The eighteenth century saw the birth of modern Shakespeare. It also saw the birth of what we might call ‘Shakespearean music’. In the early seventeenth century settings of his lyrics tended to be associated with the stage; the Restoration saw the emergence of operatic treatments of several works. Over the course of the eighteenth century the term became ever more expansive. On the public stages there were revivals of all but one of the plays, moving from the heavily adapted forms of the Restoration to the ‘as Written’ versions of the 1740s. These plays often used original song texts though not always from the same play, sometimes creating performance traditions that lasted well into the next century. Plays also generated new songs, which although wholly inauthentic to us must have formed part of how Shakespeare’s works were understood and perceived at the time. Shakespeare’s name, plots and characters, were also employed in entertainments, especially in burlesques and pantomimes, such as Shakespear’s Choice Spirits; or, Sir John Falstaff in Pantomime, given at Sadler’s Wells in 1763 (revived 1768). While Arne’s 1771 opera The Fairy Prince included lines from Shakespeare and Jonson (among many others). David Garrick positioned himself as the great ambassador for the bard, culminating in his Jubilee of 1769: at which not a word of Shakespeare was spoken, but at which music featured prominently: beginning a trend for preferring newly written tributes to Shakespeare’s own words. It also established the idea that such commemorations should be musical. For the Jubilee Thomas Arne composed the music for the ode, which Garrick declaimed to the orchestral music. Garrick’s ode was not a first, of course. He had staged William Boyce setting of William Havard’s ‘Titles and ermine fall behind’ for Drury Lane in 1756, and revived annually to 1760. Boyce set another ode by Garrick around the same time, ‘Arise, arise, immortal Shakespeare’, though there is no evidence of a performance. One of Boyce’s students, the ill-fated Thomas Linley set another ode written in the afterglow of bardolatory that followed in the wake of the 1769 Jubilee: the only known performance took place at Drury Lane in 1776.
The influence and impact (and quality) of such works was varied. At the least, however, they are part of a wider cultural practice that also saw a range of settings of Shakespeare songs (authentic or not) not designed for the stage. Many survive in prints, such as Thomas Chilcot’s Twelve Shakespeare Songs (1750), which included almost 300 subscribers: it was thus ‘popular’ but it was by no means populist – indeed it was in some respects a carefully constructed means of measuring Chilcot’s literary sophistication as part of a patronage negotiation.
This essay will attempt to assess some of the ways in which Shakespearean music (as broadly conceived) in the eighteenth century allows us to understand better the changing nature of his reception, across a range of media and cultural spheres, especially in relation to cultural economics and representation. (Aspects to be covered: single-sheet songs, song collections, songsters, representations in song etc.)