Music and the Bard

“He was not of an age, but for all time,” wrote the English poet and playwright Ben Jonson of his great contemporary, William Shakespeare. Jonson’s assertion that Shakespeare and his writing would endure beyond his own era is now, of course, indisputable. But what Jonson could not have foreseen in 1623, when he penned those words, is Shakespeare’s profound influence on musicians.

On April 21, 23 and 24, the Seattle Symphony performs a program that includes three compositions with links to the Bard of Avon. These compositions belong to a large body of music engendered by the great English poet-playwright’s words. Shakespeare’s writing became widely known outside England after 1800, and many of the leading composers of the 19th century came under his spell. Schubert fashioned songs from Shakespeare’s verses. Beethoven began an opera on Macbeth (what a work this might have been!); Rossini completed one on Othello in 1816. Other operatic treatments of the Bard’s plays include Charles Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet; Otto Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor; Wagner’s early Das Liebesverbot, loosely based on Measure for Measure; Verdi’s Macbetto, Otello and Falstaff; and Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict, an adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing.

Berlioz also composed music based on King Lear, The Tempest, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet (his “dramatic symphony” Roméo et Juliette, which Seattle Symphony performed last season). Other orchestral pieces inspired by Shakespeare include Mendelssohn’s concert overture and portions of his later incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Liszt’s symphonic poem Hamlet and Tchaikovsky “fantasy overture” Romeo and Juliet.

The great proliferation of music inspired by Shakespeare that occurred after 1800 was intimately connected to the rise of Romanticism as the prevailing artistic outlook of the 19th century. Shakespeare had lived and worked more than two centuries before the advent of the Romantic movement, yet his plays explored themes of great importance to the Romantic sensibility. One was a fascination with the supernatural. Shakespeare’s plays, populated by ghosts, witches and fairies, resonated strongly with this aspect of the Romantic sensibility. Another recurring Shakespearean notion, overwhelming and irrational amorous passion, also held obvious appeal for the 19th-century Romantics.

These great Shakespearean themes — the world of supernatural and the transporting power of romantic ardor — find musical expression in Seattle Symphony’s April program. Felix Mendelssohn captures the Bard’s realm of magic in his Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, while Tchaikovsky’s exceptionally popular Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture imagines in music both the violence surrounding Verona’s immortal lovers and their passionate attachment to each other, this last portrayed in a soaring love theme.

While the Romantic period is the great age of Shakespearean music, the rise of modernism did not banish the Bard from the thoughts of composers. Among Shakespeare-inspired musical works of 20th century are Benjamin Britten’s opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet, Dmitri Shostakovich’s incidental music for Hamlet, and scores to a number of Broadway shows. The latter include West Side Story (based on Romeo and Juliet); Kiss Me Kate (The Taming of the Shrew); and The Boys from Syracuse (The Comedy of Errors).               

There are, in addition, many lesser-known modern compositions that use Shakespeare’s writing. The same Seattle Symphony program featuring the A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet overtures by Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky includes Britten’s Nocturne, for tenor and small orchestra. This is a cycle of eight songs, each with a text by a different English poet. The work closes with a setting of Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 43, “When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see.”

Buy tickets today for the Shakespeare-inspired concerts with the Seattle Symphony on April 21, 23 and 24.

By Paul Schiavo

Posted on April 11, 2016