Music: A haunting choral tribute to the Bard

Shakespeare: there was no escaping him the other weekend when the world went into overdrive to celebrate 400 years since his death in 1616. And nowhere were the celebrations more intense than in Stratford-upon-Avon where, among the readings, flags, flowers and processions, there was music.

Every Shakespeare play but one, King John, asks somewhere in the text for music. None of it survives, and it was probably just street songs, jigs and fanfares: there’s no evidence that major figures of the time composed for the playwright. But plenty have, during the past four centuries. And there were two examples in a Stratford anniversary concert beside Shakespeare’s grave that paired an 18th-century Ode to Shakespeare with words by David Garrick and music by Thomas Arne, with a 2016 counterpart – words by the Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy and music by composer Sally Beamish.

Garrick’s Ode was all inflated rhetoric and pleasant tunes, not hugely interesting although superbly sung by Ex Cathedra (surely Britain’s finest semi-pro choir) and declaimed with vigour by the actor Sam West (looking slightly silly in a powdered wig and breeches).

But the modern tribute was a total pleasure. A Shakespeare Masque was a pageant that involved mass voices (Ex Cathedra once more, under their unflappable conductor Jeffrey Skidmore), choreographed movement, hordes of children and a period band of Tudor instruments. Reflecting on the Bard’s life, Duffy’s text was charming, haunting and profound. The Beamish score owed much to the “community” works Britten wrote for Aldeburgh in the 1950s, but with a contemporary edge. The BBC filmed it, and it’s on their iPlayer.

Something else for Shakespeare, taking place in London’s Middle Temple Hall where Twelfth Night had its premiere, was a concert by the Fourth Choir: an amateur but audaciously ambitious ensemble which had organised a programme of readings/settings of the Shakespeare sonnets with a specific agenda.

Based on the assumption that the sonnets are autobiographical, the intention was to document Shakespeare’s bisexuality – his affections apparently shared between a wife in Stratford, a mistress (the Dark Lady) in London, and a young man (the Tender Churl) wherever. I’m not scholarly enough to know how valid a reading this is of the Bard’s emotional life, but I did enjoy it – not least because it offered some intriguingly unfamiliar choral settings of the texts, including new ones: winners of a competition that the choir had organised.

The Fourth Choir is not especially well-known, as yet. But being sharp, smart and resourceful, they deserve to be.