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  • Graham Abbott

Music Inspired by Shakespeare

Updated: Mar 28, 2020

The influence of the writings of William Shakespeare on later generations is incalculable. Shakespeare’s 37 plays – and his large output of poetry – have not only influenced authors, composers, painters and sculptors over the 400 years since his death. His work has entered our everyday speech with expressions like The most unkindest cut of all, or It was Greek to me, or To sleep, perchance to dream, or All that glitters is not gold, or Frailty, thy name is woman... Shakespeare, probably more than any other single author, has influenced the English language across all borders and cultures.


William Shakespeare (the "Chandos" portrait)

Yet the power of Shakespeare’s drama has been an obvious source of inspiration for other creative minds, especially composers of music. The first music to be directly influenced by Shakespeare’s plays was of course music designed to accompany actual productions of the plays themselves. This dates right back to Shakespeare’s own time. The texts of the plays include songs to be sung in the course of the drama, and they call for instrumental music to accompany various scenes.


Since Shakespeare’s death in 1616, his plays have been performed with varying amounts of music, and composers have provided what is known as “incidental” music to enhance the drama in a performance of a particular play.


In 1826, the seventeen year old Felix Mendelssohn wrote what must be one of the most staggering achievements of composition for a teenager: a concert overture based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream which is a dazzling encapsulation of the characters and moods of the play. The work is a masterpiece, superbly crafted, dazzling, virtually as perfect as a piece of this nature can be. We tend to forget these days that Mendelssohn was, like Mozart, a child prodigy. He came from a wealthy and educated family, and among the many and varied intellectual influences which would have been a part of his upbringing, the works of Shakespeare were part of his life from an early age. [listen]


Childe: Felix Mendelssohn (1839)

Sixteen years after writing the overture Mendelssohn was commissioned to write incidental music to accompany a German-language production of the play. He returned to his youthful overture and used it as the inspiration for a magnificent panorama of musical pieces. Where Shakespeare calls for singing, Mendelssohn wrote choruses and solos for the fairies. Where Shakespeare calls for dances and marches, these the composer provides. Fragments of the original overture are re-used and developed ingeniously to provide a sense of unity, and if you weren’t told, you’d have no idea that sixteen years separates the composition of the incidental music from the overture.


Some of the music takes the form of a :melodrama", a term used in its older sense of music which literally underscores spoken text in the play. Here’s the very ending of the play, after Theseus and Hippolyta have gone to bed. The fairies, led by Oberon and Titania, fly throughout the palace to bless it with their songs and dances. The German translation set by Mendelssohn preserves Shakespeare’s rhyme and stress patterns, easily making it possible to use the original English text without violence to Mendelssohn’s music, as heard in this recording. [listen]


Shakespeare’s plays have inspired countless composers to go that big step beyond writing incidental music by composing operatic versions of the plays. Operas based on Shakespeare go back to the seventeenth century, and nearly all the major composers of opera from the start of the nineteenth century have at some time or another treated Shakespeare operatically. Verdi wrote Macbeth early in his career, and Otello (the Italian form of Othello, of course) and Falstaff come right at the end of his working life. In the 20th century, Benjamin Britten fell under the spell of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and in 1960 his opera based on the play was produced. The text, arranged by Britten and his partner Peter Pears, comprises the text of Shakespeare play, somewhat shortened and rearranged with only one additional line of their own.


The extraordinary photo above shows Benjamin Britten (L), Peter Pears (C) and Leonard Bernstein (R) in a photo taken by Stanley Kubrick. (Source: Alex Ross on Twitter)


Of course, Mendelssohn wrote incidental music to accompany the play, so what you hear under those circumstances is a lot of speaking with occasional music. Britten wrote an opera, so there’s music and singing throughout. Interestingly, though, Britten designed the role of Puck to be spoken by an actor, which sets him apart somewhat from the other characters, who of course all sing. Puck’s speaking is also punctuated by a solo trumpet, giving him a special, impish quality. Of the other roles, Oberon, king of the fairies, was written for a countertenor, one of the first 20th century operas to use this voice. The part was specifically designed for the English countertenor Alfred Deller, whose unusually low range makes the part a challenge for most countertenors these days. Titania his wife was written for a high, somewhat florid soprano voice. The fairies’ are all boys’ voices, and the exquisitely magical orchestration makes this work a special favourite of mine.


I thought it would be interesting to hear the ending of the opera, which sets the same part of the play as we just heard in the Mendelssohn extract. Britten emphasises the night and darkness of the story in his opera, and the magic is certainly dreamlike, especially in the drowsiness of the fairies’ final song... [listen]


The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (2000 edition) cites research that lists more than 270 operas and over 100 operettas which have been based on the dramatic works of Shakespeare. While there are a few 17th and 18th century works on this list, the increasing availability of Shakespeare editions in various languages at the start of the 19th century meant that Shakespeare was a popular source for opera stories after 1800. The first opera regarded as a masterpiece in this genre was Rossini’s Otello.


In 1814 Rossini wrote an opera called Il turco in Italia (The Turk in Italy), which was a sequel to the enormously successful L’Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers) composed the year before. These two works are bubbling comedies, and their overtures clearly display this.


