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Shakespeare’s song surfaces amid nautically inspired treasures

A scene from “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare, in an engraving by Benjamin Smith based on a painting by George Romney.

By Matthew Guerrieri Globe Correspondent 

On May 31, the new Twenty Summers Arts Center — located in the storied Hawthorne Barn in Provincetown — presents “Rich and Strange,” a sea-themed concert produced by writer M. T. Anderson, featuring The Broken Consort and the Arneis Quartet. Another writer of some note figures in the program: William Shakespeare, whose song “Full Fathom Five” (from “The Tempest”) will be performed in the original setting created by Robert Johnson.

Johnson (ca. 1583-1633), the son of a lutenist, was indentured to George Carey, who, as Lord Chamberlain, was the patron of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, Shakespeare’s troupe. After Carey’s death, and the ascension of King James I, the troupe became the King’s Men. Johnson, too, gained a promotion: lutenist to the king. Soon, Johnson was providing music for plays and masques by Ben Jonson, John Webster, Beaumont and Fletcher. For Shakespeare, Johnson scored the original productions of “Cymbeline,” “The Winter’s Tale,” and “The Tempest.” Johnson’s “Woods, Rocks, and Mountains” is possibly a surviving fragment of the lost Shakespeare/Fletcher collaboration “Cardenio.”

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Johnson died in 1633; the same year, the Puritan controversialist William Prynne, in his “Histriomastix,” denounced “plays, and common actors, and all those several mischievous and pestiferous fruits of hellish wickednesses that issue from them.” Within a decade, Parliament closed the theaters; the library of the King’s Men (including Johnson’s music) was scattered. Little of his work had been published; his “Tempest” settings of “Full Fathom Five” and “Where the Bee Sucks” only reached print in 1660 in a collection compiled and arranged by John Wilson — probably the “Iacke Wilson” whose presence in the King’s Men was recorded in the first folio edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Scholar John Cutts, in a pioneering 1955 paper, described hunting for Johnson’s music among manuscripts and books dispersed across Europe and America — one rare publication containing music for “The Winter’s Tale” was reconstituted from fragments in the British Library and a ducal library in Germany.

One of the most enduring Shakespearian debates is whether the playwright intended the setting of “The Tempest” to be a fanciful version of America. In particular, an account of the wreck of the “Sea Venture” has often been cited as one of Shakespeare’s possible sources. The ship went down near Bermuda while on its way to the newly-formed Jamestown colony; one of the colony’s organizers and settlers, Bartholemew Gosnold, had, on a previous voyage, sailed into Provincetown Harbor, and given Cape Cod its name.

Twenty Summers presents “Rich and Strange: A Celebration of the Sea in Music and Words,” May 31 at 7:30 p.m. at the Hawthorne Barn, 29 Miller Hill Road, Provincetown (Tickets $25; www.20summers.org).


Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.