Who is sylvia

FIFTH BUSINESS: Program notes


As of this date, October 26, 2019, I am in the midst of the composition of two string quartets with the collective title: Invisible Women. The two quartets depict female characters in Shakespeare plays who never appear on stage, but play roles in their plots. Sycorax, one of the finished movements describes an Algerian sorceress, banished to the enchanted isle which serves as the setting for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, before Prospero’s arrival. Laying claim to the realm, imprisoning Ariel, and enslaving the indigenous “spirit” inhabitants, Sycorax rules with unstinting cruelty until her death. After her unexplained passing, Caliban, Sycorax’s monstrous son, expects to rule in her place, but when Prospero arrives –following his own banishment from Naples, accompanied solely by his infant daughter, Miranda– the deposed Duke of Milan turns the tables on Caliban, forcing the brute into servitude, himself. I find it odd that postcolonial interpretations of Sycorax portray her as representative of silenced African women, or as a symbol of repressed Islamic culture. Choosing Sycorax as the representative of oppressed indigenous people of the Caribbean as well rings hollow, as she herself was a cruel interloping despot who herself subjugated the original inhabitants of the island. If anything, she is a much more malefic colonizer than Prospero who frees Ariel from Sycorax’s arboreal prison after less than 20 years of –admittedly coercive– service. My portrayal of Sycorax is not postcolonial or revisionist. She is a pernicious demoness, and the mother of a rapacious miscreant.


In Shakespeare’s play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Proteus and Valentine, two young Veronese gentlemen, and boon companions, fall in love with a Milanese duke’s daughter, Sylvia. Proteus, however, is already somewhat involved with a young woman, Julia, who follows Proteus to Verona, disguised as a man, to keep her eye on him. Let’s say that whereas Julia believes Proteus is intended for her, Proteus is at best ambivalent. When Julia arrives in Verona, she discovers Proteus, totally gaga over Sylvia. Proteus has employed a singer and some local musicians to serenade the apple of valentine’s eye with what I can only imagine is a composition of Proteus’s own devise: “Who is Sylvia?” Throughout the centuries composers have been drawn to the poem and set it with ardent love. The text is so mesmerizingly enchanting that none of us musical suitors seem to be aware that the progenitor of the lines, Proteus, is a monster. He betrays his best friend Valentine, and when he is rebuffed (repeatedly) by the virtuous Sylvia, he decides that there’s nothing to do but rape her.


“Nay, if the gentle spirit of moving words

Can no way change you to a milder form,

I’ll woo you like a soldier, at arms’ end,

And love you ’gainst the nature of love—force ye.”


[Assailing her] “I’ll force thee yield to my desire.”


During the attempted rape of Sylvia, Valentine arrives, rescues Sylvia, and briefly scolds Proteus for sexually assaulting his beloved. Proteus apologizes, in five lines of text. Instantly, Valentine forgives him, then offers Sylvia to his buddy Proteus as a token of gratitude for Proteus’s pithy apology. Apparently Valentine assumes he has the power to grant the rapist his desideratum as a reward for the quatrain plus one of remorse (in contrast to an earlier speech in this play about a smelly dog which takes more than two pages of soliloquy to adequately describe); but before Proteus can respond to Valentine’s moronically presumptuous gesture, Julia –still disguised as a man– faints; and then the duke of Milan shows up, and confers Sylvia upon Valentine. (This Duke of Milan is Sylvia’s father, and should not be confused with Prospero, the deposed duke of Milan from another play, nor with Antonio, the usurping duke of Milan, brother to Prospero.) Back to the action: Valentine in turn confers Julia, now that her identity has been revealed, upon Proteus. Also, a gang of bandits are all revealed to be gentlemen, in a scene which Arthur Sullivan would later ape in The Pirates of Penzance. The scene I wish Shakespeare had included would be the one after this final scene, in which both Sylvia and Julia realize their best course of action would be immediate flight away from the apes Proteus and Valentine. Perhaps the young ladies could find better matches within the newly pardoned gang of high-class highwaymen.


My 2008 setting of “Who Is Silvia?” completely ignores the depravity of Proteus. I chose a harp to represent the Milanese accompanist and a mezzo-soprano for the hired singer. In 2004, Adolphus Hailstork thought to deploy a solo violinist as a complement to a coloratura soprano, with piano serving as the Milanese third stream band. Sometime in 1929 (or shortly thereafter), British composer Gerald Finzi wrote his interpretation of Sylvia, and dedicated it to his friend, the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams. Gustavus Theodore von Holst, another British composer more familiarly known as Gustav Holst and most famous for The Planets, wrote extensively for voice, including a set of 12 songs written in 1929 and based on the poetry of Humbert Wolfe. Included in the dozen Wolfe songs is The Floral Bandit in which the poet references “Who is Sylvia.” Holst cleverly quotes the 1826 Schubert song, An Silvia, in the left hand of the piano when the tenor sings Humbert Wolfe’s query, “Who is this lady? What is she? the Sylvia all our swains adore?” The inspiration for Holst’s musical quotation is doubtless the most well known setting of the song from The Two Gentlemen of Verona by any composer.


