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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Body Percussion – You Make the Music

Body percussion is a brilliant way to warm up for a music workshop, and a useful tool for creating music in a group. It is incredibly accessible; the human body is an instrument every participant possesses. It is also valuable for internalising fundamental musical concepts including rhythm, beat and tempo.

I love Body Percussion because it’s a high energy, very accessible art-form. Seeing the amazing ideas that workshop participants come up with is brilliant, as is the reaction when they see what is possible when making beats on your body!

Ollie Tunmer, Body Percussion specialist

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As a group warm-up activity, body percussion stimulates circulation and creates an energy in which it is impossible to feel self-conscious. As a musicianship tool, it provides strategies to equip students with a collective sense of pulse, memory for different rhythms and the opportunity to full engage with the musical material.

In composition it provides an inspiring way to explore sound, rhythm and the physical relationship with music.

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It is also an engaging way to explore the music of World cultures. The folk traditions of many countries include the use of body percussion. The Juba, or hambone dance from West Africa became a traditional dance among African-American slaves in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Slaves were forbidden from owning rhythm instruments for fear of secret codes hidden in the drumming. Instead they created music using body percussion, stamping the feet, slapping and patting the arms, legs, chest, and cheeks. This percussive dance, originally known as “Pattin’ Juba,” would be used to keep time for other dances. Steps had incredibly descriptive names such as “Yaller Cat,” “Pigeon Wing” and “Blow That Candle Out.”

Other traditions that use body percussion include the palmas, or intricate hand claps in Spanish Flamenco music, tap dancing and Ethiopian armpit music.

Body percussion works on the same basis as any percussion instrument, but uses the body to create the different vibrations and sounds. These can include:

  • Stamping the feet on the floor
  • Patting the thighs with open palms
  • Clicking the fingers
  • Clapping the hands
  • Patting or knocking the chest
  • Slapping the cheeks with an open mouth
  • Clicking the tongue

Inhaling and exhaling air, and various vocal noises including grunting and whistling can add to the repertoire of tones, and sounds can be adapted to create different effects. For example, clapping the hands in different positions will change the pitch and resonance.

Body percussion can be performed solo, but it is exhilarating as an ensemble activity, both to performers and audience members. The well-known percussion group Stomp use a combination of non-traditional, junk percussion instruments and body percussion in their performances.

Body percussion has many possibilities. It can be adapted for any age and ability. It can be introduced into a diverse range of workshops, from African Drumming or African Songs, to Composition workshops. It can be used as a warm-up, an icebreaker or a full workshop.

You can use existing games and ideas or create your own.

Watch composer Steve Reich Steve Reich explain his piece Clapping Music, and the inspiration behind it.

Here are some simple ideas from the Music Workshop Company to get you started.

Warm up

This can be done seated or standing.

Start with a copying activity. Start with four beats to establish a beat. Clap a rhythm that fits into a four – beat bar. Keeping to time the group should repeat the rhythm.

Gradually make the rhythms more complex. If the group doesn’t quite catch one of the rhythms, repeat it once or twice. Don’t comment on whether the repetition was correct or not, just repeat it.

Keep talking and instructions to a minimum, but make eye contact with every member of the group.

Start to add other body sounds; knee slap, click, stamp, chest…

Vary the dynamics, but keep the pulse the same throughout.

This warm-up can be developed by getting participants to create their own rhythms for everyone to copy. Either ask for volunteers or working round the group.

Body percussion

Vocal activity

Try making up a call and response vocal activity using speech and percussive vocal sounds.

Participants can take it in turn to lead this game, and it can be varied using different tempi and dynamics, or by adding more physical sounds such as stamping the feet and clapping hands.

Body Percussion Patterns

Begin to build up a body percussion piece by setting up an eight beat pattern, such as this:

Feet       Feet

Leg        Leg

Belly     Belly

Clap

This can be developed in a number of ways, for example as an ensemble piece using similar ideas to Reich’s Clapping Piece.

Watch some body percussion performers and use your imagination to create your own rhythms, sounds and games. You can even develop ways to notate your piece, deciding on symbols for each sound and rhythmic pattern, and finding creative ways to write them down in your group.


Contact the Music Workshop Company to book your Body Percussion Workshop and begin your exploration of musical possibility!

MWC Supports Protect Music Education

This month, we wanted to bring to your attention the Protect Music Education campaign, a drive launched in April by the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) to rebuild Government support for music education.

The campaign focuses on 5 key points:

  • The Government must unequivocally support music education
  • The Government is telling local authorities to stop funding music services
  • Local authority funding is in addition to national funding
  • The flagship National Plan for Music Education is at risk
  • Music is central to society, education and economy

Protect-M_EThe benefits of music education, particularly amongst children who learn an instrument, have been explored widely in recent years. We have read many times in the media about the improvement in literacy and numeracy, as well as the development of skills including co-ordination, presentation and team working, which come with the study of music. Learning an instrument has been shown to have a positive impact on academic studies.

