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If Music Be the Food of Love: Creighton choirs celebrate Shakespeare in upcoming concert

In the 400 years since William Shakespeare shuffled off this mortal coil, we are constantly reminded that his lasting monument are his words, that his lofty scenes continue to play out across nations and languages.

March 1, Creighton University’s Chamber Choir and University Chorus will join in adding its voices to those which, over the past year, have observed the life and monumental work of Shakespeare on campus and around the world with “From Verse to Song: A Shakespeare Celebration,” featuring songs inspired by Shakespeare’s plays and poems.

“So many of Shakespeare’s texts have been turned into music,” said Barron Breland, DM, director of the Chamber Choir and an associate professor of music. “It’s all so lyrical. It lends itself to any number of different musical settings.” As such, the Chamber Choir will be featuring a wide selection of pieces, from Baroque composer Henry Purcell’s “Strike the Viol” to Ralph Vaughn Williams’ “Serenade to Music” pulled from The Merchant of Venice to contemporary composers like John Tavener, Wayland Rogers, Howard Helvey and Michael John Trotta dabbling in texts from Hamlet, Twelfth Night, As You Like It and the sonnets.

The University Chorus, under the direction of Adam Witte, will be singing selections inspired by A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night, among others.

A notorious vexation for high school English students, Shakespeare’s language as song has given both choirs pause to reflect on the Bard’s way with words and the various ways to interpret what’s being said.

“There have been a lot of good teachable moments,” Witte said. “When we’re lifting Shakespeare’s words from his plays and putting them into music, it’s important for us to know what 16th or 17th century language means in a 21st century context. So we’ve been digging through some of the language and taking a moment to ask, ‘What does this mean?’ If we’re going to sing it, we have to have that meaning to bring out the emotion.”

In one song the University Chorus is undertaking, the singers are contending with the famed “All the world’s a stage” speech from Jaques in As You Like It. The passage is rife with allusions to a person’s lack of freewill, intoning we are led hither and yon by forces beyond our control.

“We’ve had some good discussions around that,” Witte said. “Are we all just really players? Do we have a choice? The song itself is acting as a response to the ideas in that speech.”

Students have been treated to a bit of a crash course in the nuances of Elizabethan English, not just in meaning but also phrasing and pronunciation.

“We’ve been talking about word stress in song lately,” Breland said. “In that regard, this has been very helpful. Students are figuring out the direction of phrases and the proper stress to put on words. The lessons are hitting home when you have to keep an eye and an ear on language that’s not always entirely familiar.”

Both groups are also incorporating added flourishes to the pieces. The University Chorus will sing a piece with text from The Tempest inflected with verses of Chinese poetry. To cap the performance, Breland has selected Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere” from West Side Story, a 1950s retelling of Romeo and Juliet.

“We like to give at least a nod to something more contemporary, that might be just a little more recognizable,” he said. “But coming from a wide variety of composers, in different settings, all of the music is beautiful. It’s what you get with Shakespeare. It’s always green.”

“From Verse to Song: A Shakespeare Celebration,” will take the Mainstage at the Lied Education Center for the Arts at 7:30 p.m. on March 1. The performance and open to the public and admission is free with a canned good donation to benefit the Siena/Francis House.


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