articles / Pop Culture

Explore the Sounds of Shakespeare

…music oft hath such a charm
To make bad good, and good provoke to harm.
-Measure for Measure 4.1

Sunday marks the 453rd (give or take a few days) anniversary of the birth of William Shakespeare. We’ll be celebrating throughout the day on Classical KUSC, with all kinds of music inspired by The Bard. The list of classical music works inspired by Shakespeare could fill its own folio. It would take hundreds of hours to listen to it all…and thousands of pages to discuss each of the works and how they relate to the timeless words of Shakespeare.

For purposes of this blog, however, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite Shakespeare-inspired works—some of the Big Hits, but also a few surprises here and there. I invite you to add your favorites in the comments.

We’ll start with a teenage genius: Felix Mendelssohn, who in 1826 at age 17, read a German translation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and was transfixed. He quickly wrote an overture, which contains various musical elements of the play. We hear the scampering “fairy feet” in the beginning and the braying of Bottom the donkey in the strings. The overture wasn’t written for any particular production and was just intended as a stand-alone piece. Later in Mendelssohn’s life, King Frederick William IV of Prussia commissioned Mendelssohn to write some more incidental music for an actual production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which is where we get the gorgeous Nocturne and the famous Wedding March.

Speaking of young composers, Erich Wolfgang Korngold was only 20 when the Vienna Burgtheater asked him to write incidental music for a production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Korngold wrote 14 different numbers for a small pit orchestra. The music from that production was so popular, it soon made its way into concert halls and was used again when the same production was revived a couple of years later at the Schönbrunn Palace. This production was so popular that the run of the play was extended. Unfortunately, the orchestra members were not available to perform during the extended run, so Korngold quickly adapted the music for violin and piano and played the piano part himself at the later performances. I adore this music, especially the Garden Scene.

Hear music from Korngold’s Much Ado About Nothing at 1p on April 23rd.

The star-crossed lovers, Romeo and Juliet, have enough musical treatments to melt even the hardest of Montague or Capulet hearts. There’s Gounod’s opera, Berlioz’s so-called dramatic symphony, the exquisite fantasy-overture by Tchaikovsky, and the updated (to the 1960s) New York City version of the story in Bernstein/Laurents/Sondheim’s West Side Story. My favorite setting of Romeo and Juliet is Serge Prokofiev’s ballet, which originally had a happy ending. (That’s not why it’s my favorite version—that’s just an interesting fact.) I love the menacing Dance of the Knights and the tender balcony scene.

Hear music from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet at noon on April 23rd.

Also, speaking of Berlioz, hear the overture to his opera based on Much Ado about Nothing at 11a on April 23rd.

Next, some music that is so new there isn’t even a commercially-available recording of it. Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw is writing some of the most viscerally powerful music of any composer today. So, it’s no surprise that her recent work, The Isle, inspired by Shakespeare’s The Tempest, is absolutely breathtaking. In the piece, Shaw sets three speeches (Ariel, Caliban, and Prospero) that evoke and invite the listener into the setting of the island where The Tempest takes place. You can hear Shaw’s The Isle at approx 28:35 into this broadcast of the WNYC radio program New Sounds.

Hear music by Jean Sibelius and Matthew Locke inspired by The Tempest at 3:50p on April 23rd.

Giuseppe Verdi’s three Shakespearean operas (Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff) are probably the greatest operatic adaptations of the plays of The Bard. Verdi captures the intensity of the dramatic arc of each story perfectly. As LA Opera music director James Conlon likes to say about these operas, there are no wasted notes or moments—the pacing is perfect. It’s nearly impossible for me to pick a favorite among the three, but if I absolutely had to, I think it’d be Otello.

Hear the Ave Maria from Verdi’s Otello at 4:55p on April 23rd.

Beyond the plays of Shakespeare, his poetry is a gold mine for composers as well. Swedish composers Nils Lindberg and Sven Hagvil have set some of Shakespeare’s sonnets for chorus. You can get a taste of Lindberg’s setting of Sonnet 18 at 2:25 in the video below. Sven Hagvil’s setting of Sonnet 43 is not previewed in this video, but I’ll play both performances in their entirety at about 7:08a on April 23rd.

By the way, there is a bunch of excellent choral music inspired by Shakespeare in this program by Voices of Ascension. I’m particularly drawn to Jocylen Hagen’s setting of the death of Ophelia from Hamlet. Her work is called, simply, Ophelia, and it is stunning. Listen here.

Finally, one of my favorite pieces inspired by Shakespeare: a film score that Sir William Walton wrote for a Laurence Olivier movie adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry V. The Scottish conductor and composer Muir Mathieson arranged a five-movement suite of music from Walton’s 60+ minute score and it’s perfect. The overture sets the scene and puts us in the Globe Theatre. That’s followed by a dark passacaglia The Death of Falstaff. Then comes a battle scene at Agincourt followed by some of the most tender love music ever written Touch Her Soft Lips and Part. The suite wraps up with the stirring Agincourt Song.

Written by:
Brian Lauritzen
Brian Lauritzen
Published on 04.22.2017