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Shakespeare (FREE)

We’ll sample from the wealth of music inspired by the Bard’s verse, including pieces written by Purcell, Dvorák, Berlioz and Bernstein.

Program 1

In beginning of 19th century, many translations of Shakespeare's works were released, including French and German translations. Touring companies also came to the continent to present Shakespeare's plays, and these performances made a big impact on many composers.

Mendelssohn read A Midsummer Night's Dream at the age of 17. It inspired him to write his first masterpeice, an Overture for A Midsummer Night's Dream that same year, 1826.

17 years later in 1843, Mendelssohn composed more music for an full production of A Midsummer Night's Dream. This included incidental music and full scenes with vocals. There are four chords that are used every time magical spells are being cast. The last chord varies between major and minor (happy and sad) depending upon the kind of magic at work.


Mendelssohn: Overture & excerpts from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”
Berlin Phil/Abbado; Branagh, nar.
Sony 62826
11:40, 14:43, 22:20

Program 2

Both Dvork and Verdi were interested in Othello, and wrote pieces of the same name. Verdi was also interested in Macbeth and Falstaff, his opera based on the play The Merry Wives of Windsor.

In 1891, Dvork released his orchestral piece based on Othello and his notion of love, a dark concept considering the play's themes of jealousy and murder.

Verdi's Othello came after a time when he had quit composing. In 1879, Giulio Ricordi, a friend and the head of a venerable firm of publishers, showed up at Verdi's house for dinner. Ricordi knew Verdi loved Shakespeare, and suggested he work with a librettist by the name of Arrigo Boito.

It was several years before the work was complete. It finally premiered in Feb. 1887 in La Scala, just four years before the release of Dvorak's orchestral based on Othello.

Verdi loved the Falstaff character from The Merry Wives of Windsor, and it inspired him to write the work he titled Falstaff. Verdi calls the character "a rogue who commits every kind of rascally action, but in an amusing way."

Dvorák: Othello (excerpt)
Czech Phil/Pesek
Virgin 61853

Verdi: Othello (excerpts)
National Phil/Levine; P. Domingo, ten.
RCA 39501
6:32, 9:44, 4:46, 5:48

Verdi: Falstaff (excerpts)
Vienna Phil/Bernstein; D. Fischer-Dieskau, ten.
Sony 64070
4:07, 1:18, :25

Program 3

In 1944, Walton and Sir Lawrence Olivier put together a score and film inspired by Henry V, and it was well received in England.

Henry Purcell, who lived at end of the century in which Shakespeare died, wrote incidental music for a production he called The Fairy Queen. This was based on Titania, a character from A Midsummer Night's Dream.

In the mid-1720s and 30s, Handel was the most popular composer of Italian opera in England. He wrote an aria called Giulio Cessare in Egitto, based on history as much as Shakespeare's play.

Vaughan Williams wrote pieces based on The Tempest and A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Gerald Finzi (1901-1956) orginally wrote his Let us Garlands Bring set, based on Shakespeare's texts, for piano and voice. These were later orchestrated. These songs were first heard in 1942, and the date coincided with Vaughan Williams 70th birthday. Finzi dedicated the set to Vaughan Williams.

Amy Beach (1867-1944), one of the most well trained and gifted pianists of her age, grew up near Boston and wrote O Mistress Mine and Take, O Take Those Lips Away.


Walton: Henry V (excerpts fr. film suite)
Philharmonia Orchestra/Walton; Olivier, nar.
EMI 65007
3:36, 13:18

Purcell: The Fairy Queen (excerpt)

Handel: “E Pur Cosi… Piangero” fr. Julius Caesar
London Phil/Welser-Most; Amanda Roocroft, s.
EMI 555090

Vaughan Williams: “Full Fathom Five”, “The Cloud-Capped Towers” and “Over Hill, Over Dale”
Cambridge Singers/Rutter
Collegium 505
3:16, 2:22, :58

Finzi: “Who is Sylvia?”, “Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun” and “It was a Lover and his Lass” from Let us Garlands Bring
Bournemouth Symphony Orch/Handley; M. George, bar.
Conifer 51285
1:34, 5:02, 2:34

Beach: “O Mistress Mine” & “Take, O Take Those Lips Away” 
Emma Kirkby, s; James Lisney, p.
BIS 1245
2:27, 1:32

Program 4

Several composers have portrayed the Queen Mab scene from Romeo and Juliet in very different ways. The first you'll hear is from Charles Gounod.

Hector Berlioz chose to portray the same scene but started much earlier in1839. He revised the work in 1847, and then again in 1857. This first version of the piece you'll hear includes vocals.

However, in the 20 years of revisions on the piece, Berlioz kept playing with different ways to present the scenes. Here is an orchestral version of the work.

Now, jump ahead to the 1950's and across ocean where Romeo and Juliet became the inspirtation for West Side Story, done by Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Jerome Robbins. The action is set in New York, specifically in Hell's Kitchen on the West Side.

In keeping with the instrumental theme, here are Bernstein's Symphonic Dances from West Side Story.


Gounod: Queen Mab scene from Romeo and Juliet
Toulouse Capitole Orchestra/Plasson
EMI 40700

Berlioz: Romeo and Juliet (excerpts)
Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique & Monteverdi Choir/Gardiner; Fouchcourt, ten.
Phil 454454
1:29, 7:17, 14:53

Bernstein: Symphonic Dances from West Side Story
NY Phil/Bernstein
Sony 63085

Program 5

Two Russian composers, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky and Sergei Prokofiev, are featured in this show. Neither composer uses any of Shakespeare's dialogue in telling the tale.

Tchaikovsky may have been responding to a failed romance of his own when he wrote An Overture Fantasy on Romeo and Juliet. He was engaged to a popular French soprano, Desiree Artot, who fell in love with a Spanish baritone and left Tchaikovsky in Russia with a broken heart. This also coincided with a suggestion from Balakirev, a noted composer/conductor/teacher, that Tchaikovsky consider Romeo and Juliet as a subject for a tone poem.

Another Russian composer, Prokofiev, had settled in Paris. However, around 1931, he began to miss his home in Russia. In a move of poor timing, he returned home in the middle of Stalin's purges in 1933. In 1935, he was approached to make a ballet on Romeo and Juliet, which he at first turned down.

There are many more examples of Shakespeare's themes used by composers. There are at least 270 operas and another 100 operettas.

Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet Overture
New York Phil/Bernstein
DG 429234

Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet (excerpts)
Leningrad Kirov Orchestra/Gergiev
Phil 432819
19:35, 5:33, 3:04


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