Gioachino Rossini in his early 20s (c. 1815)

In Naples in 1816, though, Rossini wrote Otello, an operatic treatment of Shakespeare’s Othello, surely one of the darkest and saddest of all the bard’s plays. The original 1816 version contains the tragic ending we know from the play, but bizarrely, this was changed to a happy ending for an 1819 revival. This was done at the insistence of the censors, those guardians of public morals who occasionally get the power to judge what people should and shouldn’t see or hear.


For Otello (even for its first version) Rossini simply reworked the overture to The Turk in Italy, making it if anything more sparkling and more exciting, with a prominent solo for oboe in the introduction, and exposed parts for clarinet and flute in the main fast section. It’s one of Rossini’s jolliest overtures, having no connection at all with the tragedy of the first version. I guess if nothing else, it gave the audiences at the 1819 revival an inkling that the ending would be happy one. [listen]


In complete contrast to the jollity of Rossini’s Otello overture are the Three Shakespeare Songs composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1951. Invited by the Federation of Music Festivals to compose a special test piece for competing choirs, Vaughan Williams at first refused. At the last minute though he relented, sending three settings of Shakespeare texts with the note, “Here are three Shakespeare settings: do what you like with them”.


Ralph Vaughan Williams

The first of these three settings is a gem, taking words from Ariel’s Song in Act 1 of The Tempest:


Full fathom five thy father lies;

Of his bones are coral made;

Those are pearls that were his eyes;

Nothing of him that doth fade

But doth suffer a sea-change

Into something rich and strange.

Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:

Hark! Now I hear them – Ding-dong, bell.


Vaughan Williams set these words for unaccompanied chorus, and uses ternary form for the structure. The first and last sections are marked by the recurring “ding-dong, bell” in the upper voices, with the other lines of the text sung underneath by the basses. The middle section is announced with a sudden change of harmony and texture at the line, “Nothing of him that doth fade...”. The whole is amazingly effective in creating a sense of underwater bells. As Frank Granville Barker wrote of the whole set of three songs: “Rarely has a composer responded with music of such exquisite inspiration to such a mundane commission”. [listen]


As might be expected, many English-speaking composers have often fallen under the spell of Shakespeare, and many have written incidental music for the plays, among them the most famous 19th century English composer, Arthur Sullivan. Sullivan often gets pooh-poohed by so-called “serious” music lovers for whom the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are beyond the pale. Personally I have a well-developed soft spot for the G and S operettas, but I do realise that they’re not everyone’s cup of tea. In any case, Sullivan wrote a lot of other music outside his collaborations with W. S. Gilbert, and his 1888 incidental music to Shakespeare’s Macbeth begins with one of his best overtures. Unlike Rossini’s Otello, this overture connects well with the drama to follow. The blackness of the plot is evident right from the start and there’s immense variety. The witches in particular are referred to, with little fanfares which seem to suggest their incantations, and around the four minute mark there’s a passage clearly suggesting a supernatural dance which shows that Sullivan had learned much from Mendelssohn. [listen]


Arthur Sullivan

The French composer who was held captive by Shakespeare perhaps more than any other was Hector Berlioz. Along with Goethe and Virgil, Shakespeare exerted an enormous influence on various aspects of Berlioz’ life, both artistically and personally. While a number of Berlioz’ works have Shakespearean influences, none is more indebted to the bard than his Romeo and Juliet, a vast symphony for chorus, soloists and orchestra which broke new ground in symphonic writing.


Directly descended from Beethoven’s Ninth in its use of voices in the symphonic context, Berlioz goes far beyond the boundaries adhered to by Beethoven. Composed in 1839 – less than two decades after Beethoven’s Ninth – Romeo and Juliet is a huge work, based on elements of the play and full of some of the deepest, most heartfelt music Berlioz ever wrote. His respect for Shakespeare is perhaps clearest in the fact that most famous part of the play – the balcony scene – is portrayed by the orchestra alone, without voices or text. Berlioz resists the temptation to set the lover’s words to music, choosing rather to depict in music alone what Shakespeare has already flawlessly depicted in words. This vast slow movement, the Scène d’amour, is perhaps the composer’s finest tribute to Shakespeare. The scene concerned of course contains Juliet’s desperate question as to why Romeo is who he is, or rather, why he couldn’t have come from some other family: Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo… and the outpouring of emotion between the two young lovers is one of the most famous love scenes in all art. Berlioz uncannily suggests not only speech but actual dialogue in this ravishing music. The lines are long, aching, with accompaniment patterns which suggest heartbeats and breathlessness. The balcony scene of Romeo and Juliet has been set to music by other composers, most notably Gounod, but here Berlioz sets it in music, which is something else entirely. It’s as perfect an example of an orchestral “song without words” as you’re ever likely to find, I think. [listen]


Wright: Juliet on the Balcony (c. 1800)

This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to exploring music inspired by Shakespeare. I can already hear many readers saying, “What about such and such…?” Aye, there’s the rub, but rest assured, as brevity is the soul of wit, there will be more on this vast subject in the future, as I had to leave out a lot of my favourite music too! There’s no doubting, though, that fine literature (words…words…) inspires fine music – as much as it inspires fine painting or other arts – and to me that’s one of not only the wonderful things about music, but also one of the things which reminds us that there are other arts out there as well. In fact, Horatio, there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophy…


David Tennant as Hamlet, André Tchaikowsky as Yorick

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in March, 2004.

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