No Mortal Business Composer’s Note

Canadian Composer, Allan Bevin

Literary scholar Alvin Kernan once observed (in rather understated fashion) that Shakespeare “remains, in fact, the most anonymous of our great writers”.  Indeed, surprisingly little is known for certain about the world’s most renowned playwright and this lack of biography and dearth of indisputable fact has prompted considerable speculation about the life of the actor/author we know as William Shakespeare (1564-1616).  Perhaps the greatest controversy is the authorship question. Many scholars and Shakespeare enthusiasts doubt that the actor and the author were one in the same person, but if it wasn’t the actor who actually wrote the plays there is even less agreement about who did.  The answer to this question may never be known but one thing that is certain is that the works of Shakespeare have inspired more new creative activity then any other writer. Music, poetry, cinema, and many other areas of creative activity have all been enriched by new creations inspired by the monumental words of this great author. No Mortal Business follows in this tradition. It is a dramatic musical work that is a speculative fantasy on the final years of Shakespeare’s life based on theories about his last play and ideas about his faith.

Unlike some recent books and movies, No Mortal Business does not consider the authorship question. Shakespeare the actor and author are the same person in the work you are about to hear. However, No Mortal Business accepts the idea that Shakespeare did have faith, and moreover, that he was a crypto-Catholic. In late-sixteenth century England it was illegal to be a Roman Catholic.  Elizabeth I, (reigned 1558-1603) like her father Henry VIII, was head of the Protestant (Anglican) English church and much of her reign was consumed with establishing her church and fending off challenges to it. In this powder keg of a climate, an Englishman who professed Roman Catholicism was not merely expressing his faith, he was also making a potentially dangerous political declaration for which he could be fined, imprisoned, or worse. Some writers feel that this oppression created a flourishing counter-culture determined to protest the suppression of  the “old” Catholic faith, and furthermore, that Shakespeare was a leading figure in this resistance. Clare Asquith’s recent book, Shadowplay, contends that Shakespeare and other English Catholic writers developed a coded language designed to elude the Elizabethan theatrical censor (‘The Master of the Revels’) while secretly communicating with fellow crypto-Catholics.  She also suggests that Shakespeare used specific words, phrases, and images that embody hidden religious import but were in themselves vague and innocuous enough to be completely deniable if put to the test. Some of the alleged words and phrases that appear in No Mortal Business are:  “tempest”, (purportedly Shakespeare’s main image of the Reformation), “Shadow” (Protestant Holy Communion), and “Substance” (Roman-Catholic Mass).

Further grounds for the inclusion of Roman Catholic symbols in No Mortal Business comes from a document now known as “John Shakespeare’s Spiritual Testament”. This document was found hidden in the eaves of the Shakespeare family home during renovations done around the year 1750. The document, which appears to have been signed by the author’s father, provides direction in the way in which the individual should prepare himself for death in the “old” faith. Although it was long considered to be a forgery other such testaments have been found recently and the document’s possible validity is being reconsidered. It is known that these testaments were prepared in Rome and distributed to English Catholics by Jesuit priests in the 1580’s so there is at least a possibility that John Shakespeare both requested and received one. No Mortal Business contains some elements from the “spiritual testament” (Ave Maria) and incorporates additional liturgical texts and music long associated with the Catholic Requiem (Kyrie Eleison, Requiem Aeternam, and In Paradisum). “John Shakespeare’s Spiritual Testament” is also the main rationale behind my inclusion of the character of the “Angel of Death”.  The soprano soloist sings these liturgical texts almost exclusively throughout the work.

Interspersed with this material are dramatic, thematic, textual, and musical elements from Shakespeare’s plays and poetry, particularly his final play, The Tempest. Traditionally described as a romance or a comedy, recent scholarship suggests that The Tempest has other possible interpretations. The first recorded performance took place at court on  All Saint’s Day, November 1, 1611 and Shakespeare scholar John Bender has found a correlation between the biblical readings for that day and the text of The Tempest. Bender suggests that Shakespeare was  well aware of the significance of the date of the first performance and furthermore that the text of the play was influenced by these scripture readings. Bender finds “Judaic wrath”, “Christian redemption”, and “their combination in apocalyptic eschatology” (the branch of theology that considers the “end-times”) to be key elements in the play and the music in No Mortal Business generally reflects these themes.

