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O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O, stay and hear; your true love’s coming,
That can sing both high and low:
Trip no further, pretty sweeting;
Journeys end in lovers meeting,
Every wise man’s son doth know.
What is love? ’Tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies not plenty;
Then, come kiss me, sweet and twenty,
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.
—William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, II, iii (1602)
These lines are sung by Feste, one of the more complex comic foils to appear in a Shakespearean work. He is something of a jester, of course, but he has an unmistakably philosophical underside (“Better a witty fool than a foolish wit”), pressing characters to abandon their self-pity, to recognize that life always brings its burdens — but pressing them also to seize the moment of love, which brings life’s rewards. All of this is very much the message of this sweet, simple, and yet poignant song, which attained celebrity in its own right in Shakespeare’s lifetime. Part of that celebrity was owed not to Shakespeare, however, but to the man who composed the music by which the words came to be known.
Listen to the setting of “O Mistress Mine,” one of the last works composed by Thomas Morley, a student of William Byrd’s who died shortly after the play opened, in the fall of 1602. Although he was an organist at St Paul’s Cathedral and he attempted to write some serious church music, Morley is best known for his perfection of the consort style (the introduction of the “broken consort,” in which wind instruments are added to the conventional strings) and of the English madrigal.
It’s likely that Morley knew and worked with Shakespeare — they lived close to one another in central London and worshiped in the same parish church — and it’s possible that some of his Shakespearean songs were actually commissioned by the Bard, though this has never been firmly established. What’s certain, however, is that Morley was a great admirer of Shakespeare’s writings.
Morley’s works are known for their light style and their conscious importation of folk melodies (such as his amazing setting of “Under the Green Linden” in the The First Booke of Consort Lessons (1597)). They are less ponderous and downbeat than works by such contemporaries as William Byrd and John Dowland, and so are well suited to Shakespearean comic romances. First, listen to a non-vocal broken-consort rendition of “O Mistress Mine” by Stockholms Barockensemble, then to a traditional theatrical performance by Ensemble Chaconne, with Pamela Dellal as soloist. A superior performance by the great Alfred Deller can be found here.
More from Scott Horton:
Six Questions — October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm
Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.
On a Friday evening in January, a thousand people at the annual California Native Plant Society conference in San Jose settled down to a banquet and a keynote speech delivered by an environmental historian named Jared Farmer. His chosen topic was the eucalyptus tree and its role in California’s ecology and history. The address did not go well. Eucalyptus is not a native plant but a Victorian import from Australia. In the eyes of those gathered at the San Jose DoubleTree, it qualified as “invasive,” “exotic,” “alien” — all dirty words to this crowd, who were therefore convinced that the tree was dangerously combustible, unfriendly to birds, and excessively greedy in competing for water with honest native species.
In his speech, Farmer dutifully highlighted these ugly attributes, but also quoted a few more positive remarks made by others over the years. This was a reckless move. A reference to the tree as “indigenously Californian” elicited an abusive roar, as did an observation that without the aromatic import, the state would be like a “home without its mother.” Thereafter, the mild-mannered speaker was continually interrupted by boos, groans, and exasperated gasps. Only when he mentioned the longhorn beetle, a species imported (illegally) from Australia during the 1990s with the specific aim of killing the eucalyptus, did he earn a resounding cheer.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A tourism company in Australia announced a service that will allow users to take the “world’s biggest selfies,” and a Texas man accidentally killed himself while trying to pose for a selfie with a handgun.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”