The Best Classical Music Inspired By Shakespeare

Shakespeare Music - photo courtesy of http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/shakespearelang/2017/06/13/music-in-shakespeare/

Image from http://wp.lancs.ac.uk/shakespearelang/2017/06/13/music-in-shakespeare/

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.

 

11 Amazing Facts About Porgy and Bess

Photo courtesy of The New York Times – http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/13/theater/reviews/audra-mcdonald-in-the-gershwins-porgy-and-bess-review.html

Porgy and Bess is one of George Gershwin’s best-known works (along with Rhapsody in Blue and An American in Paris). It is an English-language folk opera featuring a cast of African-American singers based on a play and a book named “Porgy”. When it debuted in 1935, it was a daring artistic choice given the racially charged theme, but despite some controversy, it gained popularity especially after the 1970’s and is now a frequently performed opera. Even if you’ve never seen it performed (or seen the movie adaptation), chances are you’ve heard some of its songs like “Summertime” which is frequently recorded separately.

There’s more to this American opera, though, than “Summertime”, “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin'”, and racial controversy. Here are 11 cool facts about Porgy and Bess to keep in mind the next time you see it or hear its amazing music (you can hear the Parker Symphony perform selections from Porgy and Bess on February 23).

“and Bess” was an afterthought: The opera was originally named “Porgy” throughout its creation. The “and Bess” portion was added to avoid confusion with the novel and play it was based on. The thought was also that the “and Bess” made it sound more operatic.

It was a box office flop: Porgy and Bess debuted on Broadway in 1935 (after its world premiere in Boston). Its original run included 125 performances which by opera standards is a huge success. However, for Broadway, that’s a theatrical failure.

Its performance resulted in an integrated audience: After the Broadway run, the opera went on tour to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Chicago, and, finally, Washington DC. In Washington, the cast, led by lead actor Todd Duncan, staged a protest of segregation at the National Theater. The theater intended to offer a special “blacks only” performance, but Duncan and the cast said they would never perform in a theater that prevented them from purchasing a ticket because of race. Management gave into their demands and the result was the first integrated audience for a performance of any show at that venue.

It has faced racial controversy over the years: Duke Ellington was said to have objected to its depiction of African Americans, although he later said the opposite. Harry Belafonte turned down the role of Porgy in the film version and the role when to Sidney Poitier. It is thought, however, that Gershwin never meant to insult African Americans. On the contrary, he insisted that it could only be sung by a black cast, a tradition upheld by Ira Gershwin that has launched the careers of several prominent black opera singers. George Gershwin sought to write a true jazz opera and he felt that the Met staff singers couldn’t master the genre.

Robert McFerrin sang the role of Porgy: Bobby McFerrin’s father, Robert, sang the role of Porgy in the 1959 film version. His voice was dubbed over Sidney Poitier’s.

The libretto was co-written by a former insurance agent: The libretto (the text used in the opera) was written by both Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward. Heyward was the co-author of the original “Porgy” novel which he wrote with his wife while he was working as an insurance agent.

The setting is fictional, but the inspiration is real: Porgy and Bess is set in the fictional neighborhood of Catfish Row, South Carolina. However, the setting and the story were inspired by the James Island Gullah community in South Carolina. In fact, most of the characters speak in the Gullah dialect. George Gershwin moved to Folly Beach, an island near Charleston, South Carolina, to draw inspiration from the Gullah community while composing the score.

It has been on Broadway seven times: Despite its initial failure, Porgy and Bess has been produced on Broadway seven times to date – 1935, 1942, 1943, 1944, 1953, 1976, 1983, and 2012. The 2012 production had the longest run at 321 performances.

It was a “first” for La Scala: Porgy and Bess was the first opera by an American-born composer to be performed at the famous opera house in Milan. The performance took place in 1955 and Maya Angelou was among the cast.

It was referenced in Sesame Street: The opera has undeniably made its mark in American music and culture, so much so that it was referenced in an episode of Sesame Street’s 36th season. Hoots the Owl sang a parody version of “A Women Is A Sometime Thing” to Cookie Monster called “A Cookie Is A Sometime Food”.

“Summertime” may be more popular than you know: Not only is it a memorable aria, but it has also been covered over 33,000 times by groups and solo performers.


Join the Parker Symphony Orchestra on February 23, 2018 to hear selections from Porgy and Bess and more. Tickets for Gone Too Soon are on sale now.