Shakespeare in Music

One of the extra-musical events that are being roundly celebrated on concert platforms around the world is the 400th anniversary of the death of one William Shakespeare, perhaps the world’s best-known author, or – at least – playwright.

In London, at the Barbican Centre, next week Sir Andrew Davis conducts his BBC Symphony and Chorus forces in the dramatic symphony Roméo et Juliette, a great score even if it plays fast and loose with Shakespeare’s original play. The London Symphony Orchestra also celebrates with Gianandrea Noseda in concerts at the Barbican, while over the river at the Royal Festival Hall the London Philharmonic teams its regular conductors – Jurowski, Nézet-Séguin, Orozco-Estrada and Vänskä – in music inspired by some ten of the Bard’s canon. Melbourne Symphony (again with Sir Andrew Davis to the front) also celebrates, as an example as to how far Shakespeare’s reach actually goes.

But there are 38 plays that are now regarded as being by Shakespeare (some with other hands, and with a handful more regarded as an Apocrypha). I’ve often wondered how big a festival you could have including as many works as possible connected to Shakespeare. I haven’t yet found a performance this year of Smetana’s Richard III (Smetana obviously liked historical military figures – he also wrote an overture entitled Wallenstein’s Camp, but that’s from a different playwright altogether, Schiller, though one similarly well-represented in musical works). Just talking about the histories – aside from Henry V and Walton’s wonderful score for Olivier’s classic film – what other works spring to mind? Well – although I’ve never heard his music live – we should be thankful for Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco who composed 11 Shakespearean overtures, including one for King John, which I’m guessing is one of the rarest of the Bard’s canon to make it into music. Coriolanus is also another rarity ticked off by Castelnuovo-Tedesco, who also composed operas based on two Shakespeare plays: The Merchant of Venice (as did Andrei Tchaikovsky) and All’s Well that Ends Well. But as to other histories…

One character, though not a king but who appears in two of the plays – Henry IV Parts One and Two – has inspired much music: Sir John Falstaff. Even if most of these works take a leaf out of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, there are two British composers that take their lead from the history plays that Falstaff appears in. First is Gustav Holst’s At the Boar’s Head, which features Prince Hal and Falstaff’s shenanigans. I’ve only heard it once live (though thankfully EMI recorded it, with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by David Atherton and with John Tomlinson as the Knight), and would like to think this would be the year to hear it again. It would make a perfect pairing in a putative ‘Falstaff Fest’ with Elgar’s purely orchestral Falstaff that also uses the history plays rather than the comedy.

And on the operatic stage I’d love to see Verdi’s last opera Falstaff alongside such lesser- known works as Salieri’s Falstaff, both Dittersdorff’s and Nicolai’s Die lustigen Weiber von Windsor and Vaughan Williams’ Sir John in Love. And perhaps one way to catch up with any missing kings (currently, by my count, Richard II, Henrys IV, VI and VIII as well as Edward IV) is getting to either Melbourne on 24, 25 & 27 June or Adelaide on 9 & 10 September for the première performances of Australian composer James Ledger’s new work, Shakespeare’s Kings. Well, that’s what the orchestras’ brochures call it – Ledger’s own website titles it Kings and Fools – so it just might be about King Lear.

I’m sure I’ll return to Shakespeare in music so until then…

More anon.

© Nick Breckenfield, 2016

Nick Breckenfield has worked in and around the classical music industry over the last 25 years - at venues, agencies and as a programme note writer and marketeer. He was Classical Music editor for Whatsonwhen for 13 years, and current clients include the Borletti-Buitoni Trust.
Author: Nick Breckenfield
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