Classical music inspired by Shakespeare
William Shakespeare inspired some of the greatest musical scores ever written. We explore the operas, ballets, overtures, incidental music, tone poems, choral works and songs born out of his writing.
It is thanks to Shakespeare that we have one of the most famous ever quotes about music. As Twelfth Night opens, Duke Orsino speaks the words that are familiar to millions of us: ‘If music be the food of love, play on’.
Shakespeare’s plays are awash with music. His characters make reference to music; singers and dancers regularly accompany the action on stage; and the Bard’s words themselves flow melodiously.
Unsurprisingly, then, composers for centuries have in turn been inspired by Shakespeare’s plays. Tragedies, comedies and histories have alike found themselves entering the repertoire, represented in all manner of ways: from Purcell, writing in the same century that Shakespeare died, to Thomas Adès in the present day; from Nordic types such as Sibelius and Stenhammar to those masters of Italian opera, Rossini and Verdi; from the briefest overtures to grand operas.
Over the following nine pages, we mark 400 years since Shakespeare’s death by taking a look at the plays that, above all, have inspired masterpieces and not-so-masterpieces. Operas, ballets, overtures, incidental music, tone poems, choral works and songs are all there (though, with apologies to Walton fans in particular, we have largely left out Shakespearean film scores – that’s a subject for another occasion.)
Keen Shakespeareans will, of course, know that Duke Orsino’s quote continues ‘Give me excess of it that, surfeiting, The appetite may sicken, and so die.’ But surely, when it comes to Bard-inspired music, there can be no such thing as an ‘excess’. And so, play on…
Romeo and Juliet
When Romeo and Juliet meet, they fall instantly in love. The catch is that their families, the Montagues and the Capulets, are sworn enemies, so they marry in secret with the help of Friar Laurence. Matters are complicated further when Romeo kills Tybalt, Juliet’s cousin, in revenge for the murder of his friend Mercutio, and is exiled from Verona. Friar Laurence prepares a sleeping potion to put Juliet in a death-like coma so that Romeo can return and the pair can escape. But the message never reaches him and, believing Juliet to be truly dead, he kills himself. Juliet wakes to find him dead and so kills herself too.
This tragic love story has inspired some truly great music, along with its share of less successful pieces. One of the earliest settings is a singspiel by the Czech composer Georg Benda, whose 1776 Romeo und Julie, loosely based on the play, was one of his most popular pieces. In keeping with operatic tradition at the time, his version ends happily, and he isn’t the only composer to experiment with the plot.
When Prokofiev decided to write music for a Romeo and Juliet ballet in 1936, he also thought it would be better if the lovers didn’t die. Stalin, however, had other thoughts and Prokofiev had to stick to Shakespeare’s ending. This bold, colourful score, which you can also hear in three concert suites, offers some of his best music, from the menacing ‘Dance of the Knights’ to the rapturous love music for Romeo and Juliet. Constant Lambert also wrote a Romeo and Juliet-inspired ballet, in 1926, with a double-layered scenario setting Shakespeare’s play within a dance rehearsal. Premiered by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the score is lively and bright, in the mould of Satie, Poulenc and Milhaud.
In the opera house, Gounod’s 1867 Romeo et Juliette is perhaps the most enduring work, with Juliette’s sparkling waltz song ‘Je veux vivre’ as its highlight. The 19th-century craze for Shakespeare also saw Bellini and Nicola Vaccai take on the tale. Vaccai’s 1825 Giulietta e Romeo is now all but forgotten, but Bellini’s 1830 bel canto opera I Capuleti e i Montecchi is still a hit today, even if its plot might be more Romeo and Juliet fan fiction than faithful setting.
Later operas exploring the star-cross’d lovers include those by Harry Rowe Shelley (1901), Delius (loosely, in his 1901 Village Romeo and Juliet), John Edmund Barkworth (1916, who attempted to set Shakespeare word for word), Heinrich Sutermeister (1940) and Gian Francesco Malipiero (1950). But perhaps the most famous Romeo and Juliet-inspired score of the 20th century is West Side Story, the musical that features some of Leonard Bernstein’s most brilliant music.
