Death is not the only connection between the rev. Herbert’s short(ened) sermon and one of the most famous tearjerkers in world literature. For The Song of Willow as it is immortalized by William Shakespeare suffered the loss of a few lines as well. The score’s source-indication emphasises strongly its origin as a folk song, in which quality it is still in existence; there is (or was) almost certainly a manuscript in RVW’s own hand in the composer’s private collection of traditional music. Still, this shortened and even incomplete version must be far better stuff than the original, for Vaughan Williams, chooses to use the
words from Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’
and reverses the ones Shakespeare used for a title. Again the score is in three-quarters and this time the words are cut down to size even twice. The song in which Desdemona unwittingly foretells her untimely end, peters out in confusion as she doesn’t remember it very well. This leaves Vaughan Williams little choise but to ignore the final four of Shakespeare’s 13 lines. Meanwhile Desdemona’s faulty memory in this rather long play is to be regarded as a blessing in disguise to both audience and pocket calculator; where the original version demands to sing 54 lines, the 1623 edition (the first complete works-edition, based on the lost original manuscripts) manages to have it printed in sixteen, some inserted dialogue included. This dialogue turns every single word in these sixteen lines into an integrated part of ‘Othello’s story, which is very much contrary to the original song; which is refrain almost throughout. And leaves it to a modest twelve lines to cover the story it is telling. Because of this increase of the story lines to sixteen, one might say that in reducing VirtueVaughan Williams exactly reverses the way Shakespeare deals with the Song of Willow. Pointing at the weeping willow’s roots as ‘words from Othello’ also brings the words to attention RVW omitted. These final lines reveal why the poor soul is flowing fresh tears by the stream. And as causes are always preceding results, we are facing a reversion once again; of chronology this time. The cause, by the way, is love. So a common main subject now unites both Shakespeare-texts against Herbert’s view on mortality.
In short ; Sweet Day and The Willow Song share the theme of approaching death, and a reduction by four lines. They also have both their share of reversions, and reducing Virtue from 16 to 12 lines RVW reverses Shakespeare’s expansion of The song of Willow by four story-lines. But the songs differ by subject, and this unites The Willow Song with O Mistress Mine :
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The Willow Song
O Mistress Mine