Songs and Dances from "The Tempest"

for Soprano, Baritone, and Ancient Instruments

James Primosch

Performing Ensemble: Voice and Instrument
Text: William Shakespeare's "The Tempest"
Duration: 30:00
Publisher: Merion Music, Inc.
Print Status: Rental

Quick Overview

This piece came about because Folger member Christopher Kendall, who knew my work as composer and pianist from his "other" Consort - the 20th Century Consort, also based in Washington, DC. - had heard my Four Sacred Songs, a set of arrangements of plainchant melodies for soprano and a sextet of modern instruments. Christopher wondered if an arrangement of those songs could be made for the old instruments of the Folger Consort. I thought about that for a bit but ultimately decided I would rather write a fresh piece for the Folger, eventually realizing that a piece composed for the ensemble in residence at the Folger Library really should be a Shakespeare piece. My first plan was to concoct an anthology of texts from various Shakespeare plays, but I set that aside in favor of focusing on a single play, perhaps the most musical of Shakespeare's creations, The Tempest. My suite of short pieces includes settings of songs from the play as well as a few speeches. I have also included some instrumental music, as suggested by the evocative stage directions. I hope lovers of the play will forgive me for re-ordering the texts so as to create a satisfying musical sequence that does not in all cases correspond to the sequence of the play itself. The texts are by turns playful, drunken, evocative, and profound. Throughout they are imbued with a magical atmosphere that is unique in Shakespeare. I hope I have reflected some of this atmosphere in my music.

The challenge for a modern composer to write for the instruments of another time is formidable. You spend your life as a composer building up an image in the inner ear of what, for example, the cello sounds like in various contexts - it is difficult to set these things aside when presented with a cello-like object such as the viol. But, at least to some extent, set them aside you must. As a pianist I feel especially ill-equipped to write for these instruments since my own instrument's repertoire begins about a century after the newest music the Folger Consort normally plays! Still, I love the sounds of the ancient instruments and love the repertoires that the Folger so beautifully engages. So I have tried to create a sound world that would both suit the instruments and perhaps challenge them a little, all the while serving Shakespeare's texts.

The endless patience and goodwill of members of the Consort has played no small role in the pleasure of creating this piece. I am grateful for the chance to adventure with them to Prospero's enchanted realm where we might enjoy the "sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not."

Scores & Parts

Songs and Dances from "The Tempest" - Rental -

Additional Information

Commission Commissioned by Folger Shakespeare Library
Composition Date 1998
Orchestration Ancient instruments (four players): Renaissance Lute, Citole, Medieval Hp., Psaltery,Treb.Viol., 2 B.Viols, Vielle, Rebec, 6Rec. (Sopranino, Sop. 2Alto, Ten., B.), Dumbek, Nakara, Crotales (E, B), Susp.Cym., Tamb.
Premiere 1st May, 1998; Ellen Hargis, soprano, William Sharp, baritone, Folger Consort; Washington, DC

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