Track of the Day: 'Sonnet 18' by David Gilmour

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader, Malcolm Morris, writes:

Hello, and greetings from Hong Kong. You asked about a piece of “music that transforms, or emulates, or sheds new light on a different work of art.” One such is David Gilmour (vocalist and guitarist in Pink Floyd) singing Shakespeare’s sonnet number 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.” Everything about the recording is sublime, from the lyrics to Gilmour’s voice to the simple piano arrangement to the location. It was recorded on a century-old houseboat on the River Thames at Hampton, which Gilmour transformed into a fantastic recording studio.

I first heard the song a few years ago and listened to it so often that to this day I can recite the entire sonnet while mentally humming along with the song in my head. It also reintroduced to me to Shakespeare’s poetry, which I had largely ignored in the 30 years since I was required to read it when I was a teenager.

I wish I’d known about this song when I, too, was studying Shakespeare’s sonnets as a teenager. On top of the sheer beauty of Gilmour’s recording, the melody helps reveal some of the sonnet’s structural elements. That moment when he pitches his voice up on “But thy eternal summer”? That’s the volta, or turn, at which the sonnet begins to shift from its initial argument toward a final conclusion. In this case, the conclusion is that the sonnet itself, unlike a brief summer day, will live on forever—and in giving the poem a new life through music, Gilmour has certainly helped.

Update: Malcolm also flags an album, When Love Speaks, that includes dramatic readings and some musical recordings of more than 50 of Shakespeare’s sonnets. You can find it here.

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