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The Sixties, The Sonnets and the Swan of Avon

March 25, 2013

Sometimes, if someone has happened to learn my age, they observe enviously that it must be great to have been a child of the Sixties. Well, perhaps. But though technically – which is to say literally – that is what I am, when the decade ended I was still in short trousers, some years short of the age at which I believe we are culturally most open and inclined to explore. So the backdrop to my cultural formation was not a Sixties tapestry. To be born while the Beatles were number 1 with I Want to Hold your Handwas neither portentous nor influential, but a coincidence. I feel no special connection with the Beatles – or with Sixties music as a whole.

It’s a little embarrassing in some ways, but I have to own up: in pop terms I’m a Seventies boy; and my relationship with Sixties music is one of discovery – I keep stumbling against stuff that makes me wish I were ten years older and had felt its impact when it was new. 

So the other day we were watching The Boat that Rocked, which has one of the most fantastic soundtracks of any modern movie. All from the Sixties, and most of it of a calibre which has endured for nearly 50 years. One song, a 1967 classic, is Procul Harem’s A Whiter Shade of Pale. You know it. Of course you do, but it will bear another listen, and those seven minutes of your life will not be wasted. The link I’ve given you is a brilliant live version.

It seems a pity that the song was the subject of litigation over the writing credits. It was not until 2009 that the House of Lords ruled definitively on the royalties due to Matthew Fisher, who had not originally been credited. Artistically, I can see where he was coming from – if I’d co-written something that magnificent I would want people to know it.

Why mention that? Because Mrs simonsometimessays once did some design work for Matthew Fisher, and the song always places her front and centre of my thoughts. It’s mid-scale vicarious name-dropping, admittedly, but I’m proud of that one.

Speaking of Mrs sss, I am a little concerned. Have I given the impression that she is a shadowy creature who stalks the halls in my small patch of the blogosphere? Let me simply refute that, though without saying much more, as she is a modest soul and not among the most active in the ether. Indeed, she may never read these lines.

Which by word association alone leads me to something else: “Nay if you read this line remember not/The hand that writ it…”, from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 71. (You have two choices now – link to this site where all the sonnets are set out and nicely considered, or scroll down.) This is easily my favourite sonnet and, fortunately for me, has inspired many composers and songwriters to make good music.

guitarspeareTry this, for example: a setting by Hubert Parry, better known for writing the music to go with Jerusalem; or this haunting piece by Thy Fickle Destiny accompanying a somewhat dramatic reading. And the sonnet features in a wonderful enterprise undertaken last year, making modern songs from some of the sonnets, played on period instruments. Here’s the soundcloud of three of them. I’m waiting for the CD to arrive.

Naturally, Shakespeare has attracted composers of all types, and in every language. No doubt there are dissertations, theses, books and libraries full of expert analysis of this phenomenon by musicologists, and probably an equivalent corpus of work by literary scholars. I’m neither of those – I’m just happy to listen to some of the results, especially those in opera and song. Thus Verdi’s Otello, and the aria Niun mi tema which is worth hearing for the music more than for its fidelity to Shakespeare, or this really lovely excerpt from The Tempest, a modern opera by Joe St. Johanser

From there it is but a hop and a step to Eighties/Nineties band Shakespears Sister. Never mind where they got the name – it’s an honourable chain of cultural references which you can discover for yourself from the repository of all known wisdom – just note the spelling. Although it was originally written like that by mistake, it seems very appropriate given the inconsistency with which WS used to spell his own name. It may be slightly cheesy, but their most well-known song Stay seems a good one to send out to the far-from-ethereal Mrs sss, whether she’s reading this or not. After all, I wouldn’t want her to become Someone Else’s Girl.

And that feels like a good place to stop.

* I have to admit that I was torn: I wandered the web to find a good link to I want to hold your hand. And I nearly chose this version – a totally different cover by T V Carpio from the movie Across the Universe. I really like the rather melancholy take on it, and the gentle pump of the bass

Sonnet 71

No longer mourn for me when I am dead
Than you shall hear the surly sullen bell
Give warning to the world that I am fled
From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell:
Nay, if you read this line, remember not
The hand that writ it, for I love you so,
That I in your sweet thoughts would be forgot,
If thinking on me then should make you woe.
O! if, I say, you look upon this verse,
When I perhaps compounded am with clay,
Do not so much as my poor name rehearse;
But let your love even with my life decay;
Lest the wise world should look into your moan,
And mock you with me after I am gone.


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  1. Nicely put, as always. Just two comments. Next time, a more cheery sonnet please (if such a thing exists). Also, I much prefer Stay by The Hollies – although I appreciate that there isn’t even a tenuous Shakespeare link to be made there! 🙂

  2. Well as a song, so do I – especially having seen the Hollies three times in the last 5 years (yes, they are still touring!). Thank you for the new earworm… [wanders about aimlessly for the next two hours singing “Why don’t you stay-ay-ay-ay-ay just a little bit longer?”]

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