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.

 

7 Interesting Facts About The Grieg Piano Concerto

Grieg at the Piano

This May, DU Lamont School of Music’s Heidi Leathwood will join the Parker Symphony in performing Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor. It’s one of the composer’s most popular works and one of the most loved and performed of all piano concerti. Whether you recognize the opening notes or have heard the whole thing numerous times, chances are you don’t know all there is to this to this stunning piece. Here are 7 interesting facts about the Grieg Piano Concerto.

  1. It was Grieg’s only completed concerto. When he was just 25, Grieg wanted to make his mark on the world. This was his first work to employ an orchestra and it was an instant success. Many expected the composer to write a second, but one never came. He began work on a second concerto in B minor, but he never completed it. Several pianists have recorded the sketches and in 1997 the Oslo Grieg Society held a competition in which one contestant elaborated a full concerto from the sketches. Grieg also started work on a violin concerto that also was not completed.

  2. It is often compared to Schumann’s Piano Concerto. Not only did Grieg and Schumann each write only one piano concerto, they both wrote theirs in A minor. Both works also begin on a similar descending flourish on the piano. Schumann wrote his first and Grieg heard Clara Schumann perform it about 10 years before writing his own. It is said that Grieg was greatly influenced by Schumann’s style having been taught piano by Schumann’s friend.

  3. Grieg did not perform it at the premiere. Some sources say that Grieg was the intended soloist but he was unable to attend the premiere due to previous commitments in Christiania (now Oslo). Anton Rubinstein, however, was in attendance and he even provided his own piano for the occasion. Danish composer Niels Gade (who wrote the Hamlet Overture which the PSO is also performing in May) was also in the audience.

  4. It was the first piano concerto ever recorded. German pianist Wilhelm Backhaus recognized the importance of the gramophone. His 1909 recording of the Grieg Piano Concerto was not only the first recording of that work, but the first time any concerto had been recorded. Due to the technology of the time, however, it was a heavily abridged performance that lasted only 6 minutes.

  5. A pianist died while performing it. On April 2, 1951, pianist Simon Barere collapse on stage while playing the first few bars of the Grieg Piano Concerto. The performance was with conductor Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in New York. Unfortunately he died backstage shortly after collapsing.

  6. Grieg revised the work at least 7 times. Most of the updates were subtle, but they add up to over 300 differences from the original orchestration. The final version was completed only a few weeks before Grieg’s death and this is the version we know today.

  7. The concerto contains Norwegian folk music influences. This isn’t surprising since Edvard Grieg was from Norway and like other composers including Dvorak and Sibelius, he sought to pay tribute to his homeland in much of his music. The opening flourish of the concerto is a motif typical in Norwegian folk music while the last movement contains imitations of the Norwegian folk fiddle and halling (a Norwegian dance).


Don’t miss Heidi Leathwood’s performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor along with other Scandinavian pieces at the Parker Symphony Orchestra concert on May 11 at PACE. Tickets are on sale now.


Heidi Leathwood Joins The PSO For A Denver Area Mother’s Day Weekend Concert

Parker Symphony May Concert Grieg Piano Concert - Denver Mothers Day EventThe Parker Symphony and Parker Arts present the final concert of the 2017-2018 season on Friday May 11 (Mother’s Day Weekend) at 7:30 PM at the PACE Center, 20000 Pikes Peak Ave., Parker. The concert is titled “Grieg Piano Concert and Other Scandinavian Favorites” and will feature Heidi Brende Leathwood from the University of Denver Lamont School of Music on the piano.

Ms. Leathwood has performed with members of the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and the Colorado Symphony. Since moving to Colorado in 2001, she has performed regularly with leading musicians in the Front Range area. She was a prize winner in the Stravinsky Awards International Piano Competition and the Ruth Slenzynska National Piano Competition among others. She is currently part of the Lamont School faculty teaching the Alexander Technique and Piano.

In addition to Ms. Leathwood’s performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor, the Parker Symphony will also be playing Sibelius’ “Karelia Suite”, Alfven’s “Midsommarvaka”, and Gade’s “Hamlet Overture”.

Tickets for this Denver area May concert are available now at the PACE Center online box office (https://parkerarts.ticketforce.com/), by phone at 303-805-6800 or in person at the PACE Center. And they make excellent Mother’s Day gifts!!


Established in 1994, the mission of the Parker Symphony Orchestra is to perform orchestral music that will educate, entertain, and inspire the people of Parker, Colorado and the surrounding communities. Under the direction of René Knetsch, the PSO is an all-volunteer orchestra, seventy five members strong, dedicated to continual excellence and growth. They perform with the goal of offering interesting and entertaining performances to tempt everyone’s musical palate.

