Shakespearean Classical Music

I had the great pleasure and privilege of giving a public lecture on Shakespeare and Music earlier today, during which I referred to several pieces of Shakespearean classical music. Since the timeslot was limited–and the world of Shakespeare is immense–I didn’t get to discuss or play most of the music I’d mentioned. Fortunately, there’s plenty of space on my wee blog for both the Bard and Bardastic music, so here are a few Shakespearean pieces (complete with embedded YouTube videos) for your listening pleasure:

Thomas Arne’s Shakespearean Songs

Mr Arne’s settings of Shakespeare’s songs from the 1740s onwards played quite an important role in reviving interest in Shakespearean music. While these songs are from Shakespeare’s plays, they weren’t actually written by the Bard–in most cases, Shakespeare simply took the lyrics of pre-existing popular songs and plopped them into the plays. As I continue to advocate: Shakespeare was the greatest playwright-poet-plagiarist of all time!

Thomas Arne’s songs were edited and collected by musician extraordinaire Percy Young in 1963, and published under the title Nine Shakespeare Songs. These are:

  1. ‘Under the Greenwood Tree’ (from As You Like It)
  2. ‘Blow, Blow, Thou Winter Wind’ (from As You Like It)
  3. ‘The Cuckoo Song’ (‘When Daisies Pied’) (from Love’s Labour’s Lost)
  4. ‘The Owl’ (‘When Icicles Hang’) (from Love’s Labour’s Lost)
  5. ‘Come Away Death’ (from Twelfth Night)
  6. ‘Tell me where is fancy bred?’ (from The Merchant of Venice)
  7. ‘Come Unto these Yellow Sands’ (from The Tempest)
  8. ‘Ariel’s Song’ (‘Where the Bee Sucks’ (from The Tempest)
  9. Dirge in Cymbeline

Here are some of my favourites:

‘Ariel’s Song’/’Where the Bee Sucks’

‘The Cuckoo Song’/’When Daisies Pied’

(Incidentally, this was the first song I learned a few years ago in the classical voice lessons sponsored by St. Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast.)

‘Come Away Death’


Giuseppe Verdi’s Operas

According to Phyllis Hartnoll et al. in her book Shakespeare in Music, Shakespeare’s plays have been the subject of over 195 operas–and since the study in question was published in 1964, the number’s surely gone above 200 by now! Verdi has written three of these: Macbetto (1847), Otello (1887), and Falstaff (1888). Garry Wills has written a fantastic book about these, aptly entitled Verdi’s Shakespeare: Men of the Theatre, which I highly recommend for anyone interested in Shakespeare/Verdi/theatre/opera/lovely things.

For now, here are the ‘Willow Song’ and ‘Ave Maria’ arias sung by Desdemona (Maria Callas) in Otello:


Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphonic/Tone Poems

Disclaimer: I love love love Tchaikovsky. He is my dead gay best friend, and I’ve celebrated his birth and death days since I was 13. And since I also love Shakespeare, the combination of Shakespeare and Tchaikovsky is–quite literally–glorious music to my ears.

Although Tchaikovsky was fluent in 5 languages, English wasn’t one of them, so he never got a chance to read Shakespeare in the ‘original’. This linguistic barrier may have been one reason Tchaikovsky never wrote a Shakespearean opera (although he’d penned fragments of a Romeo and Juliet duet), since my Pyotr was very sensitive to lyrics and music alike. He did, however, write three ‘overture fantasias’, which are essentially symphonic poems: Romeo and Juliet (1870), The Tempest (1873), and Hamlet (1888). My not-so-subtle Tchaikovsky fangirlism means I’ll be linking all three:

Romeo and Juliet

The Tempest

Hamlet


Ludwig van Beethoven (kind of)

My talk today ended with a performance by some musicians from the wonderful Ulster Orchestra, who played the Adagio (second movement) of Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 1. According to written correspondence by his friend Karl Amenda, Beethoven was inspired by the ‘tomb scene’ of Romeo and Juliet–hear it for yourself:


While this is by no means a comprehensive selection, I hope you’ve enjoyed these few Shakespearean musical offerings. If you’d like to know more about any aspect of Shakespeare and music, or about Shakespeare in general, please do leave a comment or drop me a line, and I’ll be happy to put together a post (or twenty). And if you’re a newcomer to my blog, please do check out the 2016 Bardathon Challenge I’m hosting, and perhaps join in on the Shakespearing. Until next time!

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