It is a well-known fact that Shakespeare’s influence spread well beyond his plays and far beyond idyllic Stratford-upon-Avon. He gave us new words like “fashionable” and “softhearted”. He inspired figures like Freud, Dickens, and George Washington, to name a few. His reach can even be seen as far as the planet Uranus – 25 of its 27 moons are named for Shakespearean characters. A bit closer to home, however, are the numerous orchestral and vocal works that were written about Shakespearean storylines and characters. From A Midsummer Night’s Dream to The Tempest, here is a rundown of the best classical music inspired by Shakespeare.
Mendelssohn – A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Mendelssohn wrote music for Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream on two separate occasions. He first wrote a concert overture in 1826 and then in 1842 he incorporated the overture into incidental music he wrote for a production. The exclusively instrumental movements, the Overture, Scherzo, Intermezzo, Nocturne, and Wedding March, are typically played as a suite in both concerts and recordings and they remain among the most famous of all Shakespearean classical music. In fact, the Wedding March is the traditional music you hear when the just married couple exits the ceremony.
Gade – Hamlet Overture
Like Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky wrote both an overture and incidental music about Hamlet. Liszt also wrote a symphonic poem titled Hamlet. But it is Danish composer Niel Gade’s Hamlet Overture that made our list because of its emotionally dramatic nature that is truly evocative of Shakespeare’s play. A symphonic poem of sorts, it begins with a funereal march that foreshadows tragedy followed by an animated, angry theme in a minor key that eventually leads to a pulsating theme in a major key (perhaps a Hamlet and Ophelia love theme). The piece then returns to the funereal march in a unified conclusion. The Parker Symphony will be performing Gade’s Hamlet Overture on May 11!
Dvořák – Othello Overture
Critics sometimes note that Dvořák’s Othello Overture has a “New World Symphony” quality to it, but for anyone who has heard his In Nature’s Realm Overture, the similarities in some of the melodies are indisputable – and with good reason. The work is the third part of a trilogy called “Nature, Life, and Love”. The other two overtures are In Nature’s Realm and the Carnival Overture. Othello is by far the most emotional of the three works with sweet moments woven in between intense and even ominous parts. Dvořák called it “the most substantial and the most subtle, touching emotions not engaged by its more outgoing companion works.”
Prokofiev – Romeo and Juliet
You’ve no doubt heard parts of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet in popular culture – most recently “The Dance of the Knights” as ominous music in The Apprentice. But there’s more to this ballet and its music than just that one melody. Love, quarrels, fights, and the balcony love scene all offer amazing musical moments. Note: Tchaikovsky also wrote a Romeo & Juliet overture worth listening to.
Verdi – Macbeth
Macbeth was the first Shakespeare play that Verdi adapted for the operatic stage (he also wrote Otello, Falstaff, and Re Lear). It is also one of only a handful of Shakespeare-inspired operas that have made their place in standard repertory. When he set out to write, Verdi wanted to make Macbeth one of his best scores. He was truly inspired by Shakespeare’s play calling it “one of mankind’s greatest creations.”
Schumann – Julius Caesar Overture
It was not only inspired by Shakespeare’s play, but Schumann’s Julius Caesar was also heavily influenced by Beethoven’s Egmont overture. It shares the key of F minor with Beethoven’s work as well as the sonata form and a code in a major key. A known musical cryptogram enthusiast, it has been suggested that there is a cipher for “C-A-E-S-A-R” in this work’s opening chords.
Schubert – An Sylvia
From the title, it’s difficult to see how this fits the Shakespeare music theme. However, An Sylvia was inspired by a scene in Two Gentlemen of Verona. It is a German lied (an art song in which a German poem is set to music). The text is a German translation of the poem, “Who is Sylvia” from Act 4, Scene 2 of the play. Schubert wrote this at the height of his career and while it seems simple, it also has an elegant and witty quality that is perfectly aligned with the tone of the play.
Walton – Suite from Henry V
Before the times of John Williams were numerous film score composers you may not know. And like some of today’s compositions, some of this film music can truly stand on its own. William Walton’s music for the 1944 film Henry V can be counted in this category. He manages to achieve dramatic effect that delivers a top-notch musical adventure. The music was arranged into a suite and recorded in 1963.
Korngold – Much Ado About Nothing
Korngold is another name known for his film scores (although he also wrote an amazing violin concerto). In 1918, prior to his time as a film composer, he was asked to write incidental music in Vienna for Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. The result was music with imaginative melodies, rich tones, and lush harmonies that help it stand on its own as an independent work.
Sibelius – The Tempest (Stormen)
The Tempest is considered by many to be among Sibelius’ greatest achievements. Written as incidental music to the play, Sibelius strove to represent individual characters through specific instrumentation. Critics note that his use of harps and percussion to represent the ambiguity of Prospero is a truly inventive choice. This along with another work titled Tapiola were the last of Sibelius’ works. After that he spent his remaining 32 years writing almost nothing else.