by Maggie Molloy
The name “W. Shakespeare” reads in bold print on the title page of The Passionate Pilgrim, a poem cycle published right as Shakespeare was beginning to achieve widespread fame in 1599. But there’s a pretty good reason why most people haven’t heard of the anthology: Shakespeare didn’t actually write it.
Or at least, he didn’t write much of it. The 20-poem anthology was compiled and published by a scheming editor named William Jaggard, who got hold of two of Shakespeare’s poems and combined them with 18 other poems by various hands—passing them off as Shakespeare’s to sell more copies.
Suffice it to say, the jig didn’t last long: several of the poems were attributed to other poets during his lifetime, and the anthology was quickly revealed as a desperate marketing ploy.
But now, over four centuries later, that orphaned “Shakespearean” poem cycle finds a new home in a collaborative chamber pop album of the same name by Oracle Hysterical and New Vintage Baroque.
Let’s meet the characters, shall we?
Oracle Hysterical is comprised of four extraordinarily well-read composer-performers: Majel Connery (vocals), Elliot Cole (guitars, vocals, harmonium), and twin brothers Doug Balliett (double bass, viola da gamba) and Brad Balliett (bassoon). “Half band, half book club,” the ensemble combines classical and art-rock musical idioms with exceptional literary breadth, recreating great works of literature through the medium of song.
For this particular project, Oracle Hysterical joins forces with New Vintage Baroque, an adventurous, Julliard-trained period ensemble dedicated to the creation of 21st century repertoire for historical instruments.
Photo by Katrin Albert.
The album unfolds as a song cycle that toes the line between indie rock and Baroque chamber pop, hitting all the major Shakespearean themes of youth, beauty, love, and death along the way.
Tone painting abounds in this collection of modern-day madrigals, which feature Majel Connery and Elliot Cole’s indie vocals floating atop poised, balanced, and beautifully textured Baroque accompaniments. Yet the pieces expand upon the traditional roles of these period instruments, experimenting with low-pitched drones, unexpected instrument pairings, stereo sound, and intricately layered musical textures.
The 14 pieces range from classical chansons to singer-songwriter musical stylings, lilting lullabies to charming folk duets. Witty hooks and buoyant rhythms bring the poetry of Shakespeare’s lesser-known (or in this case, completely unknown) contemporaries clear into the 21st century, drawing connections through the timeless literary themes that have gripped writers for centuries.
But aside from the actual text setting, texture is of paramount concern in these musical arrangements, the counterpoint carefully shaped and articulated with precision, grace, and old world finesse. The result is a song cycle that echoes with the elegant charm of a Baroque dance suite and resonates with historical depth and drama.
It may not be Shakespeare—but it’s poetry, through and through.