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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!

A Focus on Listening

In a recent interview by The Scotsman, world-renowned violinist, Nicola Benedetti, passionately criticised the suggestion that children should not be exposed to classical music.

580px-Nicky_BenedettiBenedetti is a great advocate of music education. In 2010, she became Sistema Scotland’s official musical ‘Big Sister’ for the Big Noise project, as well as creating The Benedetti Sessions, giving hundreds of aspiring young string players the opportunity to rehearse, undertake and observe masterclasses, culminating in a performance with the violinist.

She is an also an ambassador for the BBC 10 Pieces project, an initiative for schools led by BBC Learning and the BBC Performing Groups, focusing on classical music and creativity. The project centres on 20 pieces; 10 for primary and 10 for secondary school ages; covering the spectrum of western classical music from the Baroque period to contemporary works, with a heavy weighting towards 20th Century music.

Benedetti argued that since, if children were given the option either to play a video game or study mathematics, the majority would choose the video game, deciding against teaching them to listen to classical symphonies because they don’t seem interested or it is considered difficult is a nonsense. MWC’s Maria Thomas explains why this is a subject close to her own heart.

Should we be encouraging young people to listen to whole symphonies or even whole operas? Interestingly, neither the primary nor the secondary 10 Pieces include a full symphony, concerto or other complete large-scale work. Individual movements are included, but not full works. Perhaps the chosen pieces are meant as an introduction to classical music, allowing listeners to explore the rest of the works themselves, or maybe, as the proposed lesson plans suggest, the individual movements are designed as a starting point for inspiration for creativity, I don’t know.

Learning to concentrate on listening to a whole symphony or opera is not an easy task, particularly when the work is new to you. I often enjoy listening to works I have studied more than those that I am discovering for the first time. I am more familiar with the themes, the structure, the instrumentation and how the material is developed.

HHCMF14s-37I was lucky enough to have been brought up as a regular concert and opera-goer, being encouraged to learn about the pieces before attending performances and having the chance to listen to recordings before hearing the live performance. Even so, when I hear a new piece, I can imagine how daunting or incomprehensible the idea of listening to a symphony must be, particularly for someone who has not had that opportunity. With no one to make recommendations of what to listen to or explain things about the music such as what to listen out for and the context that the composer was working in, where do you start?

So maybe the single movement decision by the BBC makes sense. Research suggests that with increasing access to new technology, young people are not able to concentrate for long periods, and the popularity of the single movement performance has been popularised by the huge success of Classic FM. However, when I worked at the Royal Opera House one of my favourite memories is of hearing the rapturous applause and cheering following a schools performance of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman.

I believe it comes down to what we feel is important. Getting the young to listen to any classical music will open their ears to music, art and experiences that are new to them, and will develop other skills such as listening, analytical thinking and concentration.

Research has shown that listening to music can help the brain, but that research also highlighted that familiarity with the music was important.

Another question worth considering is where the responsibility should lie in getting young people to listen to classical music. Should it be done in the home, at school or both?

For parents who have not experience of classical music, the idea of introducing their children to a symphony orchestra concert or recital is completely alien. Trying to research music can be challenging; programme notes, both online and in concert programmes can vary from excellent to incomprehensible, or be aimed at the very knowledgeable.

In schools it is increasingly difficult to introduce classical music into the classroom. Many primary schools do not have music specialists and both primary and secondary schools have music specialists who do not have a Classical music background. It was widely researched as long ago as 1997 that many primary school teachers feel negatively towards introducing classical music in their teaching as they lack confidence in their own knowledge of the subject.

800px-Boxwood_PS_Music_room

I don’t have the answers. I’m just glad that the BBC 10 Pieces is making access to Classical Music easier for young people, and that other fantastic outreach projects by organisations such as the London Symphony Orchestra, Warwick University and the Sage are reaching out to their local communities and offering them the chance to explore Classical Music both with families and schools.

It was wonderful to share this enthusiasm for introducing young people to Classical Music and the wider arts at the brilliant Ahead For Culture conference, run by the ROHBridge Project, on 12th June at the Royal Opera House. The morning was hosted by Kirsty Wark who shared her early experiences of the Arts, and featured many inspiring speakers. Sir Anthony Seldon stressed the importance of introducing young people to the Arts in ways that help them to understand and engage with their experiences, Nii Sackey highlighted the fact that young people have their own answers about how they want to engage with the Arts, and Susan Coles gave a motivational call to action encouraging us all to push for the Arts to continue to be a key part of every young person’s education.

The afternoon sessions of workshops got everyone talking and sharing their experiences, before a fabulous performance by Next Generation Youth Theatre. The day was rounded off with an emotional reminder from Camila Batmanghelidhj CBE, founder of Kids Company, (who MWC are proud to work with) of some of the challenges today’s young people bring to their Arts experiences, and how experiences need to adapt to the needs of each young person.

It was a truly inspiring day and will lead to some exciting new projects and partnerships for MWC. Watch this space for more news!

The Music Workshop Company is in the process of developing resource packs for schools, designed to introduce and expand on many aspects of music. We would value your input. If there is a specific topic or aspect of music that you would like us to cover, or if we can make our resources more helpful in any way, please contact us via the website with your ideas and requests, or email info@music-workshop.co.uk.

We also run tailor-made inset workshops, integrating music into teacher training. Meeting with professional musicians who can explain music in an approachable way will give you exciting ideas to develop, and can be a great boost in confidence in the classroom. There is no great mystery to music. Just as you can teach a child to look at a beautiful painting and appreciate it without yourself being able to either paint it or explain how it was painted, it is possible to learn how to introduce children to music and the skills needed to listen to it.

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