February 7th

Drama shares with music an innate resistance to the boundaries of print. The performances invited by scripts and scores depend on the enlivening gestures of actors and musicians for their force, so that when we read them, stage directions like “Enter Lear” or “He dies” may strike us as tantalizingly brief, but only because we are encountering material intended for actorly presence. It is no different with Shakespeare’s music. While the words to Shakespeare’s songs possess their own telltale rhythms, it is difficult to read them without encountering an acute sense of loss; what were the notes that were set to such lines?

An anonymous notebook from late in sixteenth century, now known as the Braye Lutebook, preserves one possible answer. Among the many scores committed to its pages is the only surviving setting for Benedick’s song in the last act of Much Ado About Nothing.

The complexity and thoroughness of the notations shows just how much musical matter could be added to the smallest cluster of words: “The god of love,” Benedick sings, “That sits above, / And knows me, and knows me, / How pitiful I deserve—”

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