Share this page

Writing the Music for Shakespeare's Plays: an Interview with Guy Woolfenden

Guy Woolfenden, renowned theatre composer for the RSC, discusses his experience with the intricacies of creating music that brings Shakespeare's plays to life.

Fibreglass "primitive animal horns", made for an RSC production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, with music written by Guy Woolfenden. These horns were also used in Terry Hands' production of Richard Trois for the Comedie Française, and may also have been used in Peter Hall's "prehistoric" production of Macbeth in 1978.

Music has been a vital part of staging Shakespeare’s plays from their first performances right up to the present day. But no original instrumental music survives from the plays themselves. So how can music still be used to make the plays come alive?

To find out more, I had the opportunity to interview Guy Woolfenden, a renowned theatre composer. He joined the Royal Shakespeare Company as a music director in 1961, and was Head of Music and resident composer from 1963 to 1998. He wrote 150 scores for the RSC, composing music for every Shakespeare play at least once. Here are some of his fascinating insights into the working life of a theatre composer, how music can make a production come alive, and just how musical Shakespeare’s plays really are.

How important do you think music is in bringing Shakespeare’s work to life?

Obviously I think music in Shakespeare is extremely important. But before I started writing the music for the RSC, the music was sometimes almost an afterthought. Composers sent in music without knowing anything about the production style. I think that music in the theatre – and particularly live music – is an essential part of a production.

How do you develop the music for a production?

It’s all a question of style, and it depends very much on the nature of the production one is working on. I was always guided by what the design team had planned for a production and had a much better idea of what was needed once I had seen the designs for the sets and costumes. Of course I relied on the director’s guidance to shape the music, but some directors are quite frightened about discussing music, because they don’t know the ins and outs and the technicalities.

With some it’s a bit easier. In 1964, when Peter Hall [founder of the Royal Shakespeare Company] was directing the The Wars of the Roses history cycle, he told me he wanted the music to be “medieval fascist”. I knew exactly what he meant!

You often don’t have very much time to put the music together. For The Wars of the Roses I had six weeks to write the music for three plays. It was a huge task, but it’s remained one of my favourite productions. It can help to have the deadline to work to, really. There was only a small band of seven or eight musicians at that point (it became larger over time) and they had to commit many music cues to memory to play on stage as part of the action,  with very little rehearsal time at all.

How do you work with the musical material already provided in Shakespeare’s plays – or the lack of it?

Lyrics are the key material – they’re the only musical material that has survived. Half the job is working out how to make them work, and making the incidental music fit around the songs. Some of the plays, of course, have very little in the way of musical specifics, which gives one a blank canvas.

How do you approach music which is specific to a character?

If a character has to sing in the play, the actor has to be able to carry a song. With the right actor for the part, you really get a sense of how the music fits with the role, and everything falls into place. In 1978, we were auditioning for The Tempest, and Ian Charleson was booked to play Ferdinand, not Ariel. When he was asked to sing, he walked right out into the middle of the rehearsal room and sang My Love is Like a Red Red Rose, unaccompanied and with no starting note – it was perfect. I said “He has to play Ariel”, and Alan Rickman played Ferdinand instead! I just knew Ian’s voice was perfect for the character.

Ariel is one of my favourites. He’s an airy spirit: he can obviously do things that other characters in the play can’t. He’s special. He’s a very interesting character, he has magic, he can control it, he can vanish and appear at will. And of course, he’s very musical.

How do you use music to create an atmosphere? 

You have to adjust to the mood. I prefer the band to be seen, to be a part of it, but it won’t feel right if a whole wind band invades a bedroom during a love scene! Sometimes, I feel that if the audience notices the music, something’s wrong, and perhaps you haven’t done your job properly.

You can create certain kinds of atmosphere depending on the instruments too. The feel of the music can change completely, depending on the instruments you choose. Different instruments create different moods - for example, the cor anglais can have a very sombre, evocative sound.

Top: a "buccina" used in the RSC's 'Roman season' in 1972, with music written by Guy Woolfenden. Bottom: a French hunting horn also used onstage by the RSC.

How do you avoid musical clichés, or overusing music with particular connotations?

You just have to go with your own style, and try to avoid obvious, familiar sounds – I’m not a “hey-nonny-nonny” composer! Unusual instruments can really help. We made our own instruments for some productions. For Trevor Nunn’s productions of the Roman plays in 1972, we had a set of buccinas made (the top right image). We had two buccinas in place of trumpets, two for horns, and one for the trombone. They were all in different keys, with no valves, and made a huge amount of noise, but could be a bit temperamental.

We had other unusual instruments, like a beautiful Egyptian harp made by Michael Tubbs, horns made of pottery and seashells. We also made fibreglass horns for a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

What has been the most difficult production to write for, and which has been the most enjoyable?

The Comedy of Errors, for both. It was definitely the most difficult production to write music for – especially the 1976 musical version.  There is no indication of any surviving original music for The Comedy of Errors – Shakespeare certainly didn’t write it as a musical! The lyrics were written by Trevor Nunn during the rehearsals, right at the last minute. It was a bit frantic – but it was also great fun, one of the best productions I ever worked on, winning a great number of awards.

Guy Woolfenden’s music is available through Ariel Music –have a listen to some of his music in the Play On! Shakespeare and Music online exhibition, or on Soundcloud.

Recommended blogs

See all blogs