Literature and music

Composers and writers

Literature and music

Composers have often fueled their passion with literature, which has become an unending source of inspiration. From Purcell to Debussy, you will find below a special selection of musical masterpieces inspired by our literary heritage!

The first signs of collaboration between composers and writers were shown in plays. Indeed, plays have traditionally been performed with a small orchestra in the orchestra pit, bridging the transitions between the scenes, strengthening a character's personality, or highlighting the reigning atmosphere. In the 17th century, the British composer Henry Purcell set to music the opening and the pantomine of several plays from Shakespeare, such as the Timon of Athens in 1618, and The Tempest in 1690 (the Dryden version). Only two years later, he finished the writing of one of his greatest masterpieces, The Fairy Queen, a semi-opera adapted from the very famous A Midsummer Night's Dream.

An opera also needs a topic, which can easily be provided by a play or a novel. In the 18th century, with his Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart transposed plays to operas more than anyone else. At this time, there were still many recitatives in operas. In the 19th century, at the dawn of the Romantic period, which gave great importance to novels or symbolic plays of a generation, transposing literary masterpieces almost became a writing exercise for composers. The most striking example is undoubtedly Giuseppe Verdi, who got inspired by William Shakespeare as well for Macbeth, Otello, Falstaff and King Lear, but also by Alexandre Dumas and his Dame aux camélias, (The Lady of the Camellias) to compose La Traviata. Richard Wagner immersed himself in medieval literature to compose his tetralogy, Lohengrin or Tristan and Isolde. Defending the "total work of art", Richard Wagner broke with the Italian belcantist tradition, by showing interest for a lyric genre which would not evolve to the detriment of theatre. Later, Tchaikovsky transposed to opera Pushkin's masterpiece, Eugene Onegin; Puccini gained fame with Manon Lescaut after The Abbé Prevost; Massenet transposed The Sorrows of Young Werther from Goethe and Debussy got inspired by Maëterlinck's Pelléas and Mélisande.

The choreographers continued the tradition by renewing the ballet repertoire thanks to literary topics. In 1890, Petipa choreographed Perrault's and the Grimm brothers' Sleeping Beauty. In the 20th century, Kenneth MacMillan gave a second life to the Abbé Prévost's Manon Lescaut, and Rudolf Nureyev converted Cinderella into a Hollywood icon. By 2011, Christopher Wheeldon continued the tradition by inventing a ballet named Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, inspired from Lewis Carroll.

However, transposing literature into music does not always mean it needs an opera or a ballet staging. The composer can use poems to produce melodies and Lieders. That is what Schubert did, using Wilhelm Müller's poetry to write The Miller's Daughter or Winter Journey. It was also the case of various French composers from the 20thcentury, such as Francis Poulenc, who greatly admired Guillaume Apollinaire, or even André Caplet who transposed to music the very famous Fables from La Fontaine (we can enjoy here The Fox and the Crow sung by Susan Graham).

This selection also suggests various symphonic works, either because they belong to an operatic work or because they were initially composed for a ballet (for instance, Romeo and Juliet's dance suite by Prokofiev, also available in its version for piano, arranged and played by Evgeny Kissin, or the Manfred opening, which libretto was written by Lord Byron, after Goethe), or because they openly claimed their literary influence (such as Kikimora by Liadov, inspired by the Slavic mythology or Rakastava by Sibelius, composed after Kanteletar, a collection of Finnish folk poetry from the end of the 19th century, honoring national poetry).

Last but not least, this selection is the perfect opportunity for you to discover Nicholas Angelich performing the "Second Year" of Liszt's Years of Pilgrimage (new in the catalogue). In this book named "Italy", Franz Liszt highlighted a very Italian heritage, and often mentioned two major authors in the Western culture: Petrarch and Dante.

Verdi's Otello, directed for stage by Willy Decker, available on