Music Inspired by Shakespeare

ShakespeareHistorians 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):

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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.

King Lear

“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:

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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:

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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!

The Tempest

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:

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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

Henry V

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:

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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?

Pop Meets Classical

Recently, I ran across an interesting post by Kathryn Judd, a member of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra’s marketing team, called Rachmaninoff Goes Pop. It showcases famous Rachmaninoff melodies which were turned into pop songs.This got me thinking about how many other melodies from classical music have found their way into pop music.

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Stranger in Paradise[/typography]

The first music to come to mind was the Polovtsian Dances from the opera Prince Igor by the Russian Romanticist, Alexander Borodin (1833-1887). First listen to this beautiful melody as Borodin wrote it:

The 1953 musical Kismet adapted Borodin’s music. Here is how it sounds as Stranger in Paradise:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]A Groovy Kind of Love[/typography]

You wouldn’t think that the Rondo from Sonata No. 5 by Clementi (1752-1832) would be ripe pop song material…

…But it became A Groovy Kind of Love, released in 1965 by Diane and Annita, and later covered by Phil Collins in the 1980’s:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Apocalyptica’s Hall of the Mountain King[/typography]

Here is In The Hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt by Edvard Grieg (1843-1907):

The Finnish progressive metal band Apocalyptica created its own version of the Grieg. The descending chromatic intervals in the melody and the chord progression seem at home in the rock genre:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]What Do You Think?[/typography]

In the Baroque era and earlier it was common to “steal” melodies. Handel used popular melodies, as well as recycling his own. Later, composers paid tribute to existing music and sometimes influences subconsciously crept into their writing. Leonard Bernstein made a clear reference to the end of Stravinsky’s Firebird in Make Our Garden Grow in Candide.

This kind of musical adaption can work as long as the new creation brings its own unique slant and as long as it’s done with musical integrity. When classical music is dumbed down and sanitized (a melody stripped of its original rich harmony), it is a true desecration. What do you think? Are the examples above musically successful? Should pop musicians look to classical music for ideas? What other pop songs do you know which draw inspiration from classical music?

Why Music is Essential to Education

What is the role of music and the arts in education?  Unlike the arts-centered education of ancient Athens, modern American public education has increasingly moved towards jobs training.  In this commodified world of standardized tests, the arts are often pushed to the periphery so that students will be “prepared for college” or “competitive in a global economy.”

Does the current system teach students what to think instead of how to think?  In his book, Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle, Chris Hedges writes:

“We’ve bought into the idea that education is about training and “success,” defined monetarily, rather than learning to think critically and to challenge. We should not forget that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers. A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, which fails to understand that the measure of a civilization is its compassion, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death.”

Advocates of music education often cite studies that document the effects of music on academic performance.  The Mozart Effect, this study about music’s effect on learning and the nervous system and this study which links playing music from an early age and brain health after age 60 are only a few examples.

While many of these studies have merit, they obscure the real value of music education.   Music is fundamental to the human experience.  There is speculation that music predated language, with the discovery of flutes carved out of animal bones by the Neanderthals 53,000 years ago.  Music expresses something deep in humanity and conveys a sense of meaning that cannot be put into words.

In his Philosophy of Music Education Larry Judd, a music educator of 36 years writes:

“Music is an expressive, aural art…It is a means of emotional fulfillment, an explanation of existence.  Through its creative nature, music aids the search for self-realization and identity.  Music is an active, personal art which demands emotional and physical participation.  

A study of music based upon an active, creative involvement insures the gaining of immediate enjoyment and satisfaction.  It is such that allows man to develop aesthetic sensitivity to the beauty around him and enables him to enjoy a richer, more meaningful life.”

“The greatest scientists are artists as well.” said Albert Einstein, an amateur violinist and pianist.  In this article Michele and Robert Root-Bernstein suggest that it was through entering the unique, creative world of music that Einstein gained his greatest insights into physics.  “I often think in music. I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music…. I get most joy in life out of music.”  Einstein told Dr. Shinichi Suzuki that “The theory of relativity occurred to me by intuition, and music is the driving force behind this intuition.”  Stressing the importance of intuition, Einstein stated that “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”   

In his book, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, Ray Kurzweil suggests that, with the exponential growth of technology, artificial intelligence will one day surpass human intelligence.  Kurzweil paints a somewhat optimistic view of this new world, but would the essence of humanity, so mysteriously captured in our experience of music, survive?  Would we enter a new and sterile reality?  Perhaps there has never been a better time to hang onto those things which make us fully human.

Hearing Colors in the Music of Michael Torke

Colouring pencils


Javelin…Michael Torke (b. 1961)

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When you listen to music do you hear colors?  The idea of musical color may seem like a strange mixing of the senses, but color is an important element of music, along with motion, energy, flow and fabric.*

For violinists, color is synonymous with timbre.  We often choose between playing the same pitch in a lower position on a higher string (creating a bright tone) and playing in a higher position on a lower string (creating a darker, thicker and sometimes more veiled and velvety sound).  It all depends on what color the music calls for.

This month I’m excited to introduce you to a piece called Javelin by contemporary American composer Michael Torke.  In my own listening, I find myself drawn to Torke’s music.  It unfolds in a deeply satisfying way and captures the rich, sonic color pallet possibilities of a full symphony orchestra.

Most of us perceive musical color as a metaphor, but Michael Torke experiences it literally and involuntarily.  He has a neurological condition known as synesthesia. Dr. Oliver Sachs, author of Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, defines synesthesia as “an immediate, physiological coupling of two sorts of sensation.” Michael Torke experiences each musical key as a different color.  Here are some interesting interviews where Sachs and Torke discuss synesthesia.

Javelin was commissioned in 1994 to celebrate the 1996 Atlanta Olympics as well as the 50th anniversary of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra.

Listen to Javelin and enjoy any musical colors you may hear.  Is the music bright or dark? What feelings does it give you?  Does any particular moment in the music conjure up feelings that are real but hard to put into words?  What kind of energy does the music have? Notice the way it flows, evolves and unfolds. Does any visual image beyond color come to mind?

Take a moment and leave a comment with your perceptions.  Feel free to site specific moments in the music with the track time.  If you have the involuntary sensual associations of synesthesia, please describe your experience. Also, continue to listen to the other music we have explored so far.  The more times you listen, the more you will hear.  In the middle of the month we’ll get together again with additional thoughts about Javelin and I’ll share another piece that highlights musical color.

(*The Musical Elements: Who Said They’re Right?, Robert A. Cutietta, Music Educators Journal, May, 1993, pg. 48)