Balakirev inspired Tchaikovsky to write a Fantasy-Overture on Romeo and Juliet, modelled after the older composer’s own King Lear Overture, but the taut drama and passionate outpourings of the final piece are all Tchaikovsky’s own. A Shakespeare fanatic, Berlioz went one step further and wrote a whole Romeo et Juliette choral symphony, inspired by the play’s ‘raging vendettas, the desperate kisses, the frantic strife of life and death’. The Romeo and Juliet operas by Daniel Steibelt (1793) and Bellini also inspired him, along with Beethoven’s Choral Symphony, resulting in one of his most original works. Stenhammar, Kabalevsky and Svendsen also wrote orchestral music based on Romeo and Juliet, all of which is worth exploring.
Hamlet learns his father was murdered when his ghost appears in Elsinore castle. Swearing revenge on his uncle Claudius, the murderer, Hamlet presents a play to the court in which the play-King is murdered. Claudius runs guiltily from the room and Hamlet later tries to kill him, but instead stabs Polonius, father of Ophelia, with whom Hamlet is in love.
More like this
Ophelia goes mad with grief and drowns. As Ophelia’s family plots to kill Hamlet, the body count rises – a poisoned swordfight results in the deaths of Laertes, Claudius and Hamlet himself, and Gertrude drinks poison intended for him. As the King of Norway arrives at Elsinore, the whole Danish royal family lies dead.
Shakespeare’s longest play provoked ‘Ophelia mania’ across Europe after an astonishing performance in Paris in 1827 that starred Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson as Ophelia, and inspired a wealth of music. Berlioz’s infatuation with Smithson most famously led to his lovesick, opium-fuelled Symphonie fantastique, but her performance also inspired Tristia: three songs for choir and orchestra depicting the deaths of Ophelia and Hamlet.
In fact, Ophelia’s plight is the focus of many musical settings. In the play her madness is highlighted by ever-stranger on-stage singing, a gift to composers. Some, such as Brahms’s unaccompanied Ophelia Lieder, even use Shakespeare’s original song texts, although Shostakovich’s Song of Ophelia, which sets a poem by Alexandr Blok, is equally haunting.
Shakespeare’s ultimate tragic hero does have musical homages of his own, meanwhile. Liszt’s eponymous symphonic poem is a whirlwind examination of character through Hamlet’s turbulent emotions – here, there is just a hint of Ophelia, though she has little chance to calm the impetuous Prince.
When Tchaikovsky was asked to compose incidental music for a stage production in 1888 he was hesitant. ‘Is it really possible to express in music the profundity of the tragedy and the very persona of the Prince of Denmark?’ he wrote to his brother Modest. His first attempt became an Overture-Fantasia, which was premiered to great success alongside his Fifth Symphony. However, in another attempt he simply borrowed music from previous compositions, leading to an unlikely combination of Hamlet and The Snow Queen.
Shostakovich also wrote incidental music, for a satirical 1930s production that was quickly shut down after scandalising Stalinists. His brash score is all that remains of this strange version of Hamlet, in which the characters are played as drunk, rather than mad. Prokofiev wrote incidental music for Hamlet just a year after his hugely successful Romeo and Juliet. Keen to attempt another Shakespearian tragedy, he had hopes to transform his music into an opera, but nothing came of it. In fact, only one notable operatic version of Hamlet exists, penned in 1868 by French composer Ambroise Thomas.
Based on a translation by Alexandre Dumas, who believed Shakespeare’s original ending was ‘most unpleasant’, Hamlet is miraculously restored from his deathbed by the ghost and leads his people into a hopeful future. Thomas wrote an ‘alternative’ final scene with a dead Hamlet for the Covent Garden premiere, as he was advised that the English wouldn’t stand for such a violation of Shakespeare’s original masterpiece.
