Six Sounds of Shakespeare

March 21 marks the European Day of Early Music. By way of a slightly contorted response to the occasion, I thought we might take a look at William Shakespeare’s influence on composers, not through the contemporary contributions they made to performances of his plays (he lived from 1564 to 1616), but by taking stock of how The Bard has inspired and permeated the output of generations of composers since his day. Some examples hardly need a spotlight. Take Mendelssohn’s incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for example,or Britten’s opera of the same title, for which the composer himself produced the libretto by adapting Shakespeare’s original. As we often do in these blogs, I’ll dig around for the less noted, but equally attractive examples of settings of Shakespeare’s literary output.

I’m going to start with a song by Erich Korngold (1897-1957), whose reputation as a composer is happily turning from one of neglect to one worthy of a standing ovation. He produced some wonderful offerings while still a teenager; my choice retains that youthful spirit within a setting of Shakespeare’s It was a lover and his lass (from As You Like It) that Korngold wrote when he was 40 years old. I wonder if Shakespeare’s grin would have been as wide as mine upon hearing When Birds Do Sing for the first time.
When Birds Do Sing (8.572027)

The first performance of that song took place in 1941. The following year, the French composer Jacques Ibert completed his Suite Élisabéthaine as incidental music for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Four of its nine movements are neo-classical adaptations of pieces by Elizabethan or post-Elizabethan English composers—John Blow, John Bull, Orlando Gibbons and Henry Purcell. The movements that have no earlier source are more romantic or modern in flavour and include Chanson des fées led by a soprano solo. The orignal text (You spotted snakes with double tongue…) is set in a translation by Victor Hugo.

Chanson des fées (8.555568)

To America now, and A Song of Orpheus by William Schuman (1910-1992). Scored for cello and orchestra, it was premiered in 1962; but the title and source of the melodic material was drawn from a song setting of Shakespeare’s poem Orpheus With His Lute from his play Henry VIII. Schuman had composed the song in 1944. He described how his Fantasy for Cello and Orchestra was derived:

“My friend Vincent Persichetti, the composer, suggested that the song would make an excellent theme for a set of variations. His suggestion came to mind when I was searching for an idea for the work I had agreed to compose for [cellist] Leonard Rose. Although the composition is not in the form of a set of variations, all the music grows out of the melodic line of the song which is stated at the very beginning of the composition. The words of the song are written in the cello part in order to enable the soloist to perform the melody with the clarity of a singer’s projection.”

Schuman requested that Shakespeare’s text be printed in the concert programmes, or recited before the work was performed, to enhance the listening experience. We can hear it recited by American author and actress Jane Alexander, and then pick up the performance part-way through, in the soloist’s second cadenza, during which the orchestral ensemble occasionally joins in. The closing of the piece in extreme quietness reflects the last three lines of the poem:

In sweet music is such art,
Killing care and grief of heart
Fall asleep, or hearing, die.

Henry VIII, Act 3: Orpheus with his Lute Made Trees (8.559344)


A Song of Orpheus (8.559344)


Something to refresh the ear now with a short piece for unaccompanied choir by Bob Chilcott, one of today’s best known British choral composers. He sang tenor with the King’s Singers from 1985 to 1997, since when he has focused on composition. The piece we’ll hear was commissioned in 2004 by Brian Kay and the Leith Hill Music Festival to celebrate the festival’s 100th anniversary; Kay also sang with the group, but in its formative years, from 1968 to 1982. The text for The Isle is Full of Noises is taken from Act 3, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s The Tempest:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices.

The Isle is Full of Noises (8.573158)


Shakespeare’s plays have been adopted not only by opera composers, but also by movie moguls. A notably successful partnership between director and composer for such productions was that of the English actor Laurence Olivier and the composer William Walton, a fellow Briton. Walton’s score for Olivier’s Hamlet was written in 1947 and the film was released the following year. Olivier both directed and starred in the title role. Christopher Palmer subsequently made a suite of Walton’s score. One of the nine movements highlights Hamlet’s famous Act 3 soliloquy To be, or not to be, in which Hamlet contemplates suicide, and Walton captures the emotional lurches.

To be, or not to be (8.553344)


Finally, we turn from that contemplation of death to a sad memorial following an untimely passing. John Tavener wrote Song for Athene in 1993 as a tribute to a family friend, Athene Hariades, a gifted actress, tragically killed in a cycling accident. The composer wrote: “Her beauty, both outward and inner, was reflected in her love of acting, poetry, music and of the Orthodox Church.” Tavener had heard Athene read Shakespeare in Westminster Abbey and, following her funeral, came upon the idea of combining two references to lines from Hamlet (lines 1 and 5 of the text below) with portions of the Orthodox liturgy, the whole piece set over an ‘ison’ or drone in the traditional Byzantine manner. It will be familiar to some as the music that was sung at the funeral of Princess Diana in 1997, at the departure of the cortege from London’s Westminster Abbey.

Alleluia. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Alleluia. Remember me, O Lord, when you come into your kingdom.
Alleluia. Give rest, O Lord, to your handmaid who has fallen asleep.
Alleluia. The Choir of Saints have found the well-spring of life and door of paradise.
Alleluia. Life: a shadow and a dream.
Alleluia. Weeping at the grave creates the song: Alleluia.
Alleluia. Come, enjoy the rewards and crowns I have prepared for you. Alleluia.

Song for Athene (8.573049)


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