‘earthy and joyful’ – Classical Music magazine interviews Sally Beamish

Read Classical Music magazine‘s interview with Sally Beamish:

A Shakespeare Masque has its roots in 1769 – the date when A Garrick Ode received its premiere. The 19th-century work was part of David Garrick’s celebrations for Shakespeare’s jubilee – an event which went some way towards establishing the Bard as a national treasure – and its reconstruction will accompany its newly commissioned counterpart.

The modern work is Beamish’s setting of texts by Carol Ann Duffy. ‘She’s written seven poems which all express a different aspect of Shakespeare,’ the composer says. ‘They’re fresh, witty and inspiring. They use familiar and lesser-known quotes from Shakespeare, cleverly and naturally worked into the texture of the poems, some of which use Shakespearean forms like the sonnet. They are a homage in a way, but they’re also forward-looking.’

Beamish says that the poems focus on Shakespeare as a man. ‘The first is about a boy going to school who wasn’t very good at Latin or Greek but was listening to the birds on the way. Another one is in Anne Hathaway’s voice talking about what it was like to be Shakespeare’s wife. They’re very earthy and joyful.’

David Garrick’s texts for A Garrick Ode are very different in tone – Beamish describes them as ‘humble and worshipful’. The two pieces will be performed alongside one another, and will be linked musically: Beamish completed the first and last choruses of the 18th-century work using her newly-composed material. ‘They didn’t want me to do a pastiche of Arne,’ she says. ‘I took some of the themes from A Shakespeare Masque and used them as the basis of the two missing choruses.’

The biggest decision Beamish had to make in creating the piece was how she should position herself towards the subject matter. ‘It’s always a challenge working with poems that have their own very strong rhythm, and it was a question of whether I went along with that or against it. It was the same thing with the music – whether I went into that world of renaissance music or not.’

She opted for a middle path. ‘The language is recognisable as being of Shakespeare’s time but in my own voice. The piece is for broken consort – a recorder, three lutes and two viols – and I’ve mainly used the instruments in the way they would be comfortable, but will use amplification, which will be interesting. I’ve also ended up with my take on the Shakespearean dance forms. It’s like a set of dances; each song is like an event.’

A Shakespeare Masque uses the galliard, pavane, branle and almain. ‘The last big number is a courante in which the audience sings – they will be learning a refrain based on the iambic pentameter, that heartbeat rhythm you find a lot in Shakespeare. If they didn’t know what it was to start with, they will definitely remember by the end!’

Although the performers won’t be dancing, movement will be a crucial part of the performance. ‘Monica Wilkinson, who’s a leading practitioner of the Dalcroze technique, is going to be working with all the singers and players to add a component of movement.’ The technique is concerned with learning music with one’s body – through conducting, singing and expressing a piece by moving to it. ‘It’s a great aid to memory and to understanding the form of music,’ says Beamish. ‘There will be a lot of movement around the places we’re performing – it won’t just be walking. For the premiere, which takes place in Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, the singer who will be the voice of Shakespeare will appear from the area of Shakespeare’s grave. I think that will be a nice touch!’

Sally Beamish A Shakespeare Masque (Ex Cathedra, the City Musick, Jeffrey Skidmore, conductor, Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon, 7.30pm; also 24 April, Town Hall, Birmingham, 4pm, 6 May, Hereford Cathedral, 7.30pm; 7 May, St Peter’s Collegiate Church, Wolverhampton, 7.30pm; 12 May, Milton Court, London, 7.30pm; 28 May, Southwell Minster)

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