This week the Ether Game Brain Trust toured Stratford-upon-Avon with a musical performance inspired by the works of William Shakespeare. Enjoy our nine favorite picks from thousands of musical adaptations of the Bard’s works.
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893) Romeo and Juliet, fantastic overture If William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is the most famous love story in literature, Tchaikovsky’s fantastic overture to Romeo and Juliet is the most famous love theme in music. The sweeping crescendo heard at the end of this snippet has been used in countless movies and TV shows to portray a passionate loving embrace. The works of Shakespeare have been a boon to composers over the years. No author has inspired more operas, songs, overtures, fantasies and incidental music. The three most popular Shakespeare plays for composers have been Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and The Tempest, which coincidentally are the only three plays for which Tchaikovsky wrote fantastic overtures. On the other hand, the least popular Shakespeare play for composers is Richard II. Hardly anyone has written music based on this piece, which is odd because at the start of Act V Richard has a great monologue about the music. So take note, all you composers!
Otto Nicolai (1810–1849) The Merry Women of Windsor: Overture One of Shakespeare’s most famous and lovable characters is the fat and foolish knight Sir John Falstaff. Not only does he play a huge role in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, but he’s also the featured comedic force in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Falstaff also became a central figure in many musical adaptations, including works by Verdi, Vaughan Williams and Salieri. Otto Nicolai’s 19th-century lyrical treatment of The Merry Wives of Windsor is a classic example of German opera singspiel, an opera that includes spoken dialogue mixed with music. It stays very true to Shakespeare’s original play, with a fun and entertaining portrayal of the round knight Falstaff. Nicolai’s Merry Wives didn’t enjoy much appreciation in the operatic world, however, at least compared to Verdi’s Falstaff. However, its overture remains a staple of the orchestral repertoire.
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) Macbeth: Act III Ballet music Of all the great opera composers, Giuseppe Verdi was most fascinated by the works of William Shakespeare. Like other composers, he saw great dramatic potential in these pieces and put three of them into opera during his career. While his last two operas Otello and Falstaff are themselves dramatic and musical masterpieces, Verdi composed his first Shakespearean opera, Macbeth, in 1847. Interestingly, Verdi did not even see a production of Shakespeare’s original play before the first performance of his opera! Verdi’s Macbeth follows the original play quite closely with a few differences, notably a chorus of witches who sing in harmony in three parts versus three individual witches. The ballet music you have just heard is taken from Act III of Verdi’s opera, in which witches dance casting spells and curses on their boiling cauldron.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847) Incidental music for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: Notturno On the sound of sleep on the ground: I will apply to your eye, sweet lover, a remedy. This line comes from Puck at the very end of Act III of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In this scene, the four lovers – Demetrius, Hermia, Lysander and Helena – have all fallen asleep, while Puck administers a love potion to settle any love quarrels. During a performance of this work in 1843 in Potsdam, this Nocturne endormi by Felix Mendelssohn accompanied this action on stage. Mendelssohn’s incidental music for this piece was written that year at the request of King Wilhelm Friedrich IV of Prussia, who wanted a sequel to the overture to Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream written 17 years earlier. . Mendelssohn wrote twelve new pieces for the production, including a Scherzo, that Nocturne heard at the end of Act III, and the now famous “Wedding March” heard at the end of Act IV.
Gerald Finzi (1901–1956) Bring Garlands, Op. 18: Who is Silvia? It was a lover and his daughter While Gerald Finzi may not have enjoyed the lucrative careers of fellow Englishmen Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams, his music gained increasing appreciation in the years following his death. His works mainly include vocal arrangements of the great English poets, but he also wrote incidental music for Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost. The song cycle Let Us Garlands Bring is arguably his most famous work and dedicated to Vaughan Williams on his 70th birthday. The five songs in this cycle all come from song texts in various plays by Shakespeare, including Twelfth Night and Cymbeline. The song “Who is Silvia?” comes from a song in the comedy The Two Gentlemen Of Verona, Shakespeare’s earliest known play. And the song “It Was a Lover and His Lass” is from a song in Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It.
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) Hamlet, op. 32a: Continued Dmitri Shostakovich not only composed for the concert hall, but also for the big screen. This score is from the 1964 Russian film version of what many call the “greatest play in the English language”, Hamlet. However, the film was anything but a normal adaptation of Shakespeare. Avant-garde director Grigori Kozintsev emphasized the play’s political aspects rather than Hamlet’s personal turmoil, cutting out the opening scene and Hamlet’s closing speech, and gave special attention to the natural elements around the castle. Shostakovich wrote this score around the same time he was writing the Mtsensk District opera Lady Macbeth (loosely based on the Shakespearean character), and the music had the same kind of dramatic elements. Six years later, in 1970, Shostakovich returned to the Bard’s works when he composed a score for a film version of another great Shakespearean tragedy, King Lear. Both Lear and Hamlet were directed by Grigori Kozintsev!
Henry Purcell (1659–1695) Timon of Athens: Overture Henry Purcell was born less than half a century after the death of William Shakespeare, so there is no doubt that the bard’s works still resonated in London when he was composing music during the Restoration era at the end of of the 17th century. Purcell wrote several pieces of music based on Shakespeare’s words, however, these were loose adaptations that often deviated from Shakespeare’s original. Purcell’s semi-opera The Fairy Queen is loosely based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with new characters added and several characters cut. Purcell’s song ‘If Music is the Food of Love’ borrows just one line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night – the rest of the poem is by English poet Henry Heveningham. Even his semi-opera Timon of Athens was based on an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play by playwright Thomas Shadewell. Shadewell apparently butchered Shakespeare’s original text into a confusing piece, but with good incidental music by Purcell. As Shakespeare wrote in Timon of Athens, “We have seen better days”.
Alexandre Zemlinsky (1871-1942) Cymbeline: Suite Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays, based loosely on the legend of the former British king Cunobeline and his daughter Imogen. It sits somewhere between a tragedy and a comedy, and playwright George Bernard Shaw even had harsh words to say about it, completely rewriting the final act to improve on Shakespeare’s original. In many ways, Alexander Zemlinsky resembles the Cymbeline of early 20th century Vienna – closely associated with certain major personalities, but still somewhat as popular. Zemlinsky briefly taught composition to Arnold Schoenberg, before Schoenberg went on to teach other famous Viennese composers Anton Webern and Alban Berg. Zemlinsky also fell in love with one of his composition students, Alma Schindler, before Alma left him to marry Gustav Mahler. This particular piece of incidental music that Zemlinsky wrote for a production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is also curious because it was written in 1915, a time when Zemlinsky’s Austria was at war with Shakespeare’s England.
Cole Porter (1891–1964) Too Hot (from Kiss Me Kate) “Too Darn Hot” comes from Cole Porter’s 1948 musical Kiss Me Kate, one of the composer’s biggest hits. It won five Tony Awards, including Best Musical, at the very first Tony Awards in 1949. The story itself isn’t based on a Shakespeare play, but Shakespeare is central to it. plot. Kiss Me Kate is a behind-the-scenes musical, a show about the behind-the-scenes antics of putting on a show, and the show within the show is a musical production of Shakespeare’s The Taming Of The Shrew. As is the case with many of these backstage musicals, there is no shortage of love feuds between the cast, which naturally spills over onto the stage. The bard’s words play a part near the end, when a group of guys give sage advice to all potential suitors with their song “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” It turns out that a lot of the inspiration for the show came from the real-life husband and wife actor team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne who got into a fight during a 1935 production. from The Taming of the Shrew.