Shakespeare’s shortest tragedy is also one of his goriest. When the Three Witches foretell that he will become King of Scotland, Macbeth becomes consumed with ambition to make that happen as soon as possible, goaded on by the odious Lady Macbeth. The reigning king, Duncan, is the first to be dispatched by him, beginning a trail of slaughter that, driven by his increasing paranoia over the ambiguity of the witches’ prophesies, goes on to include his friend Banquo and the family of Macduff, Thane of Fife. Macduff himself, however, is still at large and, accompanied by Duncan’s son Malcolm, wreaks bloody revenge.
Verdi had unbounded admiration for Shakespeare, whom he described as ‘above all dramatists, the Greeks not excepted’. Macbeth, which he told his librettist Francesco Maria Piave was ‘one of mankind’s grandest creations’, was the first of the playwright’s works to inspire an opera from him – the plot’s rich concoction of ruthless ambition, witchcraft, ghosts and deranged somnambulism gave opportunity aplenty to unleash his creativity, while handy political parallels could be drawn between the oppressed existence of the Scots under Macbeth’s rule and that of Verdi’s own Italian homeland.
Though Shakespeare’s trio of witches is replaced by a three-part chorus in the opera, Verdi was otherwise adamant that the all the elements of the play, as well as its unremittingly dark atmosphere, should be retained. For sheer sense of unease, few moments compare to the disturbed Lady Macbeth’s sleep-walking scene, followed by her aria ‘Una macchia è qui tuttora’.
Another Macbeth worth investigating is the 1904 opera by the Swiss-American composer Ernest Bloch, whose eerie but bewitchingly atmospheric score will have you wondering why it is performed so rarely today. Beyond that, it’s over to the concert hall for orchestral works by the likes of Richard Strauss, Spohr and Sullivan.
Strauss’s Macbeth, his first ever tone poem, does not display the rich imagination of his later symphonic works but is nonetheless suitably edgy and dramatic, while Spohr’s overture to an 1825 production of the play creeps menacingly into life. Sullivan’s 1888 overture, in contrast, packs all the menace of a prance through a daisy-filled meadow… but is lovely on its own terms.
Macbeth has also inspired orchestral music by Rubbra, Bantock and Khachaturian, though recordings of all three are near-impossible to find. You will, however, have little trouble getting hold of a disc of Smetana’s enchanting Macbeth and the Three Witches for solo piano, an 1859 work that, full of skittish chromatic runs, has more than a touch of his teacher, Liszt, about it.
When Othello, a Moorish knight in the Venetian army, promotes the young Cassio above his standard-bearer Iago, little does he know the demons he is about to unleash. Iago, arguably the most hate-ridden and duplicitous character in all of Shakespeare, hatches a series of plots to have Cassio implicated in an affair with Desdemona, Othello’s wife. He succeeds, but his ‘little web’ of deceit has fatal implications for the innocent Desdemona, who is murdered by the enraged Othello, only for Othello to then realise he has been duped. As justice awaits, the title character kills himself.
It was nearly 35 years after the premiere of his Macbeth that Verdi decided to return to Shakespeare. Setting a libretto by Arrigo Boito, Otello is one of his most masterful creations – dramatic, fast-paced and intensely moving. While some operatic adaptations of Shakespeare take the original play as a rough guide and then elaborate wildly from there, Boito chose to stick very tightly to the Bard – the opera’s action begins in Cyprus rather than Shakespeare’s Venice, but other than that, the plot and protagonists are all very recognisable.
Much of the brilliance of Verdi’s score lies in the way that he depicts the characters of the main protagonists: the tenor title role is big boned and powerful; Desdemona is a radiantly lyrical soprano; and the baritone part of Iago is sinuous, cagily sinister and disturbingly understated. Interestingly, Boito and Verdi initially intended to call the opera Iago – a fair reflection of his insidious ever-presence.
