Who is Silvia?

The title of a posting from the 21st: “Who is Alice? What is she?”, the answer to the question turning out to be Alice Lee, sister of author Harper Lee. My title was a play on the first line of a song from Shakespeare’s The Two Gentlement of Verona, a play in which Silvia is a central character: “Who is Silvia? What is she”. (The two lines are closer than you might think at first, since in the song Silvia is clearly meant to be an initially accented disyllable, just like Alice.)

Of course, Shakespeare’s play doesn’t come with a tune for the song, so one must be devised (or borrowed from another source) for purposes of performance. A notable setting of the English lyrics is by none other than Franz Schubert.

On the play and a bit about Schubert’s setting, from Wikipedia:

The Two Gentlemen of Verona is a comedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written between 1589 and 1593. It is considered by some to be Shakespeare’s first play, and is often seen as showing his first tentative steps in laying out some of the themes and motifs with which he would later deal in more detail; for example, it is the first of his plays in which a heroine [Julia, not Silvia] dresses as a boy. The play deals with the themes of friendship and infidelity,

… In 1826, Franz Schubert set a German translation by Eduard von Bauernfeld of Proteus’ serenade to Silvia (“Who is Silvia? What is she, /That all our swains commend her?”) to music. This song is usually known in English as “Who is Sylvia?,” but in German it is known as “An Sylvia” (“Vier Lieder”, opus 106, number 4, D. 891). In 1942, Gerald Finzi included a setting of “Who Is Silvia?” in his song cycle on Shakespearean texts Let Us Garlands Bring; the title of the work is the last line of the song.

Here’s the text of the song, from one edition of the play (Schubert used a somewhat different version from another edition):

Who is Silvia? what is she,
That all our swains commend her?
Holy, fair, and wise is she;
The heaven such grace did lend her,
That she might admirèd be.

Is she kind as she is fair?
For beauty lives with kindness.
Love doth to her eyes repair,
To help him of his blindness,
And, being helped, inhabits there.

Then to Silvia let us sing,
That Silvia is excelling;
She excels each mortal thing
Upon the dull earth dwelling:
Garlands to her let us bring.

The song has three 5-line verses of iambic tetrameter; lines 2 and 4 have R (a rest) for their fourth foot; lines 1, 3, and 5 mostly have short (one-syllable) first feet.

There’s a lovely 1993 recording of the Schubert version by the King’s Singers, whch you can listen to here.

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