In 2013, researchers in neuroscience at the Northwestern University, Illinois, found that childhood music lessons also have long-term effects on neurological health. The study demonstrated that participants who had between four and fourteen years of musical training had faster responses to speech sounds than participants without any training, despite the fact that many of them had not played an instrument for about 40 years.

As well as being of benefit to individuals, the creative industries are worth £36.3 billion a year to the UK. The music industry is worth between £3.5 billion and £3.8 billion depending on which measure you use.

Despite this knowledge, funding cuts in music education have been a common trend for a long time. According to a BBC report from 2011, Education Secretary, Michael Gove, insisted he would ensure that all children had access to quality music education, but even with that assurance he was unable to guarantee funding beyond the end of the year.

In 2010/2011, the Government spending on music education was £127.5 million. This dropped to £111.6 million the following year.

Despite the Government’s commitment to support music education, many local authorities are being forced to cut funding, with their main budgets being slashed by at least 30%. Some councils are cutting music education budgets altogether, with the Department for Education recommending in March this year that hubs should no longer be funded by local authorities.

The recent consultation document on local education funding shows that central government expects local government to cease funding music in English schools from 2016 and there is little certainty as to the continuation of funding after the current financial year. The expectation is that music services will be funded through music education hubs and school budgets, and no longer from the Education Services Grant (ESG).

The consultation is part of a plan to make savings of up to £200 million to the ESG, stating, “Schools should take greater responsibility for their own improvement, leaving local authorities to focus on their statutory functions.” These statutory functions are broadly administrative and include planning for the education service as a whole, providing a director of Children’s Services, health and safety, pensions and other services.

Screen shot 2014-05-12 at 18.04.18This recommendation, along with cuts in funding to the Music Education Hubs, puts the National Plan for Music Education at risk.

According to a report in the May 2014 edition of Music Teacher Magazine, the Musicians’ Union are currently backing a campaign to prevent the Council in Cornwall and the Isle of Wight from cutting 92 music teaching jobs, after Councillor Steve Priest remarked on BBC South that he would be, “looking for musicians in the area to teach our children as volunteers as there are many people who can play instruments”.

On May 17th, former winner of the Young Musician of the Year, Mark Simpson, writing in the Guardian, expressed his concern that funding cuts in classical music are depriving children from low income backgrounds of the opportunity to learn an instrument.

The problem is not specific to the UK. In Ottowa, Canada, where in 2012 fewer than half of schools had even a part time music teacher, astronaut and scientist Chris Hadfield criticised cuts in music education, saying, “All these cuts are not doing our children any good, they’re not doing the development of our children any good, and I don’t think they’re doing much for Canada.” Speaking at an event promoting music education in schools which took place on May 5th, Hadfield explained, “Learning to play the guitar taught me to improvise and be creative. Music taught me to be a better astronaut.”

Protect Music Education is attracting support from musicians including violinist Nicola Benedetti and soprano, Dame Felicity Lott, journalists and organisations such as the London Symphony Orchestra and Trinity College, London. The aim of the campaign is to raise awareness of the potential threat to music in education.

MWC’s Maria Thomas says, “Many of the musicians here at the Music Workshop Company, received their early musical training through the music services. For generations, local music services run by councils have created opportunities for young people to develop their musical skills and make friendships that last for life. The Music Workshop Company fully supports the Protect Music Education campaign.”

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Add your support to Protect Music Education today, and help ensure that future generations have the chance to benefit from learning music, with all the pleasure and benefits it can bring.

The Samba Workshop – How it Works

Our Samba drumming workshops here at MWC introduce the instruments and rhythms of Brazilian carnival music. Participants form a Samba band using a range of traditional drums, and within half an hour can be playing exciting music together, achieving new levels of communication and performance skills and enhancing team building in an energetic, informal way. Samba drumming is a really inclusive way of creating music; perfect for participants of all ages and abilities. Add an experienced workshop leader and you have a session which is enjoyable and interactive right from the start.

Samba Hand SignalsSamba is music for dancing. It originates from Brazil, predominantly Rio de Janeiro, with its roots in African, Spanish, Portugese and Cuban music. A Samba band, or Bateria, normally consists of a selection of lightweight percussion instruments. These include tamborims which are small, hand held drums, snare drums or caixas, agogô bells which are hand held double bells with a cowbell sound, played with a wooden stick, surdos, the large, aluminium framed bass drums which are often carried with a strap across the shoulders, and ganzas, or shakers. The band will also have a leader who directs call and response, brings in and stops instruments, calls breaks in the rhythm and directs changes in the tempo. This is done using hand signals and a high-pitched drum called a repenique, or, more frequently, a whistle called an apito.