Unlike Verdi, when Rossini wrote his own Otello in 1816, he felt no need to stick closely to the script. Transferring the entire action to Venice, he lessens the role of Iago, bigs up the part played by the dissolute Roderigo and only really plays Shakespearean ball in the opera’s third and final act.
Crowned by Desdemona’s exquisitely mournful ‘Assisa a’ piè d’un salice’ aria (the ‘Willow Song’), that third act in particular shows Rossini at his most inventive and original. For non-operatic takes on Shakespeare’s Moor, meanwhile, try Dvorák’s Othello, a stormy orchestral overture from 1892 or, from the Soviet era, Khachaturian’s Othello suite, put together from his score for Sergei Yutkevich’s 1955 film.
The Merry Wives of Windsor
Middle-aged, overweight and skint, Sir John Falstaff nonetheless fancies his chances of seducing Mistress Ford and Mistress Page, both of whom happen to be married. Falstaff’s already remote chances are lowered even further when his targets become aware of his intentions and team up to make a fool of him.
As he tries to get his wicked way, Sir John finds himself tricked into being tipped into a river in a basket of dirty laundry and then, at his second attempt, into dressing up as Mistress Ford’s dumpy aunt. Final humiliation comes when he is lured into Windsor Forest, only to be assaulted by children dressed as fairies. Thankfully, he eventually sees the funny side, and all ends happily.
Falstaff’s various antics in The Merry Wives of Windsor have proved quite a draw to composers, not least Verdi, who made him the eponymous hero of his final opera in 1893. Once again he turned to Boito for the libretto, and the collaboration resulted in a work of fast-paced action, charming characterisation and brilliant comic timing – even if it did leave its first audiences a little befuddled.
As with his previous takes on Shakespeare, Verdi remained largely faithful to the Bard’s plot but, feeling that the central character needed a little more depth than just buffoonery, he and Boito also drew on elements from the other two plays in which Falstaff appears: Henry IV Parts I and II.
Thirty years after the premiere of Verdi’s Falstaff, Vaughan Williams set to work on Sir John in Love, his own take on The Merry Wives, and poured into the project all the enthusiasm he had amassed during his spell as the music director at Stratford-upon-Avon.
It was in that role that he had first composed an adaptation of ‘Greensleeves’ for productions of The Merry Wives and Richard II, and the folk tune makes an appearance in Sir John in Love too, when it is sung by Mistress Ford. Importantly, Vaughan Williams chose to begin and end his opera with the real love interest in The Merry Wives – that between Fenton and Anne – and gives Falstaff a less boorish, and more melodious, character than Verdi does.
Other opera composers to have found themselves Merry Wives-inspired include Salieri, who dispensed the Fenton-and-Anne subplot entirely for his nimble Falstaff of 1799, concentrating his efforts instead on the eponymous hero. For a Falstaff from the heart of the bel canto era, meanwhile, try the little-known opera by the Irish composer Michael Balfe, penned in 1838.
Henry IV, Part I and II
Over the course of two plays, King Henry IV of England is at civil war against forces led by the powerful Percy family – a conflict that reaches a head at the Battle of Shrewsbury at the climax of Henry IV, Part I, resulting in victory for the king. Set against this, we also learn of Henry’s frustration at his son Harry – the future Henry V – who spends much of his time sharing the company and joining in the various antics of the witty and charismatic, but thoroughly dissolute, Sir John Falstaff. In Part II, Harry vows to change his ways which, when his father dies and he himself ascends the throne, sees him cruelly rejecting his former friend.
