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Rehearsal Tools of the ASC – Music


“Give me some music; music, moody food

Of us that trade in love.”

- Cleopatra, Antony and Cleopatra II.v.1-2


Music was multi-purpose in early modern theatrical productions. Instruments such as trumpets and drums were used to represent military action – to signal troops or the call to battle. Brass instruments were also featured in ceremonial scenes. Most early modern playhouses kept an inventory of instruments on hand, as evidenced by the diary of Philip Henslowe, manager of the Rose. Under an inventory listing for March 10, 1598, he wrote: “Item, iij trumpettes and a drum, and a trebel viall, a basse viall, [and] a bandore [a stringed instrument similar to a guitar].” There is also an account of money being “lent unto Richard Jonnes the 22 of desember 1598 to bye a basse vial & other enstrementes for the company.” These instruments were, furthermore, highly valued possessions of the companies who used them. In the will of Augustine Phillips, one of the actors in the King’s Men, Phillips bequeaths his cittern, bandore, and lute to his apprentice, James Sands. To another apprentice, Phillips left his bass viol. These instruments were vital tools for a player, which were meant to be passed on from one professional to another within the same company.  


Some musicians were shareholders in Shakespeare’s company, while others were hired in for specific productions. In 1624, Henry Herbert wrote a list of 22 “musicians and other necessary attendants” who had been hired over the years by the King’s Men. Many of the players in the company were already skilled in music, including Will Kemp, Augustine Phillips, Richard Tarlton, John Adson, and Richard Balls; and some went on to play at court before royal audiences, such as Ambrose Beeland, who later became a royal violinist.


Recreational music was usually performed onstage by stringed instruments, such as the lute, during short breaks throughout the play. This tradition began in solo performances by single players, often accompanied by songs or dances. Later, however, a group of musicians appeared on a balcony above the stage to provide ensemble music. These consorts, as they were called, were commonly comprised of a treble and bass viol, cittern, lute, and bandore, along with a woodwind instrument, such as a recorder or flute. The rise in popularity of these consorts coincided with the prominence of indoor playhouses, such as the original Blackfriars in London. When the King’s Men acquired the Blackfriars playhouse in 1596, they also acquired the famous consort of musicians who were already established performers there. This consort included a boy’s choir, many of whom would later assimilate into the King’s Men as they grew. In a collection of legal documents from 1635, Cuthbert Burbage, landlord and manager of the King’s Men, referred to “[t]he Blackfriers […] which after was leased out to one Evans that first sett up the Boyes commonly called the Queenes Majestes Children of the Chappell. In processe of time the boyes growing up to bee men […] & were taken to strengthen the service.”


An account of a theatrical experience in the Blackfriars theater appears in the diary of Philip Julius, Duke of Stettin-Pomerania, written during his visit to London in 1602. Julius wrote: “For a whole hour preceding the play one listens to a delightful musical entertainment on organs, lutes, pandorins, mandolins, violins and flutes, as on the present occasion, indeed, when a boy cum voce tremolo sang so charmingly to the accompaniment of a bass-viol that unless possibly the nuns at Milan may have excelled him, we had not heard his equal on our journey.” This is a testament to the high quality of music for which the Blackfriars consort was known and illustrates how enjoyable musical performances were to the early modern theatergoer.


In addition to providing entertainment before the play and during interludes, music and songs were often incorporated into the plays themselves. Shakespeare uses songs frequently to convey meaning in his plays, as did most playwrights of the period. For example, in Twelfth Night, Duke Orsino’s Clown sings: “When that I was and a little tine boy, with hey ho, the wind and the rain, a foolish thing was but a toy, for the rain it raineth every day” at the close of the play (V.i.389-392). In King Lear, another clown character sings an almost identical song to Lear on a stormy night: “He that has and a little tine with heigh-ho, the wind and the rain must make content with his fortunes fit, though the rain it raineth every day” (III.i.74-77). A variety of characters throughout Shakespeare’s canon use song to express emotion. All types make use of this dramatic device from drunken or roguish male characters like Sir Toby Belch or Falstaff to women in love like Desdemona. Music is often a device for wooing, or can be a tool for tragic characters. Music even has the power to restore life, as seen in The Winter’s Tale with the command, “Music! Awake her!” bringing Hermione back to life (V.iii.98).


Music was indeed a central element of the early modern theatrical experience. An audience came to the theater with the expectation of not only seeing a play but of hearing talented singers and instrumentalists perform as well. Shakespeare and his fellow playwrights catered to their audiences and made the effort to incorporate music and songs into many of their plays. These inter-play pieces would have been performed in addition to the conventional pre- and post-show music. Music, to the Renaissance playgoer, could represent enchantment or love or utter despair or exultation. Popular songs were performed as part of the entertainment. One theatergoer recorded, “whenever I came to that house (as I did sometimes in those days), though not often, to see a play, the musicians would presently play Whitelock’s Coranto, and it was so often called for that they would have played it twice or thrice in an afternoon.”


Common Renaissance Instruments:


Viol: “A stringed instrument and ancestor of the violin, distinguished by its deeper ribs, flat back, sloping shoulders, and number of strings (usually six). Many viols were originally fretted, like guitars.”



Cittern: “A guitar-like instrument with a flat sound box, strung with wire strings and plucked with a plectrum or a quill.”


Lute: The lute is distinguished from the guitar in that it has a curved body like a mandolin.


Fife: “A type of flute; however, the player had to twist their head slightly around to get at the mouthpiece, which was held across the face of the player. Thus Shylock’s reference in Merchant of Venice to the ‘wry-necked fife’ in Act 2:5.”

Recorder: “A straight flute, often made from wood. It is an ancient instrument, but was preferred in England to the modern German flute.”


Virginal: “One of the most used instruments in the Elizabethan period was the Virginal; a tiny and primitive piano on which the strings were plucked by quills instead of being struck by hammers. The tone of the virginals was faint and more like a mandolin than a piano. Shakespeare's patron, Queen Elizabeth, loved the instrument and was reasonably proficient on it. The strings ran parallel with the front board and the ‘jacks’ used for holding the quills ran diagonally across the sound board.”


Links to the ASC

The American Shakespeare Center continues in the early modern tradition of highlighting music in performances by including pre-show and interlude music at every show.  Actors perform contemporary songs from the past four decades with which the audience is familiar, to create an experience similar to that of the early modern theatergoer, who would have recognized the songs being performed in theaters.  

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