Eleven pipers piping


On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me:

Eleven pipers piping, Ten lords a-leaping,

Nine ladies dancing, Eight maids a-milking

Seven swans a-swimming, Six geese a-laying

Five gold rings,

Four calling birds, three French hens

Two turtledoves and a partridge in a pear tree


Music is an important part of Shakespeare’s plays (particularly the comedies*). It’s what the audience would expect, and it goes back in part to that cross-fertilisation between masques and plays I was talking about yesterday. Twelfth Night, for example, a play which it’s strongly suspected was written for Court, has more songs than average – likely because Shakespeare knew he would have access to the talented court musicians as well as his own troupe.

We don’t actually know if Shakespeare wrote all his own songs – and we certainly don’t know what tunes they were performed to (the First Folio neglected to include the musical notation). At least one of the songs – the Willow Song, which Desdemona sings before her death – was a pre-existing folk song. Desdemona sings

The poor soul sat sighing by a sycamore tree,
Sing all a green willow;
Her hand on her bosom, her head on her knee,
Sing willow, willow, willow.
The fresh streams ran by her, and murmur’d her moans,
Sing willow, willow, willow;
Her salt tears fell from her, and soften’d the stones

Her audience would have known the traditional end to the song and a strong suspicion of how the story was going to play out…

Take this for my farewell and latest adieu…
Write this on my tomb, that in love I was true…
The words of O Mistress Mine, as sung in Twelfth Night, seem to fit the story so well as to have been purposefully written for it.
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.
Nonetheless, the first recorded setting, by Thomas Morley, was published in 1600 – two years before the first recorded performance of the play. This is probably the most famous setting** – here is a particularly fine version. The timing doesn’t preclude Shakespeare having written the lyrics – the play may well have been performed and written earlier, and the two men lived for a time in the same parish in London and may well have been acquainted.
One musician who we do know wrote specifically for Shakespeare was Robert Johnson, who set “Where the bee sucks” and “Full fathom five” from The Tempest to music (among other pieces). It may be significant that The Tempest was first performed in Blackfriars Theatre, the indoor (winter) home of The King’s Men, which may also have afforded more scope for music than the Globe***.
The lack of “definitive” musical versions for Shakespeare’s songs has allowed performers to update them as they choose – I’ve heard at least as many different versions of Sigh No More as I’ve seen productions. So here’s another comparison for you – David Tennant and Catherine Tate, and the Joss Whedon film version.


* Although it is interesting to note that Ophelia and Desdemona are the only heroines – and among few main characters – who sing.

** I’m humming it right now and you probably are too…

*** It’s also worth noting that Robert Johnson was also one of the king’s lutenists. That masque connection again.


6 thoughts on “Eleven pipers piping

  1. I will definitely take the Thomas Morley over either version of Sigh no More. There’s something about the modern musical settings that makes the period language sound ridiculous. Fol-de-rols may have been acceptable in the Tudor and Stuart period, but backed by electronic keybords …. ergh! Great post, though, Cymbeline from what’s been a fascinating thread.


    • Thank you Lynn! I like the way both versions (and the production I went to earlier this year) have gone to the effort of writing something new which fits with the style of their show. And there was a much worse bit with a Casio keyboard.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ooh, a Casio keyboard – I’m trying not to imagine that, to be honest :). I suspect, to appreciate the music properly, you’d have to see it in the context of the play. As you say, it shows some effort at least. Though being a history nerd, I love to see the plays performed as written – got to love a man in doublet and hose 🙂


  2. westville13

    And am I the only person to be amused that Robert Johnson’s namesake was King of the Delta Blues Singers – though his middle name was Leroy. As far as I know no-one has adopted the blues style for Shakespeare’s songs yet, though the more melancholy ones might fit well.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s