Samba is made up of different sections of music which move flowingly from one to another. Generally the music will begin with a call and response, with the leader calling and the group repeating back the rhythm. There will often be a rehearsed element of call and response, the rhythm of which will become the groove or main rhythm of the piece

In the main body of the piece, each instrument has a particular rhythm to play. This is repeated many times, creating a polyrhythmic sound from the many drums of different pitches, and a huge buzz of energy for the players.

The piece ends by returning to the call and response ideas, with a pre-rehearsed ending, or just by stopping.

Samba InstrumentsThe main groove becomes more complex and exciting with the addition of breaks, which are shown by the leader. These are points where instruments may play different rhythms or all the players play the same rhythm, where certain instruments may play on their own or there may be a vocal break or even a silent break. Each break then leads back into the main groove. The leader’s job is to ensure that everyone changes at the same time, which is done with hand signals and a clear count given on the whistle.

Samba LeaderAll of the parts of a Samba piece can be easily learned within a workshop. Samba is very accessible because it doesn’t require instrumental or notational knowledge and is learned on percussion instruments which are easy to hold and play. Workshops can last anything from 30 minutes to a whole day, and the simple form with clear leadership gives a real sense of performance as the rhythms and structure come together. The physical energy and instinctive feel of group drumming creates a natural team, eradicates inhibitions and fills participants with energy and a sense of fun.

Contact us to book a Samba workshop for your school, community group or business.

African Drumming – Culture, Confidence and Communication

DrummingAfrican Drumming is one of our most popular workshops here at Music Workshop Company.  Workshops are based on traditional drumming circles creating a positive, inclusive space in which to explore the music and culture of Africa, boost self-confidence and develop key skills. Our workshops are suitable for everyone, from school children to big business. African drumming is a fantastic, fun, team building exercise and sessions can be structured specifically to develop communication and performance skills, or to focus on African culture, rhythms and music.

The cultural history…

The djembe drums, which we use in our African Drumming workshops, originate from West Africa, from countries such as Ghana and Guinea. They are goblet-shaped; carved from a single piece of hardwood and covered with a goat skin. Played with the hands, the djembe produces three distinct tones or notes and is valued for its versatile, expressive voice.  African Drums

Traditionally the djembe was used by storytellers and healers, as an instrument of reconciliation in disputes within the community and for dancing for social occasions such as births, marriages, rites of passage, funerals and even the planting and harvesting of crops, all of which ceremonies have their own songs, dances and rhythms.

According to the Bamana people of Mali, the djembe gets its name from the saying, “Anke dje, anke be,” which translates as, “Everyone gather together in peace.” Dje translates to gather, and be translates to peace.

Learning and playing the djembe is a direct link to the ancient cultural traditions of West Africa. It is also very beneficial in ways which may not be immediately obvious.

Drumming increases wellbeing…

Playing the djembe is known to increase heart rate and blood flow. Apart from the physical effort of hitting the drum and the sense of the vibrations pulsating through the body, there is a certain tempo at which the heart rate accelerates. This happens once the beat is faster than 120bpm (two beats per second). The increased heart rate means that blood flows around the body faster, giving you a great internal workout.  Slower rhythms create a calming effect and can help relieve stress.

Drumming is great for teamwork…

When people drum together, forming one unified sound, they form an energy greater than the sum of the individual players. Everybody’s contribution is important as the group works together towards a common goal. This can be useful in balancing a team or a class dynamic. Those less used to taking charge gain a sense of empowerment, and the more confident members or those in managerial roles learn to take a step back and see the value of everyone in the group.

Drumming teaches you to listen…

All of our workshops are taught by listening, in the same way music and storytelling have been passed on for centuries. There is no music reading. Learning any music in this way teaches you to listen in a much deeper way than we normally do, particularly within a group. If you observe yourself in conversation you may find you’re simply waiting for the other person to stop talking so you can say what you want to say, rather than really listening to them and responding to what they think. Drumming helps develop the ability to listen to more than one thing at once, and to listen to other people rather than focusing on your own sound.

Drumming builds confidence…

Trying something new where you are able to create music right from the start is deeply satisfying and great for self-esteem. Drumming uses the same parts of the brain which we use to compose speech. It is in itself an extrovert, joyous activity and can therefore be a liberating experience for anyone who is usually shy in a group situation. It can even help with skills such as public speaking. As the workshop progresses and you find yourself enjoying a new skill, confidence grows.

If you would like to enquire about booking one of our African Drumming Workshops please get in touch. We look forward to drumming with you soon.

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