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Music Text

Shakespeare's Sonnet 8


for 8 voices

Abbreviations (PDF)


Boosey & Hawkes

This work is available from Boosey & Hawkes for the world.


World Premiere
National Sawdust, Brooklyn, NY
Roomful of Teeth
Composer's Notes

Pocket Book VIII is a setting of Shakespeare’s eighth sonnet, "Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?". This opening line is sung as a prelude to the remainder of the sonnet, which is whispered to capture the intimacy that characterizes Shakespeare’s sonnets. A slowly moving harmonic progression is sung whilst the text is recited, and the music ends with one single note – alone.

I was drawn to this sonnet as it is filled with musical references – musical harmony being an analogy to life with happiness stemming from family – without which, he warns, one will have a life of loneliness.

Music to hear, why hear’st thou music sadly?

Sweets with sweets war not, joy delights in joy:

Why lov’st thou that which thou receiv’st not gladly,

Or else receiv’st with pleasure thine annoy?

If the true concord of well-tuned sounds,

By unions married, do offend thine ear,

They do but sweetly chide thee, who confounds

In singleness the parts that thou shouldst bear.

Mark how one string, sweet husband to another,

Strikes each in each by mutual ordering;

Resembling sire and child and happy mother,

Who, all in one, one pleasing note do sing:

Whose speechless song being many, seeming one,

Sings this to thee: ‘Thou single wilt prove none.’

In this sonnet, the poet compares a single musical note to the young man and a chord made up of many notes to a family. The marriage of sounds in a chord symbolizes the union of father, mother, and child.

The first twelve lines elaborate a comparison between music and the youth, who, should he marry and have a child, would then be the very embodiment of harmony. But music, "the true concord of well-tuned sounds," scolds him because he remains single — a single note, not a chord. By refusing to marry, the youth destroys the harmony that he should make as part of an ensemble, a family. Just as the strings of a lute when struck simultaneously produce one sound, which is actually made up of many sounds, so the family is a unit comprised of single members who function best — and most naturally — when working in tandem with one another.

—Anna Clyne

Press Quotes

“... the text of Shakespeare’s Eighth Sonnet, which begins “Music to hear,” was whispered to magical effect over lush, drawn-out harmonies.” —New York Times

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