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…

– Caliban, Act III scene ii, The Tempest

Shakespeare delighted in guiding our senses toward what he deemed to be important. Theater was considered primarily an aural medium; it was common to say that one would go hear a play. Shakespeare could make music out of words, but he also used plenty of actual music. 

This fall the nation’s capital will be the site of the Shakespeare Everywhere Festival. WETA Classical will participate in its own way during the first two full weeks of November with nightly selections of music inspired by the Bard.

The only composer whose association with Shakespeare can be confirmed is the lutenist Robert Johnson, who wrote the original settings of two songs in The Tempest. It’s also highly likely that he worked with Thomas Morley, the most successful composer of secular music in the Elizabethan era, who lived in the same parish as Shakespeare and to whom is attributed at least one setting of his texts. He was also doubtless familiar with the work and reputation of William Byrd and John Dowland. 

But Shakespeare’s association with great musicians did not end with his death in 1616. Just as he collaborated with great musicians during his lifetime, his work has inspired the greatest composers of the last four centuries to engage with his work in a wide variety of ways. 

This journey got off to a rough start in the 17th century. The performing tradition of Shakespeare's work was interrupted within a generation after his death due to political and cultural upheavals, and by the time of the Restoration tastes had changed so much that theater artists felt they could no longer produce Shakespeare's works in their original form, thus beginning a long tradition of adapting Shakespeare to fit the cultural moment of its performance. Purcell wrote what could be considered the first Shakespeare opera, The Fairy Queen, in 1692, a very loose adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream in which the music never actually crosses paths with either the text or plot elements from the original play, but it's such an engaging and tuneful score that it does seem to invoke Shakespeare's spirit. Purcell also wrote music for a similarly disjointed production of Timon of Athens.

The 18th century saw a profusion of Shakespeare operas, none of which have entered the standard repertory, but I did find a few intriguing ones. A German version of Romeo and Juliet from 1776 was the collaboration between two respected artists, the poet Friedrich Wilhelm Gotter and the Bohemian composer Georg Anton Benda, one of many adaptations that somehow gave the tragedy a happy ending. Gli equivoci (The Misunderstandings) is an adaptation of The Comedy of Errors with music by the English composer Stephen Storace and a libretto by none other than Lorenzo da Ponte, written in 1786, the same year he wrote Le nozze di Figaro with Mozart; the singer who played Susanna in that first production of Figaro, Nancy Storace, was the composer's sister. And then in 1799 Antonio Salieri wrote Falstaff, a highly respected and influential work based on The Merry Wives of Windsor that has been recorded several times and still gets the occasional revival.

And then there’s this exquisite miniature from 1795, Joseph Haydn's setting of a passage from Shakespeare's Twelfth Night that, remarkably, wasn't written as a song, but a few lines of dialogue the disguised Viola speaks to the countess Olivia

She never told her love,
But let concealment, like a worm in the bud,
Feed on her damask cheek...;
She sat, like Patience on a monument,
Smiling at grief.

It was in the 19th century that Shakespeare's place in the realm of classical music was firmly cemented. The two figures who loom largest are Hector Berlioz and Giuseppe Verdi.

Berlioz’s opera Béatrice et Bénédict is a delightful version of Much Ado about Nothing that dispenses with its melodramatic elements, finding enough narrative interest and emotional arcs in the combative lovers of its title. In this work as well as in the vocal sections of his dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette, he shows an extraordinary ability to make Shakespeare's characters sing in a way that feels fully true to the complexity and humanity they demonstrated in the original plays. But then he goes one step further, suggesting that perhaps the best way to translate Shakespeare into music is to dispense with words altogether, and he demonstrates how to do this in the purely instrumental sections of his symphony, tone-painting the scenes of Romeo attending the Capulet's ball and his balcony scene with Juliet with a specificity that feels cinematic. In doing so Berlioz cracked a kind of Shakespearean code, figuring out that what makes Shakespeare immortal isn't just the soaring language and ingenious plot structures but the emotions they invoke, which is also related to the time they take to unfold. Berlioz’s keen sense of the dramatic rhythm of Shakespeare is also on display in the final chorus of his cantata Tristia, a musical depiction of the funeral march at the end of Hamlet, a devastating movement that does full justice to that dramatic moment and makes you wish that more directors would take the time to show the cathartic carrying of the bodies offstage that Shakespeare required (how else are you going to clear the stage without curtains or lights?) instead of just going to blackout.


But while Berlioz focused on Shakespeare's gift for nuanced, lived-in emotional moments, Verdi is all too happy to bring on the melodrama. His three Shakespearean operas - Macbeth, Othello and Falstaff - could be accused of simplifying the motivations of their characters compared to their counterparts in the original plays, but he compensates for that by providing a musical and dramatic experience of primal force. Berlioz is less interested in telling a coherent story than he is in making you feel each moment, but for Verdi storytelling is paramount as he takes the audience on a thrilling ride towards the dénouement. Shakespeare's exploration of the ways Othello and Iago justify their actions is far more penetrating than Verdi's, but jealousy and bitterness are universal emotions, and seeing them play out to Verdi's powerful score is as frightening as witnessing the creepier, slow-burn transformations in the play.

