs him up.  The scene should be one in which Malvolio, whom I have to admit is after all in the right, undermines himself by standing on his dignity and trying to throw his weight about.  (Behold the mixed metaphor.)  (L@LC has him come down in a dressing gown, nightcap – and his steward’s chain: either he put it on before going down to try and emphasize his importance … or he sleeps with it on.  I love that.)  And as the exchanges continue, the best of them show Toby winding himself up to fury and contempt, until he’s a little dangerous at the point he tells Malvolio to “Art no more than a steward? … Go, sir, rub your chain with crumbs.”

Scene IV begins with, again, Orsino calling for music.&nbsp (the post title – “Give me some music!”); He wants a specific song, one he heard last night, and he wants Cesario to listen to it – “Methought it did relieve my passion much”.  Curio, the Duke’s man, says that he is not here who should sing it: Feste, the jester – which is the only time in the entire play that the Fool’s name is given … which is one up on Lear’s Fool, I believe. The music is played while the jester is sought, and Orsino asks: “How dost thou like this tune?”

It gives a very echo to the seat Where Love is throned.

– Which leads to another of my favorite scenes.

Then Curio brings the clown back, and Orsino directs him to sing “the song we had last night” … and there is “Come Away Death.”  

An aside here is that one website I’ve referenced for Twelfth Night shook its head at Orsino’s line “The spinsters and the knitters in the sun And the free maids that weave their thread with bones Do use to chant it”  – Because it is of course impossible that women sang the song since it’s about a young man betrayed by a fair cruel maid.  Which leads me to believe that whoever wrote that has no experience of folk music, in which women sing men’s parts and men women’s all the time.  I can list a dozen recordings off the top of my head that are men singing the part of poor wretched girls or women singing the part of a man.  It’s not not done. 

 My favorite thing in any production of Twelfth Night I’ve seen, to say the least, is this song and what follows in the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival production.  Maia Guest as Feste stands alone, backed at some distance by the Count’s musicians, and sings the most gorgeous setting of this song in the most lovely voice.  Unfortunately the song is abridged, at least in the recording… As he listens, Orsino is sitting at the edge of the stage circle with Cesario – and halfway through he shifts to lie flat with his head in “the boy’s” lap.  That goes into my production too – with a camera on Viola’s face, and no overblown reaction.  Then Feste finishes, and without a word Orsino gets up, walks up to her, drops to his knees, and kisses her sneakers. Viola fell for him a while back – that’s when he wins me over.  And Feste’s reaction?  Gently, very gently the mood is shattered as she holds out her hat.  Just superb.

The song whips up Orsino’s passion, and he tells Cesario – usually with a decisive air – he’s sending him one more time to bear his love to Olivia.  This is it, he’s not taking no for a proxy answer.  But the music has touched Viola to the quick as well, and – depending on how the scene is handled – she comes within an inch of spilling her secret.  Instead, she tells Orsino that she knows well that a woman’s love is at least as deep as a man’s – “My father had a daughter loved a man” … Yet another powerful scene.  

Another of the lovely, and more timeless, puns in the play follows Viola’s “Dost thou live by thy tabor?” to the Fool.  It’s a fun scene – it shows (usually) that Viola is capable of holding her own in a battle of wits with the Fool, and where her buttons are: the Fool knows their location, and pushes them, every one. 

Music soothes, inspires, exacerbates, and is a handy skill when job- or wife-hunting – and it is also a standard of wonder and joy: Olivia angles for Cesario to undertake his own suit with her instead of his master’s: “I had rather hear you to solicit that Than music from the spheres.”  Which is: the celestial music supposed by Pythagoras to be produced by the regular movements of the stars and planets: heavenly music.  She’s in love, all right.  

The Fool has a few more songs allotted to him, and two of them are in the “madhouse” scene.  One is how he announces himself (as himself) to Malvolio, sitting in his dark cell. 

‘Hey, Robin, jolly Robin,
Tell me how thy lady does.’

Which is just mean, because this not-so-jolly Robin’s lady loves another. 

The other, longer song in the scene is just odd:

I am gone, sir,
And anon, sir,
I’ll be with you again,
In a trice,
Like to the old Vice,
Your need to sustain;
Who, with dagger of lath,
In his rage and his wrath,
Cries, ah, ha! to the devil:
Like a mad lad,
Pare thy nails, dad;
Adieu, good man devil.

 I got nothin’. 

Olivia is one for the musical metaphors; toward the end, when Orsino finally comes to her himself, her exasperated – and somewhat smug, given her extremely recent nuptials – challenge to him is basically “Oh, what do you want NOW?”

If it be aught to the old tune, my lord,
It is as fat and fulsome to mine ear
As howling after music.

Poor Orsino – after all his wallowing in music, in the end his suit is the old tune that is harsh and ugly, while Cesario – that is, Sebastian – provides the music Olivia dances to.  

A good many of Shakespeare’s plays end in a long verse (“If we shadows have offended…”); here, it closes with a song.  Again, this can be merry or melancholy – the stage direction is “Exeunt all, except Clown”, and this is used in some to mean that the Fool is shut out. 

When that I was and a little tiny boy,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
A foolish thing was but a toy,
For the rain it raineth every day.
But when I came to man’s estate,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
‘Gainst knaves and thieves men shut their gate,
For the rain it raineth every day.
But when I came, alas! to wive,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
By swaggering could I never thrive,
For the rain it raineth every day.
But when I came unto my beds,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
With toss-pots still had drunken heads,
For the rain it raineth every day.
A great while ago the world begun,
With hey, ho, the wind and the rain,
But that’s all one, our play is done,
And we’ll strive to please you every day.

Strangely for what is usually labeled a comedy, the L@LC production used this song to showcase the flip side of the happy endings.  While the two happy couples sit, beautiful and absorbed in each other and spotlit in the center of the rear stage, the Fool is upstage in low light singing.  He watches as, for each verse, some less happily disposed character or pair of characters exits, matched to the verses.  Kenneth Branagh’s version and the BBC do something very similar.  Tommy Steele’s Feste in the ITV production is one who is shut out, literally – the gate to Olivia’s house shuts in his face: it’s like seeing the Happily Ever After ending from the point of view of the scullery maid who used to work next to Cinderella.  (Ooh, look, a plotbunny.) 

The main reason the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival performance is my favorite is the music.  The band is, in a word, awesome – and Maia Guest?  Her husband, the producer of the production, said something about the innate goodness in her which lit her performance as Feste.  And it’s the same spirit that makes the music of this production the most sweet and contagious (taking contagious to mean catchy and lingering, not some reference to bad breath as I’ve seen listed), and the most out-and-out enjoyable.  Oh, and Maia’s voice – did I mention the gorgeous voice?  She’s perfect for Feste in a gender-bent production of a gender-bent story … But more on that anon.

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2 Responses to Twelfth Night: Give me some music!

  1. nicole parsons says:

    I teach high school English and theater and we are reading this play in my English class. Speaking as director, I love the comments/ comparisons about staging. Speaking as an English teacher, I love your breakdown of both the words and the possibilities with just instrumental music. I’m going to give this article to my class to discuss the use of music in the play!

  2. stewartry says:

    Wow! Thank you – that’s a lovely compliment.

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