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.