Friday, October 28, 2016

Shakespearian Inspirations

No. 233 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series series series of audio montages can be found in our archives at


This week’s Blog and Podcast looks at music composed for – or inspired by – the works of William Shakespeare.

We have explored some of that repertoire several times over the years in these pages – Tchaikovsky’s orchestral fantasies, William Walton’s film music and, more recently, Prokofiev’s ballet music and a setting of some of Shakespeare’s dialog to music by Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Let’s begin this week’s survey with Hector Berlioz’s well-documented admiration for the Bard’s work. Theodore Child wrote a very detailed essay in the December 1881 edition of The Atlantic Monthly, from which I extract the following:

In the year 1827 a company of English actors, amongst whom were Charles Kemble, Abbot, Liston, Chippendale, and Henrietta Smithson, came to Paris, and gave a series of performances at the Odéon Theatre. Berlioz, a young man of twenty-four years of age, was then struggling against all kinds of privations. His parents were opposed to his studying music, while he himself had the conviction that music was his true vocation. […]One night he happened to be present at the Odéon at the first performance of Hamlet by the English company. The rôle of Ophelia was played by Miss Smithson, a charming Hibernian beauty, who turned many heads […] Berlioz did not escape the charm. In his Mémoires he says, “ The effect of her prodigious talent, or rather of her dramatic genius, on my imagination and on my heart can be compared only to the bewilderment into which I was thrown by the poet, whose worthy interpreter she was. I cannot say more. Shakespeare, falling thus unexpectedly upon me, dismayed and astounded me. His lightning, in opening to me the firmament of art with a sublime thunderclap, illuminated the most distant depths. I recognized true grandeur, true beauty, dramatic truth. At the same time I comprehended the immense absurdity of the ideas which Voltaire had circulated in France about Shakespeare, […] and the pitiable paltriness of our old pedagogic Poetics. I saw, … I understood, … I felt, … that I was really conscious of life, and that I must now rise up and walk.”
Berlioz’s obsession with Miss Smithson gave us his Symphonie Fantastique and the influence of Shakespeare is found also in its companion work, Lélio, with overt references to music he intended for, among other things, Shakespeare’s Tempest. Among other Shakespeare-inspired works in the Berlioz catalog we note his Symphony based on Romeo and Juliet, his opera Béatrice et Bénédict and the concert overture inspired by King Lear included in this week’s montage.

Berlioz wrote the French libretto to Béatrice et Bénédict himself, based closely on Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing. For good measure, I included a concert suite of the incidental music composed by a young Erich Wolfgang Korngold for that same play. The performance in the podcast is a vintage radio broadcast recording of the work conducted by the composer when he toured Europe after World War II.

In 1947, Orson Welles began promoting the notion of bringing a Shakespeare drama to the motion picture screen, settling on a film adaptation of Macbeth, which he visualized in its violent setting as "a perfect cross between Wuthering Heights and Bride of Frankenstein." Welles had previously staged the so-called Voodoo Macbeth in 1936 in New York City with an all-black cast, and again in 1947 in Salt Lake City as part of the Utah Centennial Festival. He borrowed aspects from both productions for his film adaptation. Welles shot Macbeth in 23 days, in order to produce the film within the modest budget he was allocated.

Some ten years after Welles’ famous collaboration with Bernard Herrmann on Citizen Kane, Jacques Ibert was asked to write the music for Macbeth. Ibert composed the score in 1948 in Rome where he was then living with his family, as director of the French Academy at the Villa Medici and as a naval attaché of the French embassy. Conductor Adriano writes of the score that it “is one of the most valuable and original ever written for the cinema”, and goes on to point out orchestral effects devised by the composer for certain scenes. Although an “official” suite from the score was never published, Ibert does make suggestions and identifies sections which could eventually be included (without further changes) in a suite, with their corresponding titles in a letter to Leeds Music dated 20 November 1950. It is that suite we feature in our podcast.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation commissioned Such Sweet Sorrow for the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra. Composer John Estacio writes that the piece was composed in a period of personal transition in his life: “This piece is a personal and melancholic requiem for the life I left behind. This commission gave me the opportunity to compose my own lyrical Adagio for Strings, a rare treat as most of my work has scored for full orchestra.” The title comes from the balcony scene (Act 2, Scene 2) from Romeo and Juliet:

Sweet, so would I,Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing.Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow,That I shall say good night till it be morrow.

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