Shakespeare as Music: Adaptation or Expansion (or something else)?


I ran across an interesting NY Times article about why Shakespeare is so suited for dance: more ballets have been based on Shakespeare than probably any other writer in history.  On the one hand, this suggests that Shakespeare can be translated visually--either in visual metaphors, or in the spectacle that his theatre naturally lends itself to.  However, since ballet is movement and music, we lose all language--everything must be spoken in dance.  What do we lose and gain in this approach?  Is it acceptable as Shakespeare, or is it simply something based on Shakespeare, the same way Tchaikovsky's famous overture to Romeo and Juliet suggests, rather than performs, Shakespeare's text?  You can read the article here: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/30/arts/dance/shakespeares-plays-are-a-natural-fit-with-dance.html?partner=rss&emc=rss&smid=nytimesarts&_r=0

However, this reminded me of all the great music I listen to inspired by Shakespeare.  Shakespeare is a natural draw for classical composers, who have created ballets, operas, and orchestral works based on his plays.  Here are a few of the most significant ones that have become almost as popular as the plays themselves:

Mendelssohn, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Overture and Incidental Music (he wrote the overture to evoke the piece at age 16; decades later, he was commissioned to write incidental music to accompany the play, and used his overture as a basis: the famous "wedding march" that we hear at most weddings comes from this music)

Berlioz, Beatrice et Benedict, Overture: this is an overture to Berlioz's opera based on Much Ado About Nothing.  It captures the high spirits and romance of this wonderful comedy, and the adventurous can go on and listen to the entire opera.  (Note: There are many operas based on Shakespeare, notably those by Verdi, who wrote one for Macbeth, The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Othello). 

Berlioz, Romeo and Juliet, symphony: one of Berlioz’s most unusual scores, it is a vocal symphony (not an opera, cantata, or oratorio) which tells this famous story in a mixture of long, orchestral rhapsodies and evocative arias.  The highlights are the Mendelssohnian Queen Mab Scherzo (which does a great impression of Mercutio’s speech) and the Balcony Scene, which certainly inspired Tchaikovsky’s later effort (see below). 

Dvorak, Othello, Overture: unusual for the rather bright-spirited Dvorak, he wrote an overture to Shakespeare’s grim tragedy—and rather effectively, too.  To be fair, it’s part of a three-part work he originally titled “Nature, Life, and Love,” which he later broke up into the overtures “In Nature’s Realm,” “Carnival,” and “Othello.”  It opens with a bleak theme which gains in passion (jeaousy?) until it explodes, trumpeted out by the entire orchestra.  Though short, it is one of Dvorak’s masterpieces and is one of the only successful pieces of music I’ve heard that captures Othello’s haunting music. 

Tchaikovsky, Romeo and Juliet Overture, a highly successful 'adaptation' of Shakespeare musically, opening with a solemn theme that represents Friar Lawrence, which soon explodes into the fighting of both houses, and before long, the super famous love theme emerges that has been parodied in everything from soap commercials to Spongebob.  If you can listen with fresh ears, it's an amazing piece.

Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet, ballet: Prokofiev wrote not the first, but the greatest ballet based on the entire play.  It is an extremely moving experience to watch the entire thing, and musically, it evokes much of Shakespeare's language and power.  Especially powerful is the Final Act, where Romeo tries to make a sleeping Juliet dance with him--but she merely slumps over lifelessly.  This scene makes sense like never before.

Sibelius, The Tempest, Incidental Music: Sibelius was an extremely famous Finnish composer in the early 20th century, and he was asked to create music that could suit this very musical play--including the many songs sung by Ariel, Caliban, and others.  He succeeded marvelously with dark, mystical sounding music which occasionally evokes the music of Shakespeare's time.  One of the most powerful pieces is Ariel's song in Act One, "Full fathom five thy father lies" (great alliteration!), which is full of haunting doom, and helps us understand Ferdinand's desolation.  Also listen to the powerful Overture evoking the storm (which borrows the mood and ferocity of Sibelius’ final tone poem, Tapiola)  and the creepy “The Oak Tree,” also seemingly drawn from Tapiola.  Fittingly, this is the among the last orchestral music Sibelius wrote, just as The Tempest was Shakespeare’s final bow (minus some shoddy collaborations with Fletcher) from the stage.   

Tchaikovsky, The Tempest, Tone Poem: A "tone poem" is an impression of a poem or story set to music, and Tchaikovsky excelled at these.  Here he took on Shakespeare's last play, opening with a eerie, ferocious storm scene before relaxing into a theme for Miranda and Ferdinand.  It's a lot like the Romeo and Juliet overture, and takes about as long to play out.  (Note: Tchaikovsky also wrote a wonderful overture for Hamlet, as well as incidental music for a production, which is equally good--a dark, exciting score). 

Strauss, Macbeth, Tone Poem: One of Richard Strauss' earliest tone poems evoked the sinister world of Macbeth.  This 20-minute piece is full of all the characteristics we would later find in his more famous pieces such as Don Juan or Don Quixote, though it's a little less cohesive here.  Yet high drama is everywhere, and it would make a great curtain raiser to any production of the play (clipped a bit shorter, perhaps).  


Vaughan-Williams, Serenade to Music (Merchant of Venice): Not many composers have been drawn to The Merchant of Venice, but Vaughan-Willliams, a 20th century English composer, famously set part of the Final Act of the play (where Lorenzo and Jessica speak of music) to music in a draw-joppingly beautiful piece with soloists, chorus and orchestra.  It belies the darkness and unsettled nature of the final act, but it does capture the essential 'music' of Shakespeare's play. 

Elgar, Falstaff, Symphonic Poem: Elgar, a master of pictoral music, created this symphonic portrait of Shakespeare's famous 'hero,' capturing him at various times in his career: in Henry IV 1 and 2, as well as The Merry Wives of Winsdor.  It's a dramatic, comic piece written in Elgar's expansive late style.  


Walton, Henry V film score: one of the most famous Shakespearean film scores, this was written for Sir Lawrence Olivier's war-time film of Henry V, and contains some of William Walton's most rousing, touching music.  (Note: Patrick Doyle wrote another famous Henry score for Branagh's 1989 version). 

Shostakovich, Hamlet, film score: written by a 20th century Russian master, this score is both chilling, humorous, and exciting by turns.  His greatest film score set the standard for all Shakespearean film scores to come, and makes amazing listening in its own right.  Written for a 1960's Russian version which remains an exciting adaptation of this very long and tricky play (Note: Shostakovich also wrote the score for the famous Russian version of King Lear, which is more spare but no less evocative than Hamlet).  

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