The works of Shakespeare have had an exponential influence on the literary tradition – creating timeless pieces still relevant four-hundred years after their creation. Shakespeare’s inventive nature lent itself to the comic and the drama, depicting horror, love, and tragedy in equal parts. Shakespeare’s diversity of expression has left a persistent influence not just in literature but in music too. From Purcell to Bernstein, composers have found his messages powerful and worthy of song.
In honor of the four-hundred-year celebration of Shakespeare’s first folios, this blog will look at some of the finest music in the Western tradition drawn from Shakespeare’s imaginative worlds.
Henry Purcell (1659-1695) was a vital figure of the English Baroque and writer of the first opera set to English text, the infamous and oft-studied Dido and Aeneas. His later work, The Fairy Queen (1692), is a semi-opera based on The Midsummer Night’s Dream. Related to the play’s action in a metaphorical sense, it includes allegorical figures and symbolism to William and Mary, then king and queen of England, including the use of orange trees as props (William being the Prince of Orange). The music concentrates on the fairy scene and is connected tangentially to the drama. Several arias, including “The Plaint,” have found a deserved place in the recital repertory.
To the 19th-century composer, Shakespeare’s comedic plays embodied a dream world that could manifest sonically as strongly as a literary depiction. Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream overture (1826) is a concert overture, a Romantic era genre ripe with programmatic and visual imagery. The overture is a light and capricious scherzando (playful music) with vivid scoring, leading us into a dream world of Shakespeare’s characters – complete with dancing fairies and even braying music depicting Bottom. You can listen to Mendelssohn’s whimsical sonic depictions of Puck, Lysander, and the rest of the merry crew on Classical Music Library, one of the Libraries’ online streaming music databases.
Fast forward to the mid Twentieth century, and Finnish composer Jean Sibelius depicts a much different sonic interpretation of Shakespeare through the stormy stratosphere of The Tempest, op—109 (1925-26). Incidental music (background music to play in tandem with the play) written for Shakespeare’s famous play of the same name, it is amongst Sibelius’s finest and his last works as well (wedged between the 7th Symphony (1924) and Tapiola (1926)). The music depicts the supernatural and dramatic world of the play, opening with sonic imagery of the famous storm declared by conductor Henry Wood as “the single most onomatopoetic stretch of music ever composed.” The composition is rich in instrumental color, with Sibelius representing individual characters through instrumentation, such as harps and percussion, to capture Prospero’s mysterious and ambiguous nature.
Listen to Sibelius’s The Tempest here, on Classical Music Library.
Leonard Bernstein’s musical West Side Story (1957) is more than well-known, and despite its decades-long existence, it is perhaps as popular as it was at its premiere as it is in the modern decade. Based on Romeo and Juliet, it is a contemporary classic that takes the Renaissance into the twentieth century – depicting rivaling street gangs to stand in for the Montagues and Capulets. Since the beloved 1961 film rendition, it has more recently hit the big screen with the 2021 re-make.
Click here to listen to one of the musical’s most charming numbers, “Maria.”