While Verdi’s Falstaff was based on the fat knight’s adventures in The Merry Wives of Windsor with little bits of Henry IV thrown in, Elgar’s Falstaff, a 30-minute ‘character study’ for symphony orchestra, takes its inspiration entirely from the latter. Accordingly, while there is bumbling and buffoonery to enjoy, Elgar’s 1913 work also reflects on Falstaff’s more reflective, and even forlorn, side – vividly portrayed high jinks with Harry and a rowdy drinking session in the Boar’s Head contrast with Falstaff’s wistful reminiscences of his younger days and, at the end, the dejection of going to greet his friend as the new king, only to find himself spurned.
Unlike Elgar’s work, which follows Falstaff in his adventures up and down the country, Holst’s 1924 one-act opera At The Boar’s Head stays firmly in the pub. Various regulars head in and out of the inn over the course of the opera, indulging in banter and describing what’s happening in the civil war-torn world outside.
Said regulars include Falstaff and Prince Hal, whose competitive duet – in which Hal sings Shakepseare’s sonnet ‘Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws’ against Falstaff’s earthier rendition of the ‘When Arthur first in Court began’ ballad – is one of the highlights. Like most things that take place in pubs, it’s good fun.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
There are several plotlines to follow here: Hermia and Lysander are in love but Hermia’s father wants her to marry Demetrius, whom Helena loves. Meanwhile, Peter Quince and the so-called ‘mechanicals’ have been tasked with staging the play Pyramus and Thisbe. And at the same time, Oberon, the king of the fairies, and his queen, Titania, are having a tiff, so he convinces Puck to concoct a potion that will make her fall in love with the first thing she sees. But there’s a mix-up and both Lysander and Demetrius become besotted with Helena. Confusion aplenty ensues but it all ends in smiles, with weddings and a performance of the play-within-the-play.
When it comes to Shakespeare’s supreme comedy of magic and mischief, two composers loom large: Mendelssohn and Britten. In 1826, Mendelssohn was only 17 when he composed his sparkling Overture, described by George Grove as ‘the greatest marvel of early maturity that the world has ever seen in music’. Four wind chords transport the listener to the forest, before scurrying strings conjure up the fairies with the deft, light music that Mendelssohn made his speciality.
The rest of the incidental music was written years later, in 1842, thanks to a commission by Frederick William IV of Prussia. There are 14 movements, with voices and orchestra; the Wedding March has become perhaps the most famous bit of music by Mendelssohn, while the instrumental Scherzo, Intermezzo and Notturno movements are often heard in concert as standalone pieces. But there’s a dark twist to this piece’s history: the Nazis banned Mendelssohn’s music because he was Jewish. As a result, Carl Orff wrote his own incidental music to Ein Sommernachtstraum to replace Mendelssohn’s, revising it in a final version in 1966.
Six years earlier, in 1960, Britten wrote (pretty quickly) his masterly three-act opera for the opening of Aldeburgh’s refurbished Jubilee Hall. The libretto, by Britten and Peter Pears, preserves Shakespeare’s original words and keeps almost all of the characters. Each of the three groups and stories has its own distinctive soundworld: otherworldly, unsettling harps, percussion and keyboards for the Fairies; lusher strings and winds for the Royalty; comic brass and lower woodwind for the Mechanicals. Oberon’s aria ‘I know a bank where the wild thyme blows’ gives a taste of the opera’s darker undercurrents as well as a hint of the power that sleep, dreams and spells have in this opera.
Before Britten, there was Purcell. The English composer wrote his enchanting The Fairy Queen in 1692, a ‘semi-opera’ with instrumental masques to be played between each act of an adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. Other notable Midsummer Night’s Dream-inspired music includes Weber’s opera Oberon (1826), Henze’s Eighth Symphony (1992) and Hans Gefor’s Der Park (1922).
A ship crashes onto a remote island, where Prospero, his daughter Miranda, the magical spirit Ariel and the strange monster Caliban have lived together for 12 years. On the ship are a variety of characters, including Prospero’s brother, Antonio, who stole the Dukedom of Milan from him, and the young Ferdinand, son of Alonso, who everyone believes has drowned.
