Shakespeare: Inspiration in Music

April 2016 is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. William Shakespeare (1564-1616) was a poet, playwright and actor, widely regarded as one of the greatest English writers ever. Widely known simply as The Bard, his plays are some of the most commonly performed to this day. In a new book titled The 101 Greatest Plays, Guardian theatre critic Michael Billington finds room for three of Shakespeare’s works, depite going as far back as Aeschylus and Aristophanes.

Many composers have been inspired by Shakepeare’s gift for storytelling. Songs, incidental music and film music has all been influenced by the plays, and there are about 400 works, many of which are operas, plus songs and symphonic pieces based on Shakespearian tales.

In September 1769, an actor and theatre manager called David Garrick staged a Shakespeare Jubilee in Stratford-upon Avon. This sparked a growth in popularity of Shakespeare’s plays, and played a major part in the playwright becoming established as the English national poet. During the Romantic period, composers were influenced by the past, biographical sources and both nature and the supernatural. Shakespeare’s plays encompass many of these areas and so many musicians looked to his works for inspiration.

Classical Works – Verdi, Berlioz and Tchaikovsky

One of the most famous opera composers, Verdi, based a number of his operas on Shakespeare plays. His first “Shakespeare” opera was Macbeth, written in 1847, but the Bard’s plays were to inspire Verdi throughout his life. His plan to adapt King Lear (Re Lear) never came to fruition, but his final two operas once again returned to Shakespeare with Otello (Othello) in 1887 and Falstaff (based on The Merry Wives of Windsor) in 1893.

Here is the finale of Falstaff.

Berlioz also wrote a number of works inspired by Shakespeare. His opus 4 Le Roi Lear (King Lear) was inspired by his recent discovery of Shakespeare, and opus 17, Roméo et Juliette, is a symphonie dramatique, a large-scale choral symphony that is regarded as one of Berlioz’s finest works.

Berlioz’s initial inspiration came from a performance he attended at the Odéon Theatre in Paris in 1827 of Romeo and Juliet. The cast included Harriet Smithson, who also inspired Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique.

His final Shakespearean work was written in 1858, an opéra comique called Béatrice et Bénédict (Beatrice and Benedick) based on Much Ado About Nothing. Berlioz wrote both the libretto and the music.

Tchaikovsky was a contemporary of Verdi. His first Shakespeare-inspired work is the fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet (1869, revised 1870 and 1880). This was followed in 1873 by the symphonic fantasy, The Tempest. His final Shakespeare work, the Hamlet overture-fantasy, overlapped with one of his best known works, the Fifth Symphony which was completed in 1888. The Overture was dedicated to fellow composer, Edvard Grieg.

This is Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet Overture:

Romeo and Juliet

The story of Romeo and Juliet influenced both Berlioz and Tchaikovsky to write pieces which are still popular today, and it has also inspired other composers across the centuries.

In 1867 Gounod wrote his opera Roméo et Juliette, most famous for Juliette’s waltz “Je Veux Vivre.”

In 1935, Prokofiev wrote a “drambalet” – a dramatic ballet based on Romeo Juliet. The orchestration for the work is notable; alongside the standard orchestra there are parts for a tenor saxophone, viola d’amore and mandolins. One of the most famous melodies from this work is the Dance of the Knights which is used as the theme tune for the popular television programme, The Apprentice.

One of the most famous stage works based on Romeo and Juliet is Bernstein and Sondheim’s musical West Side Story. The tale relocates from Italy to the Upper West Side neighbourhood of New York City in the mid-1950s. The libretto explores the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds. The members of the Sharks, from Puerto Rico, are taunted by the Jets, a white gang. The rest of the story is very familiar: The young protagonist, Tony, a former member of the Jets and best friend of the gang leader, Riff, falls in love with Maria, the sister of Bernardo, the leader of the Sharks. The dark theme, sophisticated music, extended dance scenes, and focus on social problems marked a turning point in American musical theatre. Bernstein’s score for the musical includes the famous songs, Maria, America, Somewhere, and One Hand, One Heart. He arranged the music into an orchestral suite – Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.

Romeo and Juliet has also been the inspiration for many films. One of the classics was Franco Zeffirelli’s 1968 Romeo and Juliet. The music for this film was written by Nino Rota who was nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA for the score. The most well-know is the Love Theme – A Time for Us.

And finally, Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate is based on The Taming of the Shrew, giving a nod to the Bard with the classic song, Brush Up Your Shakespeare!

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