This week we’ve explored musical depictions of winter, from Samuel Barber’s Christmas-themed Twelfth Nightto Tchaikovsky’s youthfully inventive First Symphony.
Perhaps no music captures the desolate gloom of winter more vividly than Now Winter Comes Slowly from the fourth act of English composer Henry Purcell’s 1692 opera, The Fairy-Queen. In this case, the term “opera” should be applied loosely. The Fairy-Queen, an anonymous adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, still has one foot firmly planted in the world of masque and “Restoration spectacle,” the freer-formed courtly entertainment out of which formal opera grew. Composed three years before Purcell’s death at the age of 35, The Fairy-Queen was first performed in May, 1692 at London’s Queen’s Theatre, Dorset Garden. Then it fell into obscurity until the twentieth century.
Now Winter Comes Slowly is built on a bleak descending bass line. An icy chill pervades the music from its solitary opening strand:
Sting included Now Winter Comes Slowly on his 2009 album, If on a Winter’s Night. (Listen to the entire album here). Listen to the way Purcell’s late seventeenth century music transfers to this glistening, ethereal, and mildly electronic twenty-first century sound world:
Thus sometimes hath the brightest day a cloud;
And after summer evermore succeeds
Barren winter, with his wrathful nipping cold:
So cares and joys abound, as seasons fleet.
-William Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part II
Find John Eliot Gardiner’s recording of The Fairy-Queen at iTunes, Amazon.
Find Sting’s album, If on a Winter’s Night at iTunes, Amazon.
Historians believe that today marks the 450th birthday of William Shakespeare. Throughout history, Shakespeare’s plays have been a rich source of inspiration for composers. A few months ago we heard Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet tone poem. Now let’s celebrate with some more music inspired by the Bard of Avon:
Play, music! And you, brides and bridegrooms all, With measure heap’d in joy, to the measures fall.
-As You Like It
The man that hath no music in himself, Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds, Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils; The motions of his spirit are dull as night And his affections dark as Erebus: Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.
-The Merchant of Venice
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Felix Mendelssohn was 17 years old when he wrote the famous A Midsummer Night’s Dream concert overture in 1826. Sixteen years later, he composed incidental music for the play, which included the Scherzo, Nocturne and Wedding March.
Mendelssohn’s overture captures vividly the atmosphere of the play. We hear the magic of the forest and the scurrying fairies who interfere hilariously in the lives of the other characters. Listen for all the subtle tricks and surprises in the fairy music, such as unexpected, “wrong” chords and out of place voices. Also notice the musical depiction of a braying donkey (3:07):
To hear other musical adaptations, listen to Henry Purcell’s 1692 semi-opera in five acts, The Fairy-Queen, and Benjamin Britten’s twentieth century opera.
Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind, And therefore is winged Cupid painted blind.
If we shadows have offended, Think but this, and all is mended, That you have but slumbered here While these visions did appear. And this weak and idle theme, No more yielding but a dream, Gentles, do not reprehend: If you pardon, we will mend: And, as I am an honest Puck, If we have unearned luck Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue, We will make amends ere long; Else the Puck a liar call; So, good night unto you all. Give me your hands, if we be friends, And Robin shall restore amends.
“No man will ever write a better tragedy than Lear,” said George Bernard Shaw. Hector Berlioz was in the audience when an English repertory company came to Paris in 1827.Berlioz’s exhilarating King Lear Overture was written in 1831:
Could you hear the stubborn, proud character of King Lear in Berlioz’s music? Maybe you also sensed the pure Cordelia in the oboe solo in the introduction (2:47). In his memoirs, Berlioz outlined the program he followed while writing this overture, from the introduction (representing the entrance of the king) to the fast allegro section (the storm). We hear Lear’s increasing insanity as his theme merges with the storm music (10:49). You might have noticed the influence of the recitative music from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in the opening.
Throughout his innovative career, Berlioz was interested in expanding the orchestra and combining instruments in shocking new ways. I love the noisiness of this piece and its slightly deranged quality. The dissonances following the 9:00 mark would have sounded even more jarring in the 1830s. King Lear Overture has all of the romantic, schizophrenic drama of Symphony fantastique.
I have no way and therefore want no eyes I stumbled when I saw. Full oft ’tis seen our means secure us, and our mere defects prove our commodities.
In Act 4 of Verdi’s opera Otello, just before she is strangled by the jealous Othello, Desdemona sings a quiet prayer for all who suffer (Ave Maria). Read the translated text here. Here the aria is sung by Renee Fleming:
O, beware, my lord, of jealousy; It is the green-ey’d monster, which doth mock The meat it feeds on. That cuckold lives in bliss, Who, certain of his fate, loves not his wronger: But O, what damnèd minutes tells he o’er Who dotes, yet doubts, suspects, yet strongly loves!
Tchaikovsky’s tone poem The Tempest begins and ends with the musical depiction of a calmly undulating sea. Listen for the sudden ferocity of the storm (5:37). Notice the way Tchaikovsky introduces the love theme of Miranda and Ferdinand, following 8:18, suggesting their initial shyness:
Also listen to incidental music for The Tempest by Jean Sibelius. English composer Thomas Adès’s recent opera, which premiered in 2004 at the Royal Opera House of Covent Garden, offers a uniquely twenty-first century take on the play. Here Audrey Luna sings a haunting and vocally demanding excerpt.
Our revels now are ended. These our actors, As I foretold you, were all spirits and Are melted into air, into thin air: And, like the baseless fabric of this vision, The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces, The solemn temples, the great globe itself, Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve And, like this insubstantial pageant faded, Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff As dreams are made on, and our little life Is rounded with a sleep
We’ll finish up with a film score by English composer William Walton. This music was written for the 1944 film version of Henry V, starring Laurence Olivier. Memorable excerpts include Passacaglia: Death of Falstaff and the triumphant Agincourt Song.
“Touch her soft lips and part” underscores the scene in which Pistol bids farewell to his new wife Mistress Quickly, before leaving for battle in France:
From this day to the ending of the world, But we in it shall be remembered- We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; For he to-day that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile, This day shall gentle his condition; And gentlemen in England now-a-bed Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here, And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
Now it’s your turn…
It isn’t The Listeners’ Club without you. Leave a comment in the thread below and tell us what you heard in the music. What pieces would you add to this list of Shakespeare-inspired music?