Following Schubert’s untimely death, Anton Diabelli (remembered now for being the composer of a banal little waltz, which Beethoven employed in a masterful and transcendent set of variations; more so than his role as a music publisher and editor of  major significance) acquired the rights to much of Schubert’s oeuvre, including works that Schubert had not published, nor, in some cases, finished. One of the songs he collected was a brief setting of a drinking song from Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra. Schubert utilized an amended German translation of the verse by Eduard von Bauernfeld, (who crafted the translation Schubert employed in “An Silvia.”)  Diabelli found the short lied too brief to allow it to be published in its original form, so he enlisted Friedrich Reil to write a second verse, also in German, continuing the theme of drunken revelry. When I was contemplating programming the song for a Shakespeare Concert in 2019, I was also catching some of the Kavanaugh nomination hearing on television. I was struck by the ham-handed defense of intoxication by Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh, and was inspired to add –perhaps as indefensibly as Diabelli– a portion of the exchange between Kavanaugh and his interrogator, Senator Amy Klobuchar, to the Schubert song, and, to take one step further, to alter Schubert’s music to reflect the besotted rationalizations of our newest justice. In addition to verbatim passages from the hearing, I added one of Kavanaugh’s yearbook quotations. Thus was Come Thou Monarch of the Vine and Hearing Transcript born: a tipsy amalgamation of four texts and two composers just for a couple of minutes of amusement.


I’m not alone in taking the music of my betters, as I did with the Schubert aria Come Thou Monarch, and repurposing it. Contemporary German composer Aribert Reimann (born 4 March 1936) is, like myself, a devotee of Shakespeare. He composed a German language version of King Lear, at the behest of the late, great baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. Reimann arranged Schumann’s Sechs Gesänge, opus 107 for voice and string quartet, whose set begins with a lament about Shakespeare’s tragic heroine: Ophelia. Like the Holst “Floral Bandit,” the poem isn’t Shakespeare, but a poetic tribute to both Shakespeare and one of his inventions. The set of six songs captures Schumann’s brilliant lyricism, and Reimann’s reinterpretation of the original piano accompaniment for string quartet, in an unapologetically modern orchestration,  continues the tradition of composers appropriating their predecessors’ material, an homage similar in concept to the one penned by Titus Ulrich in the set’s opening Shakespearean influenced poem, Herzeleid.


Three settings of text from The Merchant of Venice and a pantomime for piano based on the dumb show from Hamlet’s play within a play “The Mousetrap” close the program, preceded by two brief arias, Arab Love Song, by mid-20th-century British composer Roger Quilter (another inveterate composer of Shakespearean material) based on a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley; and O Mistress Mine, another Shakespeare setting by Gerald Finzi, previously represented on this album with his Who is Silvia aria.


The Merchant of Venice portion of the program begins with Francis Poulenc’s setting of “Tell me where is fancy bred,” which is, like “Who is Sylvia,” a song sung by a “Fifth Business” character,  an actor who is not a consequential character to the drama, but is merely dropped in to reveal a plot point. In The Two Gentlemen of Verona, the fifth business vocalist reveals to Julia Proteus’s infidelity to her and Valentine. In The Merchant of Venice the vocalist is there to assist Bassanio in apprehending the meaning of Portia’s three casket puzzle, and thereby win her hand in marriage. Written in 1959 for a children’s book of music, Fancy is Poulenc’s sole setting of Shakespeare.


I’ve been troubled often by the antisemitic tone of The Merchant of Venice, more so because I find the play so absolutely masterful, even in a set of other masterful, nonpareil plays by the greatest playwright the world has ever known: Edward DeVere, the 17th earl of Oxford, also known as William Shakespeare. I have no compassion for Portia’s crossdressing masquerade as an unbiased judge of Shylock and deliberately emphasized her lack of Christian caritas in her sinister success in a misprision of justice (if you will allow me to stretch her unlawful concealment of her interest in the case) by paying special attention to her shocking use of the word “Jew,” in The Quality of Mercy is Not Strained. My choice of a Chopin-like accompaniment during her plea for mercy is meant to hearken back to that great composer’s well known antisemitism (prevalent in his letters) and the more substantial betrayal of Poland, which prompted his contemporary, the national Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz to label him a “moral vampire.” Nevertheless, I love his music. In Hath Not a Jew Eyes I attempt to support Shylock’s impassioned plea to his persecutors to recognize his humanity, a plea which the merciless Portia denies.


I end the program with The Dumbshow from “The Mousetrap.” Though it portends a tragedy, the pantomime presents Hamlet’s snare with a theatrical distance. The analogous king and queen, the poisoner and his henchmen, are but actors. This isn’t a real murder, after all. It’s a play. The actors are fifth business, meant to deliver important information to the audience, both on the stage and beyond the fourth wall. Once they deliver Hamlet’s message, they, like the singers in The Two Gentlemen of Verona and The Merchant of Venice leave unmolested, unaffected by the violent intentions of Proteus, Portia, and the Prince of Denmark.



The Shakespeare Concerts Series


Begun in 2003 with concerts in Massachusetts and the U.S. Virgin Islands, The Shakespeare Concerts presents music inspired by the immortal bard: from original English text settings to settings in translation by composers from the classical period to the 21st century. The mainstay of the series is the music of Joseph Summer, with premieres of more than a quarter of his nearly one hundred Oxford Songs; settings, primarily, of text by William Shakespeare. Who is Sylvia features interpretations by several composers of the poem from Two Gentlemen of Verona, and as well, the debut recording appearance of the award winning string quartet: The Ulysses.


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This album was made possible thanks to a generous donation from the Mattina R. Proctor Foundation.


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