My settings of scenes from Shakespeare’s plays and the sonnets are contained in eight books so far, (each book containing as many as twelve pieces) which I title Oxford Songs because I subscribe to the unorthodox opinion that Shakespeare is the pseudonym of Edward DeVere, the 17th earl of Oxford. The doubts regarding Shakespeare’s ipseity have a long history. At one time those who doubted the Man from Stratford as the author flirted with the idea of Francis Bacon. Mark Twain wrote, “I only believed Bacon wrote Shakespeare, whereas I knew Shakespeare didn’t” in his essay “Is Shakespeare Dead?” Twain assailed the orthodox authorship view (known as the Stratfordian), writing, “since the Stratford Shakespeare couldn’t have written the Works, we infer that somebody did. Who was it then?” The view that it was Oxford wasn’t hypothesized until several years after Twain, first in 1920 by J. Thomas Looney. I share my Looney belief that the Stratfordian Shakespeare is not the author of our language’s greatest works with many predecessors.
Shakespeare dominates the literary landscape. Much that is written is nothing but exegesis of the bard. I come to Shakespeare in the same way as the wordsmith. My music is my commentary on the text. Like an actor, too, I impose upon you my interpretation of the words with gesture and timing, though my gestures are musical and my timing (thanks to the temporal distortion possible through music) can be quite exaggerated. You don’t have to agree with my perspective, but I hope you find it worth considering alongside the other interpretations presented in this recording by Ralph Vaughan Williams and Thomas Chilcot.
The books of the Oxford Songs are not restricted to Shakespeare, just dominated by him. I have strewn other poets throughout when I am inspired to include them therein because of what I perceive as their connection to the seventeenth earl. An example here is my setting of Leda and the Swan, a sonnet by William Butler Yeats. This piece and other Orphic contributions to this album are discussed and justified in the “Notes” portion of the enhanced content.
My principal métier as a composer is opera. I’ve written four grand comic operas based upon Boccaccio's Decameron (1: And The Dead Shall Walk The Earth, 2: Courting Disaster, 3: Their Fate in the Hands of the Friar, 4: Also Known As; and three tragic operas: Hamlet, Hippolytus and The Tenor’s Suite. My chamber opera, The Tempest, is being prepared for production in April 2015 in Somerville, Massachusetts, even as I write this text from my room at the Zhongyang Hotel in Wuhan, China. (Currently I am at Wuhan Conservatory, conducting a seminar on my Tempest opera, focusing on the Goddesses trio which appears on the preceding Navona offering of my music). In addition to the operas and Oxford songs, I compose chamber music. Prior recordings, still available, of my music include What A Piece Of Work Is Man, an album of Shakespearean settings with an emphasis on arias from Hamlet for voice and piano; Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day, which features sonnets set to string quartet, harp, and other ensembles, as well as the string quintet Dance Of The Mechanics; So Many Journeys, containing my cello sonata, and excerpts from "The Mousetrap;" The Garden of Forking Paths, string quartet in C major with the Kalmia string quartet; and SHAKESPEARE'S MEMORY, THE FAIR OPHELIA, and GODDESSES; the first three in a series of recordings released by Navona, a series which continues with the recording you now possess.
- Joseph Summer
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