Shakespeare in the Concert Hall

This year’s Shakespeare 400 anniversary has generated numerous performances that bear witness to the considerable impact that the Bard of Avon has had upon the world of music. A whole cast of pieces – both well and lesser-known – have taken to the stage in intriguing combinations that both share a unifying theme, and represent an extraordinary diversity of composers, styles, and nationalities. Aside from the many operas based around Shakespeare’s plays (a whole topic in itself) it seems that Shakespeare as heard in the concert hall has inspired works in several different categories: works that set a text by Shakespeare; music written to be performed alongside Shakespeare (in the theatre or on screen); and orchestral works that take their thematic or structural inspiration from Shakespeare’s work. Each reveals to us a little of how composers respond to the work of a fellow artist and, in their multifarious approaches, give a glimpse of the extraordinarily internationalism of Shakespeare.

Those pieces that use a text offer us a view into how a composer reads and understands Shakespeare’s words. I’ve often been struck by the idea that in setting a text by Shakespeare composers are inhabiting the role of an actor, presenting words that may be well-known to the audience with a uniqueness that their voice and inflection gives them. Even before this stage, though, the choice of text itself can be indicative of the composer’s pre-existing relationship with Shakespeare, or reflective of something in their temperament in the way that certain texts inspire a creative response. Moreover, as much as a composer may be interacting with an artistic heritage vis-à-vis Shakespeare in terms of the text that they set, those texts that have received the attention of multiple composers can end up placing works within a three dimensional dialogue about the text and its meaning as interprested by other composers. And as any good actor draws us into Shakespeare’s words, subtly indicating the ambiguities or paradoxes held within, so is this ability amplified by music’s ability to present a polyphonic response to the text.

If setting Shakespeare’s words might be considered akin to the actor’s role, then composing music to be performed alongside Shakespeare in the theatre or on screen seems to me analogous to the work of a set designer. Here Shakespeare's words become fascinatingly intermingled with the vision of the play that a composer can create for it in sound, therein holding the potential to shape how an audience receives this work. There is something touchingly ephemeral about many of these examples of incidental music – particularly those featuring full orchestra – that are seldom if ever heard live in their original form after the production for which they were composed. At its best, though, this music evokes such a strong sense of setting that – even in arrangements for concert performance – one is transported to that original vision of the production. I think here of works like Sibelius’ music for The Tempest or Shostakovich’s riotous incidental music for Hamlet, which particularly captures the ways in which Shakespeare’s applicability to contemporary setting can be so tellingly conveyed in the ambiguity of musical gesture.

Those pieces that are a more abstract response to Shakespeare provoke interesting questions. Take a well-known piece like Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream overture or Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet and it seems impossible to disentangle them from the kind of background cultural knowledge we have of the plays that they are based upon. This in turn supports the opinion that they are vivid evocations of Shakespeare's drama. Yet these two particular works only loosely follow the plot of the plays, and contain very few examples of the musical embodying of specific characters by their association with certain instruments. This gave me pause to question, if we didn’t know the plot of either play would we come up with particularly different images of what Mendelssohn or Tchaikovsky are trying to evoke in these works? Or is the draw of Mendelssohn’s image of the mystical and magical, or Tchaikovsky’s scene of overwhelming passion undeniable?

These musical homages to Shakespeare seem, to me, to suggest how his output encompasses the whole gamut of human experience in such a way that it has become a cultural shorthand for these experiences. For example, why go to the length of saying “it’s a story about the passion of two young people overcoming the bitter political and cultural divide between their two families” when you can say “it’s a Romeo and Juliet story” and your meaning be perfectly clear. What is perhaps most extraordinary about Shakespeare is how a knowledge of his plays, and thus the kind of cultural shorthand they have become, has travelled so extensively outside of the anglophone world. This must surely be because of the commonality of human experience across differing cultures and settings; how thoughts and feelings can translate on a more instinctive emotional level across the divide that words create. Which, to me, sounds like a powerful description of music: of the qualities that give it the same kind of internationalism that Shakespeare possesses. Little wonder then that we so often find Shakespeare at the Symphony.