Ferdinand has, in fact, washed up on another part of the island, where he meets Miranda, falls in love and eventually marries her. Prospero reveals he caused the ship to be wrecked, and the remainder of the play charts his revenge and regaining of his title as Duke of Milan. Finally, the ship is magically repaired and Caliban left as the island’s sole inhabitant.
No shortage of musical settings here, although the only opera of note with the title The Tempest is Thomas Adès’s 2004 dramatic masterpiece, whose libretto condenses Shakespeare’s play into modern English and rhyming couplets. Perhaps the best known setting is Sibelius’s incidental music to a Danish-language theatrical production, with 35 snatches of music ranging from the eerie opening to the charming Dance of the Nymphs and exquisite music for Miranda.
Written in 1925, The Tempest was Sibelius’s penultimate work, and it was an eternal source of regret to him that he never had the chance to develop some of the ideas explored in many of the briefest of passages. Tchaikovsky also had a stab, writing his Tempest Fantasy Overture in just a fortnight during the summer of 1873. ‘In those two weeks,’ he remembered, ‘I wrote the draft of The Tempest without any effort, as though moved by some supernatural force.’ Like his treatment of Hamlet, the piece only touches on crucial events, here being the initial storm and shipwreck, the monstrous Caliban and the love between Ferdinand and Miranda.
There are other settings. Arthur Sullivan’s 1861 incidental music – his first major work – pays homage to Schumann and Mendelssohn, but falls short of their quality. Berlioz fares rather better with the dramatic ‘Fantasy on Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”’, which is the final movement of his Lélio suite for narrator, soloists, choir and orchestra – this, incidentally, is the first time a piano had been used as an orchestral instrument.
Add to these Purcell’s setting (since thought to have written by John Weldon in 1712), Malcolm Arnold’s Three Songs From The Tempest for unison voices and piano, William Alwyn’s 1952 symphonic prelude The Magic Island and Arthur Bliss’s 1921 The Tempest for voice and ensemble. Vaughan Williams’s surprisingly modern-sounding 1951 Three Shakespeare Songs for unaccompanied choir are terrifically atmospheric, and include Ariel’s song ‘Full Fathom Five’ and ‘The Cloud-capp’d Towers’ from the final act.
Much ado about nothing
Don Pedro pays a visit to Leonato with his officers, including Claudio – who becomes engaged to Leonato’s daughter Hero – and Benedick, who enjoys winding up Hero’s cousin Beatrice (in fact, they are secretly in love). Alas, the evil Don John plots to cause havoc by fooling Claudio into believing that his beloved is unfaithful.
At their wedding, Claudio denounces Hero, the shock of which appears to kill her. Don John’s deception soon becomes known and, to atone for his accusations, the grieving Claudio is persuaded to marry Hero’s cousin… who, hurrah, turns out to be Hero herself. They wed, as do Benedick and Beatrice.
Not really an opera as such, Berlioz’s last large-scale work, his 1862 ‘divertissement’ Béatrice et Bénédict, is a simplified setting of Much Ado, a series of tableaux connected by spoken dialogue. In terms of narrative flow, it’s not the most rewarding but Berlioz’s music is brilliant. The sunny, Italianate overture is one of the French composer’s more imaginative and subtle inventions and some of his arias are heart-melting, including the extraordinary end to Act I, a gorgeous duet between Héro and Ursule.
Written 60 years later, Korngold’s extensive and lush incidental music, written for a 1920 Viennese production of Much Ado, was an instant hit. It’s full of great tunes, although Korngold’s attempt to conjure up 16th-century Sicily is a touch clumsy. Those after a more regal approach to proceedings might like to try Edward German’s incidental music to an 1898 Herbert Beerbohm Tree production – it’s full of totally un-Sicilian pomp, as if Shakespeare set the whole play in the Cotswolds, but it’s deliciously irresistible. In a very similar mould, give the soupy Overture to Much Ado about Nothing by Alfred Reynolds (1884-1969) a spin.