(It should also be pointed out that two of Verdi's operas had important precedents: Rossini's Otello, which was quite popular before Verdi's version usurped it in the standard repertory, and Otto Nicolai's immensely popular light opera The Merry Wives of Windsor appeared halfway between the Falstaffs of Salieri and Verdi.)

It should be said that Berlioz was neither the first nor last to compose instrumental works inspired by Shakespeare. Beethoven insisted that the slow movement of his String Quartet in F major, op, 18 no. 1, was inspired by the tomb scene in Romeo and Juliet, and that his piano sonata in D minor, op. 31 no, 2, was inspired by The Tempest. Felix Mendelssohn helped inspire Berlioz with his overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, written when he was only 17, and which he later expanded into a full set of incidental music. In so doing he created a soundscape for fairies that is still a template you can hear film composers draw on when they want to evoke a magical world. Tchaikovsky wrote three overture-fantasies on Shakespeare plays, of which the one he wrote on Romeo and Juliet is so memorable that many people familiar with its love theme are surprised when they find out it's not from a ballet or opera. Dvorak wrote an overture on Othello, a darkly powerful piece that forms the "Love" panel in his triptych of overtures “Nature, Life and Love”, which also includes In Nature's Realm and Carnival; all three share a common musical motif. And Richard Strauss began his career as a composer of richly orchestrated tone poems with Macbeth in 1888.

But even in the 19th century a few composers still engaged directly with Shakespeare's words. Brahms wrote a set of folk-like tunes for Ophelia to sing during her mad scene that can be sung either a cappella or with piano accompaniment, and one of his four songs for women's chorus, two horns and harp (op. 17) is a setting of a German translation of "Come Away, Death" from Twelfth Night. The American composer Amy Beach wrote a charming set of three settings of Shakespeare texts. And Schubert wrote three songs derived from Shakespeare, all fairly lightweight, but Who Is Sylvia? stands out for its evocation of giddy young love consistent with its source, Two Gentlemen of Verona.

In the 20th century British composers finally gained the confidence to take on Shakespeare's plays in their original form. Edward Elgar's symphonic poem Falstaff, written in 1913, rivals Richard Strauss in its lavish orchestration, detailed tone painting, and length of over a half hour. Also engaging with the plus-size knight was Gustav Holst, whose 1924 one-act opera At the Boar's Head based its score on English country dance tunes, as well as Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose four-act opera Sir John in Love also draws on a variety of English tunes including Greensleeves, which is used as the basis of an aria in which it alternates with the folk tune Lovely Joan; an instrumental version of this aria was published as Fantasia on Greensleeves which became one the composer's most popular works. Another one of his big hits is Serenade to Music from 1938, a setting of a text from The Merchant of Venice

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears: soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.

It is generally acknowledged that the greatest Shakespeare opera that uses the playwright's own text wasn't written until 1960, but it was worth the wait: Benjamin Britten's adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream, which continues to be regarded as one of the composer's most delightful works.

Sibelius wrote a haunting set of incidental music for The Tempest in 1926, and soon that genre was joined by one Shakespeare couldn't have foreseen: film music. William Walton's score for Henry V and Dmitri Shostakovich's scores for Hamlet and King Lear are highlights in a rich and growing body of great Shakespearean film scores. 

Sergei Prokofiev's score for the ballet Romeo and Juliet, composed in 1935 and substantially revised in 1940, had a long and difficult gestation, not made easier by constant intervention from the Soviet authorities. Like many earlier adaptations, it originally depicted a happy ending for the lovers, but this might be the one time the apparatchiks had it right when they insisted Prokofiev restore Shakespeare's tragic ending. The result, in any case, is a justly celebrated score and perhaps the most successful transformation of a Shakespeare play into another medium

Of course, I have only begun to scratch the surface here. I have to give a shout-out to Emma Lou Diemer, still alive at 95, whose Three Madrigals on Shakespeare texts have been a staple of high school and college choirs for over half a century. As for the 21st century, if the critics are to be trusted, it's already produced two operatic masterpieces, The Tempest by Thomas Ades and Hamlet by the Australian composer Brett Dean. 

And then there's the new adaptations of Shakespeare into other realms. Perhaps the most famous example of this is Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story (if you missed Spielberg's 2021 remake I highly recommend it), and that tradition of being non-traditional continues in this festival with its own innovative productions. Shakespeare continues to engage and thrill; as Ben Jonson put it, "He was not of an age, but for all time."

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