Friends, Romans, Countrymen! Lend me your ears! This week, the Ether Game Brain Trust is taking a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon to explore music based on works by the one and only William Shakespeare. We are all merely players in a show we’re calling “The Bard.”
Alas, what's done is done. Behold our Shakespearean playlist below:
- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840–1893), Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy Overture – If William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet is literature’s most famous love story, then Tchaikovsky’s fantasy overture for Romeo and Juliet is music’s most famous love theme. The famous sweeping crescendo heard shortly after the 14:00 minute mark has been used in countless films and television shows to depict an impassioned lovers’ embrace. Shakespeare’s works have been a boon for composers over the years. No single author has been the inspiration for more operas, songs, overtures, fantasias, 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 Tchaikovsky wrote fantasy overtures for. On the other hand, the least popular Shakespeare play for composers is Richard II. Barely anyone wrote music based on this play, which is odd because, at the beginning of Act V, Richard has a great monologue all about music. So take note, all you composers out there!
- Otto Nicolai (1810–1849), The Merry Wives of Windsor – 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 Parts 1 and 2 of Henry IV, but he’s also the featured comic force in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Falstaff has become a central figure in many musical adaptations as well, including works by Verdi, Vaughan Williams, and Salieri. Otto Nicolai’s 19th-century operatic treatment of The Merry Wives of Windsor is a classic example of the German singspiel opera, an opera that includes spoken dialogue mixed in with the music. It stays very true to Shakespeare’s original play, with a funny, entertaining portrayal of the rotund knight Falstaff. Nicolai’s Merry Wives, however, has not seen much appreciation in the operatic world, at least compared with Verdi’s Falstaff. Yet its overture remains a staple of the orchestral repertoire.
- Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901), Macbeth – Of all of the great opera composers, Giuseppe Verdi was the most fascinated with the works of William Shakespeare. Like other composers, he saw a great deal of dramatic potential in these plays and set three of them as operas during his career. While his last two operas Otello and Falstaff are dramatic and musical masterpieces of their own, Verdi composed his first Shakespearean opera, Macbeth, way back in 1847. It’s interesting to note that Verdi didn’t even see a production of Shakespeare’s original play until after the first performance of his opera! Verdi’s Macbeth follows fairly closely to the original play with some differences, most notably a chorus of witches who sing in three-part harmony compared to three individual witches. The ballet music you’ve just heard is from Act III of Verdi’s opera, in which the witches dance as they cast spells and curses over their boiling cauldron.
- Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847), Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream – “On the ground Sleep sound: I'll apply To your eye, Gentle lover, remedy.” That 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 sort out any love quarreling. During an 1843 performance of this work in Potsdam, this sleepy Nocturne by Felix Mendelssohn accompanied this action on stage. Mendelssohn’s incidental music to this play was written that year at the request of the King of Prussia Wilhelm Friedrich IV, who wanted a follow-up to Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream overture written 17 years earlier. Mendelssohn wrote twelve new pieces for the production, including a Scherzo, a 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), Let Us Garlands Bring – While Gerald Finzi may not have enjoyed the lucrative career of fellow Englishmen Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams, his music has gained a growing appreciation in the years since his death. His works mostly include vocal settings 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 of this cycle all come from song texts in various Shakespeare plays. The songs "Come Away, Come Away Death" and "O Mistress Mine" are from Twelfth Night. The song “Who Is Silvia?” comes from a song in the comedy The Two Gentlemen Of Verona, Shakespeare’s earliest known play (it's also the source of the title Let Us Garlands Bring). "Fear No More The Heat of The Sun" comes from one of Shakespeare's rarer plays Cymbeline. And the song “It Was a Lover and His Lass” comes from a song from Shakespeare’s comedy As You Like It.
- Dmitri Shostakovich (1906–1975), Hamlet – Dmitri Shostakovich not only composed for the concert hall but for the silver screen as well. This score is from the 1964 Russian film version of what many call the “greatest play in the English language” Hamlet. The film was anything but a normal Shakespeare adaptation, however. The avant-garde director Grigori Kozintsev emphasized the political aspects of the play over Hamlet’s personal turmoil, cutting the opening scene and Hamlet’s final speech, and paid close attention to the natural elements around the castle. Shostakovich wrote this score around the same time he was writing the opera Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District (based loosely on the Shakespearean character), and the music had the same kind of dramatic elements to it. Six years later in 1970, Shostakovich returned to the works of the Bard 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 – Henry Purcell was born less than half a century after William Shakespeare died, so no doubt, the works of the Bard still resonated in London when he was composing music in the Restoration Era of the late 17th century. Purcell wrote several pieces of music based on Shakespeare’s words, however, they were loose adaptations that often strayed far 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 be the food of love” only borrows that one line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night—the rest of the poem was by English poet Henry Heveningham. Even his semi-opera Timon of Athens was based on an adaptation of the Shakespeare play by playwright Thomas Shadewell. Shadewell apparently butchered Shakespeare’s original text to make a confusing play, albeit with good incidental music by Purcell. As Shakespeare wrote in Timon of Athens, “We have seen better days.”
- Alexander Zemlinsky (1871–1942), Cymbeline Suite – Cymbeline is one of the least-known Shakespeare plays, based loosely on the legend of the Ancient British King Cunobeline and his daughter Imogen. It lies somewhere between a tragedy and comedy, and playwright George Bernard Shaw even had some harsh words to say about it, completely rewriting the final act to improve upon Shakespeare’s original. In many ways, Alexander Zemlinsky is like the Cymbeline of early 20th-century Vienna—closely associated with some major figures, but still somewhat of an also-ran. 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 bit of incidental music 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 Darn Hot” (from Kiss Me Kate) – “Too Darn Hot” comes from Cole Porter’s 1948 musical Kiss Me Kate, one of the composer’s biggest successes. It won five Tony Awards, including the award for Best Musical, at the first-ever Tony Awards in 1949. The story itself is not based on a Shakespeare play, but Shakespeare is central to the plot. Kiss Me Kate is a backstage musical, a show all 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 are plenty of lovers’ quarrels between the actors, which naturally spill onto the stage. The Bard’s words do play a part towards the end when a group of guys provides some sage advice is given to any would-be-suitors with their song “Brush Up Your Shakespeare.” It turns out that much of the inspiration for the show came from the real-life husband-and-wife acting team of Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne who fought during a 1935 production of The Taming of the Shrew.