King Lear decides to divide his realm between his three daughters depending on how much they love him. Goneril and Regan flatter Lear, but Cordelia’s plain speech angers him. He disinherits Cordelia, and splits his kingdom between the other two. They mistreat Lear and drive him mad. Edmund reveals that Cordelia is invading with the French army.
Regan and Goneril defeat the French and order the execution of Lear and Cordelia. Goneril poisons Regan so she cannot marry Edmund, who they both desire. When Edmund is killed, Goneril commits suicide. Lear escapes execution, but Cordelia does not. Overwhelmed by madness and grief, he dies.
Even Verdi was daunted at the prospect of adapting Lear for the stage: ‘Lear is so tremendous, so intricate, that it would seem impossible to make an opera of it.’ He struggled with a libretto for 40 years with no success. Three more recent operatic attempts have made it to the stage. German composer Aribert Reimann produced an intense, uncomfortable, and often all-out ugly Lear at the suggestion of baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen’s Kuningas Lear is a comparatively easy, if less striking, listen, with music more influenced by Musorgsky than Berg. The most effective, and remarkably hummable, of the three Lear operas is surely by Brit Alexander Goehr, who was at a self-described ‘Lear-like’ stage of life when he dreamt up his opera Promised End. His take focuses on the relationship between Lear and Gloucester, the ‘old men who get it wrong when they have power and influence’.
Another major source of Lear works is incidental music. Debussy had the same bug as Verdi, and only finished two movements of his 1904 Le roi Lear: the Fanfare-Overture and the mysterious ‘Le sommeil de Lear’ (Lear’s dream). Balakirev wrote his somewhat bombastic and nationalistic incidental music at the age of just 22, including an overture that is often performed separately. Shostakovich’s incidental music was written in the run up to Germany’s invasion of Russia – leading to many parallels being drawn between Russia, and Lear’s inwardly collapsing kingdom.
The Merchant of Venice
Needing funds to court Portia, Bassanio is persuaded by his friend Antonio to get a loan from Shylock, a Jewish money lender, with Antonio himself as guarantor. Shylock agrees, but only on the condition that he is entitled to a ‘pound of flesh’ from Antonio if Bassanio defaults on the payments. To cut a long, and complex, story short, Bassanio succeeds in winning the hand of Portia but, when it is reported that Antonio’s ships have been lost at sea and he cannot fulfill his obligation to Shylock, the latter demands his side of the bargain. When a hearing is called in front of the duke, Portia herself saves the day by disguising herself as a legal expert and turning the tables on Shylock – found guilty of conspiring against a Venetian citizen, he is ordered to hand over his property.
In Act V of The Merchant of Venice, Lorenzo, a friend of Antonio and Bassanio, declares his love to Jessica, Shylock’s daughter, under the moonlight. ‘How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!’ he begins. ‘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.’
The monologue that follows provides – with one or two judicious cuts and repetitions – the words for Vaughan Williams’s Serenade to Music, a work written in 1938 by the English composer to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Henry Woods’s first Prom concert. Scored for 16 vocal soloists and orchestra, it is a gloriously atmospheric wallow, with the amorous scene set firstly by a rhapsodic violin solo and then rippling orchestral accompaniment. Vaughan Williams did, incidentally, also write a similarly lovely version for orchestra only, but that rather misses the point.
The romance between Lorenzo and Jessica is also the subject of Sullivan’s Merchant of Venice incidental music – initially written for a production in 1871 – though in this instance it’s the jolly masque that accompanies their elopement in Act 2 that we hear. Bustling and bubbly, it’s arguably Sullivan’s most successful take on the Bard. Try out, too, Reynaldo Hahn’s 1935 opera Le Marchand de Venise – very French-sounding, including a smoky saxophone solo in its opening bars – or Fauré’s sumptuous orchestral Shylock suite, written for a Shakespeare-inspired play by Edmond Haraucourt in 1889.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.