On Twelfth Night, the end of Christmas, naturally ones thoughts turn to the beginning of the year’s work, for we must all work hard to feed our families, but then there is always Shakespeare:
If music be the food of love, play on;
Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,
The appetite may sicken, and so die.
That strain again! it had a dying fall:
O, it came o’er my ear like the sweet sound,
That breathes upon a bank of violets,
Stealing and giving odour! Enough; no more:
‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before.
O spirit of love! how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity and pitch soe’er,
But falls into abatement and low price,
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy
That it alone is high fantastical.
There are no more Christmas carols for us, but there is always music. Orsino knows the intimate connection between the sound of the harp and the sound of the heart.
I once saw a production of Twelfth Night in 1920s dress, which opened with a chap in a boater dancing almost Charleston-style to a gramophone and it did not quite fit the pained opening soliloquy, but even the band-tunes of the 1920s dance hall were aimed at the heart (and it needed a lot of work to make that decade jolly, to forget all that had been before, and the resentful division between those who had served and those who had not, and those who came home whole and those who did not).
However, we misread Orsino if we read only the first lines, as we usually do. Music is the food of love, or one food for it, and we sing the lines as if they were an invitation to conjure up love. Orsino though suffers from love. He loves Olivia and it is unrequired, and he wants to be rid of his affliction, and so he will be drowned in music so he is so full of the artificial love-feelings it generates that he is sick of them and will love no more. It is a dishonest trick though – he wants those emotions washing over him, until he admits it to himself perhaps and the music calls to him to well the remembrance that he can never be loved; ‘Tis not so sweet now as it was before. Is that the music, or the feelings of love?
Shakespeare knew what music could do, and his words were music in themselves. As he said elsewhere: “The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils;” (The bard does not say whether writing a political blog counts. I expect so.)
Great music is a powerful think to mould the soul, even to our own day. Ours is not an age without music, but the cacophony of popular singers and sickening lyrics might make you think so. Great music is still written these days, but you may not notice you are hearing it – it is written for films. There are composers today as great as there were in the classical age, writing for Hollywood not the opera. They move the soul as ever great music did.
In the play, Orsino is to be changed unwillingly. Enter Viola, who unwittingly returns to the theme as she goes to seek the Duke’s employment:
I can sing
And speak to him in many sorts of music
That will allow me very worth his service.
What else may hap to time I will commit;
Only shape thou thy silence to my wit.
And so the transformation begins, moving the affection from Olivia to Viola. The almost anagram of the ladies’ names is a clue to the muddles of the plot.
Orsino cast music aside, but not for long. He seeks the thing it engenders in his heart and he looks for it again:
Give me some music. Now, good morrow, friends.
Now, good Cesario, but that piece of song,
That old and antique song we heard last night:
Methought it did relieve my passion much,
More than light airs and recollected terms
Of these most brisk and giddy-paced times:
Come, but one verse.
The old and antique song is what we all seek. Though it seems a cultureless age, there is something eternal in music worthy of the name that ensures it cannot disappear.