Twelfth Night and a First Day

“What can I give Him, 
 Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a wise man
I would do my part;
Yet what I can, I give Him –
Give my heart.” 

(from In the Bleak Midwinter, by Christina Rosetti)

Quincy Market - photo by C. Willoughby

It’s Monday, January 6th – also known as Twelfth Night, Three King’s Day, and the Feast of Epiphany. Such a time for music! With carols, song cycles, cantatas and music of all kinds written to commemorate the visitation of the Magi in Bethlehem, and the child’s baptism in the River Jordan. Whether it’s We Three Kings, or Do You Hear What I Hear? or the ubiquitous Twelve Days of Christmas, the melodies of this season are as familiar as the well-loved, handmade ornaments now getting tucked carefully back into their boxes for another year.

But the Twelfth Night music doesn’t stop there, thanks to a certain prolific Elizabethan playwright who wrote a comedy for the occasion, and gave his play the holiday’s name. In Shakespeare’s time, the period right after Christmas was a time of (not always sober!) revelry. In fact the dancing, reverse roleplaying and carnival atmosphere much more closely resembled the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia than the sacred season of Epiphany as it’s recognized today.

And Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night has kept on giving in the form of overtures, incidental music, and concert suites – either written to accompany live performances of the play, or for purely orchestral performances inspired by the farcical spirit of the Bard’s lighthearted cross-dressing romance. One of these, Alexander Mackenzie’s Romantic symphonic poem Twelfth Night, even includes a cleverly complex, blustery fugue to represent the scheming character Malvolio as he attempts to win his release from imprisonment by proving himself sane.  Oh yes, we’ll hear that one in this morning’s music – we have to, don’t we?

That’s where the “first day” part of the title on this article comes into play. It may be Twelfth Night, but it’s also our first Monday of the new year. And it’s my first day, guest hosting for the month on the morning music show. It’s my great pleasure to be here with you for this time, sharing the music we love and learning a little bit about it together along the way. As always, the request lines are open! Feel free to share your music requests here or on NEPR’s Facebook page.

From all of us at New England Public Radio, wishing you a Happy New Year! And…

If music be the food of love, play on!” (Duke Orsino, from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night)


  1. Anonymous says

    Welcome, Cheryl! Happy first day on Twelfth Night!

    Question about the playlist on the NEPR site. I’ve been having trouble finding the most current things recently — at least for several weeks, maybe since there was some renovation of the site. In particular, I always used to be able to look for the name of something that had just played if I missed the announcement before or after it was played. John and Walter usually posted each piece just after it finished playing (or while it was playing, I forget).

    But now I can only see yesterday’s classical music, none of today’s. And I know that happened to me a couple of times in December.

    In the meantime I can put my immediate curiosity question to you: You played a set by the Robert Shaw Chorale in honor of Twelfth Night and the Three Kings, and the first piece in that set sounded to me like some familiar chorus from some opera, I would have guessed something warlike, and nothing I could associate with any Christmas-season tune.  What was it??

    And in the meantime, I hope you’ve been enjoying your first day as much as I’ve been enjoying listening to you. Have a good month!

    From a WFCR fan since 1972 …

    Barbara Partee


  2. Cheryl Willoughby says

    Hello Barbara, and thanks so much for your warm welcome! Yes – you’re not alone in experiencing difficulties recently with NEPR’s online playlists. We are too. I’m very sorry about that,. We’re working toward a permanent resolution right now, but in the meantime please don’t hesitate to get in touch as you’ve done here and ask about anything you’ve heard (or – would like to hear.)

    About the “March of the Kings” I played: you have keen ears. The melody for that little carol was also borrowed by George Bizet, for the opening to his L’Arlesienne incidental music. This arrangement (as you’ve likely already guessed) was done by Alice Parker and Robert Shaw himself, for the 1994 Telarc recording “Songs of Angels”.  You can click on the link I’m attaching here to see the full recording

      Best to you, happy new year, and thanks for listening (since 1972)!





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