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Eine kleine Shakespeare-musik

Written by:

Roberto Miguel O. Rañeses


University of the Philippines-Diliman, Quezon City

Disclaimer: All of the images that were used here are the property of their respective owners.

While many people acknowledge that the writer from Stratford-upon-Avon is the most influential writer in English, not many people realize that even the classical composers were influenced by Shakespeare’s works. I guess there was something about his words that inspired these composers to transmute his works into notes, staffs, tempi and dynamics. 

To keep this discussion focused, I will be limiting the discussion to a few works that I believe are representative of specific musical periods, namely the Classical and Romantic periods, as these were the periods when most of the classical works that people know were produced.

My main man Beethoven

When it comes to the classical era of European art music, Ludwig van Beethoven is one name is familiar to absolutely everybody. After doing a little bit of digging, I was surprised to find out that the composer of 9th Symphony fame apparently composed a piece that was supposedly inspired by one of Shakespeare’s plays.

Piano Sonata no. 17 in D minor, Op. 31, No. 2, colloquially known as “The Tempest,” is supposedly inspired by the play of the same name. Interestingly, Beethoven never gave it this name. Instead, it was one of Beethoven’s early biographers, Anton Schindler, who claimed that it was. While scholars do not trust the information Schindler has provided, there are still those who insist that the piece was influenced by Shakespeare’s work.

The opening bars of the sonata's first movement

Click here to listen to the first movement of “The Tempest” as performed by Daniel Barenboim.

The Romantic era was where the real action was. This was the period when the likes of Brahms, Wagner, Rossini and Rimsky-Korsakov made a name for themselves. When talking about Shakespeare in the context of the Romantic period, Hector Berlioz, Edward Elgar and Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky would easily top the list.

Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette is, from the title itself, inspired by Romeo and Juliet. It is a large-scale choral symphony, with the libretto provided by the French poet Émile de Saint-Amand Deschamps. It is also classified as a programmatic piece, given that it attempts to render through music an extra-musical narrative.

There is no doubt that Berlioz was inspired by Shakespeare’s play of the same name, as it has been written that inspiration for the piece came from his having witnessed David Garrick’s edited version of Romeo and Juliet. It is interesting to note that Juliet was being played by Harriet Smithson, the same woman who inspired the groundbreaking and controversial Symphonie Fantastique.

Berlioz - composed an entire symphony for the actress who played Juliet

Roméo et Juliette, as Berlioz had composed it, does not stay faithful to the text. Given that the libretto used was not sourced from the plays, it was inevitable that it would be rife with inaccuracies, not to mention the numerous cuts he and his librettist Deschamps made. Furthermore, it was heavily influenced by Garrick’s version of the play, where Juliet awakens from her “sleep” before Romeo dies as a result of a much slower-acting poison. However, despite this disregard for the text, this choral symphony remains as one of Berlioz’s best works, second only to his Symphonie Fantastique.

Here’s a link to what is reportedly Berlioz’s most favorite movement (divided in two parts):

Link 1

Link 2

The famed British composer Sir Edward Elgar has two Shakespeare-inspired compositions under his belt. Well, only one if you’re going to be strict about it, but I’ll get tot hat in a minute.

Elgar - composed the unofficial English anthem

Falstaff – Symphonic Study in C minor, Op. 68 was not only considered by the composer himself as his finest work, it is also based on one of Shakespeare’s famous characters–the fat knight Falstaff. Though not designated by the composer as such, musicologists agree that Elgar’s work is a symphonic poem, following the tradition of Franz Liszt and Richard Strauss.

As a symphonic poem, Falstaff evokes the image of Falstaff the knight (who else?) as he was featured in Henry IV. To be able to do this, Elgar employs two major themes; one for Prince Hal and one for Falstaff.

Obviously, this symphonic poem does a lot better job of staying faithful to the text compared to Roméo et Juliette. The score closely follows the key events in the two parts of Henry IV where Falstaff was featured, specifically his failed attempt at a gold bullion robbery and his rejection and banishment by the newly-crowned King Hal.

Here’s Sir Edward Elgar’s Falstaff with the composer himself conducting the London Symphony Orchestra:

Link 1

Link 2

Link 3

Link 4

The other not-so-Shakespearean Shakespeare-inspired music composed by Sir Edward Elgar would be the Pomp and Circumstance Military Marches, Op. 39. The first time you listen to these marches, you would realize that there is absolutely nothing even remotely Shakespearean in this series of military marches, except for one thing–the title. Elgar took the title from Act III, scene iii of Shakespeare’s Othello:

Farewell the neighing steed and the shrill trump,
The spirit-stirring drum, th’ear-piercing fife,
The royal banner, and all quality,
Pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war!

Click here to watch Sir Roger Norrington conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra as they perform P and P no. 1 – Land of Hope and Glory (music starts at 2:27).

Last but not the least would be the famed Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, who composed such powerful pieces such as the Marche Slave and the 1812 Overture. His most enduring contribution to the pool of Shakespeare-inspired music would be the Romeo and Julet Fantasy-Overture in B minor, which is popularly known for its almost-cliche “love theme.” Although it is officially known as a Fantasy-Overture, it possesses the same structure as a symphonic poem–similar to that of Elgar’s Falstaff.

Young Tchaikovsky

This particular piece exemplified how deftly Tchaikovsky handled the music in order to construct a narrative. For example, the usage of the flute and the oboe to play the love theme in D major to signal the secret marriage and the jarring cymbal crashes to signal the suicide of the lovers.

Here’s conductor Fuat Mansurov conducting the State Symphony Orchestra of Tatarstan performing the piece:

Link 1

Link 2

This discussion of Shakespeare and classical music is but the tip of the iceberg. The composers and their respective compositions that have been included in the discussion are but a small part of composers who have been able to use Shakespeare’s works as their muse. While this really is nothing more than an overview, and a brief one at that, I still hope that I’ve been able to show you yet another proof of Shakespeare’s transmedial reach. To close this entry, I’d like to leave you with a few choice lines from one of my favorite plays:

The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.

– The Merchant of Venice, 5.1.91-7

Class dismissed. 😉

Categories: Multimedia Essays
  1. Gian Velasco
    January 17, 2011 at 5:44 am

    The Norrington clip is astounding! Considering the relative incompatibility between Shakespeare and Opera, Shakespeare and pure Music works impressively. Where can I find more Tchaikovsky?

  2. fuchsia08
    February 22, 2011 at 5:25 pm

    I enjoyed listening to the pieces although some are quite long.

    This is interesting. When you couldn’t hear the language of Shakespeare you must naturally yield to the melody, feel the music and allow it to carry you away. Indeed they capture emotions that should have been felt in certain portions of the play.

    I like Beethoven’s and love Tchaikovsky’s. =)

    • theclassicalfan
      March 24, 2011 at 12:38 pm

      fuchsia08 :

      I enjoyed listening to the pieces although some are quite long.

      This is interesting. When you couldn’t hear the language of Shakespeare you must naturally yield to the melody, feel the music and allow it to carry you away. Indeed they capture emotions that should have been felt in certain portions of the play.

      I like Beethoven’s and love Tchaikovsky’s. =)

      I’m glad you liked them. Composing music for something as established as Shakespeare requires a composer/librettist who are sensitive to the nuances of the works they’re basing it on. To get Shakespeare’s message across using music only is even more difficult, I think, as you only have notes, dynamics and tempi to work with.

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