Music Inspired by Shakespeare

Shakespeare has long been a source of musical inspiration. From Mendelssohn to Macmillan, countless composers have written incidental music for Shakespeare’s plays or set Shakespeare’s words to music. Seeing as it’s (probably) Shakespeare’s birthday, here’s a playlist of 15 pieces inspired by Shakespeare.

1. Wilhelm Stenhammar As You Like It. Stenhammar penned this music in 1920 for a play directed by Per Lindberg. If you’d like to read more about the production, I’ve written an article on it here.

2. Elizabeth Maconchy ‘Ophelia’s Song’. Hamlet has inspired a plethora of settings, not least because of Ophelia’s song. This is Maconchy’s rendering, performed here by Caroline MacPhie and Joseph Middleton. This isn’t the only Shakespeare text that Maconchy set — her Four Shakespeare Songs from 1965 set texts from Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure and Othello.

3. Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Othello Suite. Coleridge-Taylor wrote a considerable quantity of incidental music — other plays he wrote for included Ulysses and Faust. As was usual for composers of incidental music, he reworked his music for Othello into a suite.

4. Jonathan Dove Ariel. I could write a whole blog post devoted just to music inspired by The Tempest. The magical, mysterious island setting of Tempest has made it one of the most popular of Shakespeare’s texts to set to music. This is Dove’s portrait of the spirit Ariel — he describes the music as exploring Ariel’s ‘changeable moods, sometimes playful, sometimes vengeful’. 

5. Evelyn Glennie Troilus and Cressida. The RSC has a long, rich history of commissioning composers to write music for their productions. Their longest-serving house composer was Guy Woolfenden, who wrote incidental music for every single Shakespeare play at least once. Since his retirement the RSC has enlisted various different composers to write incidental music — such as Evelyn Glennie, who produced a fantastic score for Troilus that she describes as ‘percussive, dynamic and surprising’. The RSC have made a great recording of the score along with some of the speeches from the play.

And you can watch the trailer here

6. Dmitri Shostakovich Hamlet Suite. Shostakovich wrote the incidental music for a 1932 production of Hamlet directed by Nikolai Akimov, which caused considerable scandal. Hamlet was a dislikable antihero, and Ophelia a femme fatale who drowns in a drunken accident rather than intentionally. The production was quickly banned and slated by critics —except for Shostakovich’s music, which received considerable praise. Once critic wrote that ‘Shostakovich has composed such music that there is simply not a single fault with it.’ Shostakovich made some of the music into a concert suite, which has established a relatively stable place on concert programmes.

7. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture. The different themes in this overture are supposed to represent different parts of Shakespeare’s play. The introduction is supposed to signify Friar Laurence, the first theme the conflict and hostility between Montagues and Capulets, and then the second theme represents Romeo and Juliet themselves. It closes with a funeral march based on the lovers’ theme, with a reference to Friar Laurence’s music.

8. Thomas Adés The Tempest. Adés doesn’t take Shakespeare’s text direct — the libretto for this opera is by Meredith Oakes, based on Shakespeare. It got rave reviews when it premiered in 2004 — the Observer called Adés’s music ‘by turns ethereal, witty, incandescent, often ravishing.’ 

9. Ralph Vaughan Williams Three Shakespeare Songs. Shakespeare was something of a constant for Vaughan Williams. Some of his very earliest songs were to Shakespeare texts, as were some of his last. These late songs were written in 1951, for a cappella SATB choir. The first two songs are from The Tempest, and the third from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

10. Gösta Nystroem Sinfonia Shakespeariana. Nystroem was heavily influenced by Shakespeare. This is his fourth symphony, composed after his music for both The Tempest and The Merchant of Venice. The symphony’s movements are subtitled with quotations from the sonnets and from The Tempest.

11. Patrick Doyle As You Like It (2006). And now for something completely different. This is Doyle’s soundtrack for Kenneth Branagh’s film of As You Like It. It’s…exactly what you’d expect from a Branagh film? But/And the soundtrack is excellent.

12. Samuel Barber Antony & Cleopatra. Unusually for an opera based on Shakespeare, Barber’s Antony & Cleopatra exclusively uses Shakespeare’s text. It was commissioned for the opening of the Met Opera House, but unfortunately the premiere is mostly remembered for being a colossal failure. The opera’s fared better since then though, and has been performed a number of times. 

13. Jean Sibelius The Tempest. Of Shakespeare’s plays, Sibelius said that ‘Timon of Athens is dearest to me because of its humanity; The Tempest because of its musicality.’ He never set Timon, but his score for Tempest is one of his most extraordinary and innovative pieces. He wrote it for a production directed by Johannes Poulsen, for whom Carl Nielsen also wrote his music for Aladdin. In the final event, neither composer was happy with how their respective productions turned out. Nielsen disowned the Aladdin production entirely. Sibelius went for a less dramatic approach, and simply wrote to his wife that Poulsen ‘can be fine, but certainly the stage production…is poor.’

14. Judith Weir Storm. This 1997 work is for two ensembles — children’s chorus and women’s voices. Weir explains that ‘for me as a theatregoer, the heroes of the play are not so much Prospero, Miranda and the other named characters, as the elements of The Tempest’s natural environment: sea, wind, waves, air, and beyond that, magic and the spirit world. In fact, I have often wishes that I could see a production of this play with no actors in it; and Storm is perhaps the soundtrack of that production, performed in a concert hall.’ 

15. Jed Kurzel Macbeth. This is the soundtrack from the 2015 film directed by Justin Kurzel. If there’s any surefire way to bring out how harrowing the story of Macbeth is, it’s this soundtrack.


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