Karelia Suite Captures The Spirit of Finland



Karelia, Finland

Since the Karelia Suite was composed by Jean Sibelius, a Finnish composer, you can imagine he infused a lot of his homeland into the piece. What you may not know, however, is that the piece is more than just inspired by Finland – it is entirely all about Finland. From the title, which refers to a region made up by southeast Finland and parts of Russia, to the premiere in Vyborg, this work captures the spirit of Sibelius’ country and was not only popular during his time, but remains one of his most performed works today.

The Karelia Suite is actually music that was commissioned by students from the Helsinki University in Vyborg for a historical tableau – a set of scenes from the history of Karelia. The original work was called Karelia Music and was an intensely patriotic work, incorporating Finland’s main folk legends from the Kalevala (a 19th century work of epic poetry based on Finnish mythology). It consisted of an overture, 8 tableau movements, and two intermezzo movements. Sibelius created the suite we know today using 3 of the movements.

The three movements of the Karelia Suite are:

  • Intermezzo: Sibelius borrowed the brass theme from the middle of the 3rd tableau to create this lively movement. It is a jaunty movement intended to depict the procession of Karelian laborers paying taxes to Duke Narimont of Lithuania.
  • Ballade: This was based on tableau 4 of the original music. It tells the story of 15th century Swedish king, Karl Knutsson, feeling reminiscent while listening to his bard singing in the castle.
  • Alla Marcia: This exhilarating march is very similar to the last half of the 5th tableau in the original music. The original tableau, however, depicted a violent city siege. This movement in the suite, however, is light, sunny, and jolly.

When the original Karelia Music premiered in 1893, it was not performed in the best of circumstances. The audience, made up of students from the university, was so loud that many could not hear the music at all. Sibelius himself remarked, “You couldn’t hear a single note of the music – everyone was on their feet cheering and clapping.”

Finnish author Ernst Lampén, who was in the audience, recalled:

The noise in the hall was like an ocean in a storm. I was at the opposite end of the hall and could not distinguish a single note. The audience did not have the patience to listen and was hardly aware of the music. The orchestra was actually there, behind the pillars. I thrust my way through the crowd and managed to reach the orchestra after a good deal of effort. There were a few listeners. Just a handful. I arrived just when they were playing the march. What a extraordinarily charming and varied melody! What a springy rhythm!

Despite this initial performance, Sibelius went on to conduct a very popular concert that included the Overture plus the three movements that would become the Karelia Suite and thanks to its wonderful reception, the composer decided to sell the pieces for printing. Many of the original tableaus may have been lost to fire (Sibelius burned many of his manuscripts in 1945), but the Karelia Suite survived.

Today, critics note that this suite combines rustic melodies with grand, noble moments to reflect both the rough, simple life and the deep patriotism of the Karelian people. Listening to the various movements (particularly the opening of the Intermezzo and the Alla Marcia), one cannot help but think of the beautiful wilderness, the vast tundras, and the proud people of Finland.

If you’d like to hear the Karelia Suite performed live, join the Parker Symphony on May 11 at the PACE Center when we perform this and other Scandinavian works.


Finlandia: The Secret Protest Piece

Helsinki
Helsinki, Finland – courtesy of Fodors

Finlandia, one of Sibelius’ most famous compositions, is often referred to as a tone poem. A tone poem is a piece of orchestral music with only one movement that evokes a poem, story, painting, or other non-musical source. In the case of Finlandia, it was one of seven pieces that served as an accompaniment to a tableau that depicted episodes from Finnish history. It premiered July 2, 1900 in Helsinki.

But it was much more than just a historical tribute. It was secretly a protest against censorship from the Russian Empire. Prior to 1917, the Grand Duchy of Finland belonged to the Russian Empire. Most of the piece features rousing music that is meant to evoke the national struggle of the Finnish people. After that, a serene melody can be heard. Named the Finlandia Hymn, this section is Sibelius’ own creation that was arranged later for solo performance. The hymn has become one of Finland’s most important national songs with words written for is in 1941.

To avoid Russian censorship while protesting it, Finlandia was performed under alternative names. Some of these include Happy Feelings at the awakening of Finnish Spring and A Scandinavian Choral March.

Finlandia can be heard prominently in the film score for Die Hard 2: Die Harder.

It will also be performed by the Parker Symphony Orchestra on October 29. Purchase tickets here.