The Tempest: an early musical?

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Scholar calls for composer and lutenist to be given share of Shakespeare’s acclaim

The musicality of Shakespeare’s The Tempest has prompted a leading director and Shakespearean scholar to propose that the play was originally intended as a musical entertainment.

Jonathan Holmes, founder and artistic director of Jericho House, has been researching the play for the past two years for a new production at the Barbican.

During that time he came to the conclusion that the composer and lute virtuoso Robert Johnson should have shared credit for the play. In addition to the well-known songs of Ariel, ‘Full fathom five’ and ‘Where the bee sucks’ for example, there are musical references in every scene.

These were previously unexplained, until Holmes studied contemporary stage directions and reached the conclusion that ‘the whole play resembles a musical court masque, as well as having a separate masque within it’. At least two of the songs in the play are know to have been written by Johnson, who also worked with Shakespeare’s company, The King’s Men, on A Winter’s Tale as well as, possibly, on Cymbeline.

Holmes, whose early music credits include working with soprano Dame Emma Kirkby and The Sixteen on works by 17th-century poet John Donne, believes that the play would originally have been heard with continuous music, much like a film score. Because of Johnson’s working partnership with Shakespeare, it is possible that this music, now lost, was written by the lutenist.

For this autumn’s new production, the film composer Jessica Dannheiser has recreated the ‘sound world’ of The Tempest as it may have been heard 400 years ago.

Lucy Fawcett