Sometime following the first performance of The Tempest, Shakespeare left his London theatrical career behind and returned to his home town of Stratford-Upon-Avon. The aspect of leave-taking in the plot of The Tempest  has a possible parallel with Shakespeare’s own departure. This can be clearly heard in Prospero’s Epilogue to the play quoted below.  The poignancy of this farewell speech is even more intense when one considers the possibility that these words were, arguably, the last words that Shakespeare wrote:

Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,-
Which is most faint: …
But release me from my bands
With the help of your good hands:
Gentle breath of yours my sails
Must fill, or else my project fails,
Which was to please: now I want
Spirits to enforce, art to enchant;
And my ending is despair,
Unless I be relieved by prayer,
Which pierces so, that it assaults
Mercy itself, and frees all faults.
As you from crimes would pardon’d be,
Let your indulgence set me free. 

Reflecting upon this speech, Marjorie Garber has observed that:

“Nothing in Prospero’s life becomes him like the leaving of it, for in the act of leave-taking he transcends dramatic occasion. His farewell becomes in its own way a reinterpretation of that greatness, an affirmation of the human limits as well as the godlike capabilities of man. The last words he speaks are at once a reminder of the Golden Rule and a version of the last rites of the Church, a request for absolution – but with one characteristically Shakespearean addition: the rites Prospero proposes are reciprocal, absolving speaker and audience in the same act…Prospero the character is poised on the threshold between life and death, the actor who plays him is poised between fiction and reality – and the audience participates crucially in both moments of transition”.

Important as The Tempest ‘s possible religious meanings are for No Mortal Business, the play’s musical imagery and content also play major roles. Shakespeare critic Patrick Murray contends that “images of sound are dominant in The Tempest,” and moreover, the play contains a number of songs, and plentiful stage directions requiring the insertion of instrumental music. No Mortal Business sets to music some of the play’s best-known songs and prose in new settings for the chorus, (e.g. Full Fathom Five and The Cloud-Capp’d Towr’s) and instrumental interpretations of some of  the play’s stage directions are provided (A Solemne MusickeA Heavenly Musicke) as well. These musical numbers are interspersed with spoken excerpts from the play, especially those passages that deal with dreams, sleep, leave-taking, and the end of the world. Some of the spoken text appears on its own in a fashion reminiscent of a Shakespearean soliloquy while other passages are heard above the music. All of this material is then organized in a manner similar to the five-act Shakespearean drama.

The role of “The Prologue” in No Mortal Business is largely based upon the character of Prospero, but it is also developed out of an Elizabethan dramatic tradition. It was common in plays of Shakespeare’s time to have a solitary actor address the audience about the plot of the play before the action began. Bruster and Weimann write in “Prologues to Shakespeare’s Theatre” that “Elizabethan prologues, … spoke to their audiences sometimes heraldically, sometimes conversationally, and sometimes in supplication”.  These modes of address are apparent in No Mortal Business but the role is expanded beyond a part that deals primarily with dissemination of information into one that exhibits more complex emotional, psychological, and dramatic purpose.

Other traditions of Elizabethan theatre and society are also integrated into No Mortal Business. These include the use of trumpets which were used at the Globe Theatre to call the audience to order, or were combined with a military drum in an off-stage flourishe. The sound of church bells in Elizabethan England would have been prominent in an acoustic without power tools and automobiles and Shakespeare’s writing indicates that he was well aware of their significance. Bells were used to announce the imminent passing of distinguished persons (the Passing Bell) and to call people to prayer for the repose of the departed’s soul. Sounding the bells (particularly during a tempest) was also believed to drive away wicked spirits, who it was felt could not bear to hear the sound.

All of the spoken text in No Mortal Business comes from Shakespeare’s works. The Tempest is the primary source, but plays such as Richard II, Julius Caesar, Macbeth and others are referenced as well. I have chosen to include two of Shakespeare’s Sonnets because of their intensely personal nature and the insight that they give into the author’s acting career.  J.E. Hankins once described Shakespeare’s manner of writing in this way: “Shakespeare has a habit of ‘talking to himself’ in obscure phrases and literary illusions…They seem to be a necessary part of his poetic style…”. No Mortal Business proceeds in a similar fashion, creating a kind of dream-like Shakespearean “stream of consciousness” that, while interrupting itself, moves inexorably towards an uncertain end.

No Mortal Business was commissioned by Chorus Niagara, Robert Cooper, C.M., Artistic Director, with the assistance of commissioning partners The Richard Eaton Singers, Leonard Ratzlaff, Artistic Director, and the Vancouver Bach Choir, Leslie Dala, Artistic Director. The latter two choirs will perform the work in the 2012-13 concert season in Edmonton and Vancouver respectively. Additionally, we wish to extend our sincere thanks to the Alberta Foundation for the Arts for their support of this commission.


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