Not Twelfth Night

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OK so apart from the title link this isn’t Shakespeare related, but this is something which has been bugging me and putting it down here gives me something to link to.

Today is not the 12th Day of Christmas. Today is the 12th of December. they are not the same thing.

I suspect this may be a corporate tool to sell more stuff before Christmas. But. We don’t have to allow the profit-seekers to pervert facts for their own agenda, do we? 

So the actual Twelve Days of Christmas are the twelve days starting on Christmas Day (25th December) and ending the day before Epiphany (6th January), the feast for the arrival of the Magi. All twelve of these days are Saints Days, so according to Church tradition fasting was not allowed. Twelve continuous days of feasting was naturally a cause for celebration!

In England, many traditions built up around the period – mostly with non-Christian undertones, such as choosing a Lord of Misrule or burning a Yule Log. Carols were sung – the first collection was published by Wynken de Worde in 1521. And yes, by the end of the 12 days monarchs were probably as sick of their families as the rest of us and a nice new play by William Shakespeare was exactly what they wanted…

But the important thing is all of this happens after Christmas, not before. Right now we are in Advent, the time of waiting before Christmas. So get your calendars out, light the candles, but give those poor Lords a break before they have to start dancing…

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Twelve drummers drumming

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

Twelve drummers drumming,

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

I have known when there was no music with him but the drum and the fife; and now had he rather hear the tabor and the pipe.

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Eleven pipers piping

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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.

Ten lords a-leaping

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

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

The early theatres were an egalitarian place – where both commoners and nobility could attend and see the latest shows. “Groundling” seats cost only a penny – about the same as a loaf of bread.* As you got more fancy, the price went up (for cover, cushions etc), until you got to the “Lords’ Rooms” directly over the stage – not the best view of the action, but quite unparalleled for showing off…

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Nine ladies dancing

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In the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me,

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

A traditional part of any Shakespearean stage production was the jig at the end – as Benedick says “Let’s have a dance ere we are married, that we may lighten our own hearts and our wives’ heels.”

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Eight maids a-milking

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

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

Well we could go down the maids route again – and god knows that once you start getting into it feels like almost everything Shakespeare wrote was in fact a double entendre – but instead the first thing I thought of was Lady Macbeth.

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