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New CD reveals unsung side of Shakespeare

Benjamin Bunch (left) and Hans-Jürg Rickenbacher collaborated on the new CD swissinfo.ch

Think of William Shakespeare, and plays and sonnets come to mind. But the great English bard was also a writer of songs, as a new CD testifies.

This content was published on January 21, 2004 - 09:26

“Shakespeare in Song and Dance”- arranged and performed by a Swiss-American duo - contains previously unrecorded compositions inspired by the works of the bard.

Tenor Hans-Jürg Rickenbacher and guitarist Benjamin Bunch have produced arrangements that are often as playful as Shakespeare’s verse, and a reminder of the importance of music in Shakespeare’s works.

“Music plays an integral role in the works of Shakespeare as he artfully weaves it into the context of his plays and poems,” Bunch says in the CD introduction.

“Music is everywhere in Shakespeare’s works, it is omnipresent,” echoed Rickenbacher.

Bird sounds

“He adds music to his texts, including the sounds of nature like birds, and of course people sing as well,” Rickenbacher told swissinfo.

“Often you find songs in his works, or the text for songs, but not the music.”

“For the most part the songs were sung unaccompanied, and it was rare that the main characters would sing,” added Bunch. “It was mostly the clowns or jesters who were assigned that role.”

“Our CD has music from a range of composers from different periods and the Shakespeare texts are often so musical that composers don’t have much to add,” Rickenbacker continued.

Full Fathom Five

Such is the case with “Full Fathom Five” taken from Act 1, scene 2 of the Tempest:
“Full fathom five thy father lies,
Of his bones are coral made;
Those pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Ding-dong.
Hark! Now I hear them, - ding-dong bell.”

Composed by the contemporary Australian composer, Malcolm Williamson, Full Fathom Five is one of approximately 25,000 known musical items based on Shakespeare texts.

“It would be impossible to find all the 25,000 items,” Bunch said. “It proved difficult to find even the things we wanted since much of this music is no longer in print.

“We had to refer to libraries, and ask people, and that’s basically how it happened. I even found a piece in a library in Buenos Aires.”

Traditional dances

In the end, Bunch and Rickenbacher settled on about 20 works composed over a 300-year period, interspersed with traditional dances from Shakespeare’s time.

“This is what differentiates the CD the most,” explained Bunch. “[The dances] are connectors between songs, which traverse the centuries.

“None of the songs we are doing were composed in Shakespeare’s period. I think the oldest is a composition by Joseph Hayden (1732-1809).”

Bunch and Rickenbacher also chose to include examples of the same Shakespeare text as arranged by different composers.

Different approach

They are “Oh Mistress Mine” from Twelfth Night by the Hungarian composer Ferenc Farkas and the Briton Peter Racine Fricker, as well as Full Fathom Five by Williamson and Michael Tippett.

“It’s incredible the difference in approach that these composers use for exactly the same text,” explained Bunch.

“But the effect that the text has in the song is equally as strong and effective,” he said.

“It’s like Bach’s music being played on any instrument - it always works - and these texts by Shakespeare, in almost any form or period of music, seem to work and I think that’s the power of his words.”

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel

Key facts

More than 25,000 musical items have been inspired by the works of William Shakespeare.
The new CD, “Shakespeare in Song and Dance” can be obtained by contacting either performer via their website (see “related sites”).

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In brief

Hans-Jürg Rickenbacher:

The tenor has a repertory ranging from Monteverdi to contemporary music. He has performed in recitals, oratorios and operas throughout Europe, the United States and in Argentina.

Benjamin Bunch:

The American-born guitarist has performed extensively as a soloist and in various chamber ensembles throughout Europe, the US and South America.

Both performers teach at the Music Academy in Basel.

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