Shakespeare Sonnets

for SATB

Text by William Shakespeare

premiered May 3, 2004
Pomona College Glee Club
Donna M. Di Grazia, conductor

Bridges Hall of Music
Claremont, California

Lauren Capp
Lisa D’Annunzio
Hayden Eberhart
Barbara Leinbach
Sarah Schaffer
Mandy Woodwell

Jacqueline Chen
Isabel Daniels
Alison Ellsworth
Glenna Holstein
Sarah Marini
Audra Nemir
Joanna Schenke
Kat O. White

Cameron Blume
Ryan Dugger
Timothy Karp
Eric Levine
Matt Zay

Matthew Anderson
Andrew Lim
Alec Palmerton
Ryan Peterson
William Trevor
Nicholas Villalon

Setting Shakespeare Sonnets is both daunting and rewarding. Playing with words that have deeply moved readers from vastly different times and cultures for over 400 years seems more than a bit presumptuous. On the other hand the ultimate reward for a composer is living with these Sonnets, which is far more inviting than humility, however appropriate that might be. I have therefore plunged ahead and tried to use music to reflect the tone, dramatic shape, meaning and some of the particular images of these miraculous sonnets, or at least according to my own readings.

“Shall I compare the to a summer’s day?” is one of the best known of all the sonnets. It sunnily contemplates love, death, the immortality of the written word, and the weather, while its primary concern is to weigh the relative merits of a summer day and the poet’s lover. Even though the sonnet was written in a time without central heating, the summer’s day comes up short in the comparison. Some of the eager, almost breathless lightness and warmth of the poem might be heard in the rushing scales of the opening. In “How like a winter hath my absence been,” the poet’s summer without his lover seems like winter. The frigid droning seconds and falling melodic lines in the beginning might reflect the gray winter, while the following 6-part harmony may bring to mind a lush summertime. In “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” the poet scornfully rejects fanciful hyperbole to describe his earthbound love, but ultimately admits a tenderness that belies his blunt comparisons. In this setting, the chorus sees through the solo tenor’s scorn from the beginning. “That you were once unkind” responds to some past wounds, perhaps too painful to address directly, in a complex and oblique way. In this setting the somewhat richer harmony called for is balanced by simple phrasing and relatively little contrapuntal elaboration. In the last movement, “How oft, when thou, my music, music play’st,” the poet is jealous of his lover’s intimacy with a musical instrument, a playful image and perhaps an odd one, at least to those not involved with a musician. In this reading the image is tongue in cheek, but the urgent longing is for real.

I am deeply grateful to the members of the Glee Club and of course to their inspiring leader, Professor Donna Di Grazia for bringing this music to life. It has been a great pleasure to hear the piece take shape over many weeks of rehearsals and individual work, and to hear the fruits of their labors in today’s fine performance.


I. Sonnet 18
Shall I compare thee to a summer's day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer's lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometimes declines,
By chance, or nature's changing course, untrimmed:
But thy eternal summer shall not fade
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow'st,
Nor shall Death brag thou wan'drest in his shade
When in eternal lines to time thou grow'st.
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

II. Sonnet 97
How like a winter hath my absence been
From thee, the pleasure of the fleeting year!
What freezings have I felt, what dark days seen!
What old December's bareness everywhere!
And yet this time removed was summer's time,
The teeming autumn, big with rich increase,
Bearing the wanton burden of the prime,
Like widowed wombs after their lord's decease:
Yet this abundant issue seemed to me
But hope of orphans and unfathered fruit;
For summer and his pleasures wait on thee,
And thou away, the very birds are mute;
Or, if they sing, 'tis with so dull a cheer
That leaves look pale, dreading the winter's near.

III. Sonnet 130
My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips' red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts be dun;
If hairs be wires black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak: yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound:
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As any she belied with false compare. 

score excerpt III

IV. Sonnet 120
That you were once unkind befriends me now,
And for that sorrow which I then did feel
Needs must I under my transgression bow,
Unless my nerves were brass or hammered steel.
For if you were by my unkindness shaken,
As I by yours, you've passed a hell of time,
And I, a tyrant, have no leisure taken
To weigh how once I suffered in your crime.
O that our night of woe might have rememb'red
My deepest sense how hard true sorrow hits,
And soon to you, as you to me then, tend'red
The humble salve which wounded bosoms fits!
But that your trespass now becomes a fee;
Mine ransoms yours, and yours must ransom me.        

score excerpt IV

V. Sonnet 128                                            
How oft, when thou, my music, music play'st
Upon that blessed wood whose motion sounds
With thy sweet fingers when thou gently sway'st
The wiry concord that mine ear confounds.
Do I envy those jacks that nimble leap
To kiss the tender inward of thy hand,
Whilst my poor lips, which should that harvest reap,
At the wood's boldness by thee blushing stand.
To be so tickled they would change their state
And situation with those dancing chips
O'er whom thy fingers walk with gentle gait,
Making dead wood more blest than living lips.
Since saucy jacks so happy are in this,
Give them thy fingers, me thy lips to kiss.      

score excerpt V

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