During the 16th century, Shakespeare's plays put the emphasis on music, which was an integral part of the performance. Fun fact: Shakespeare's plays got many echoes through the History of Music. Beethoven, Gounod, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, Prokofiev and Shostakovich... Discover our (non-exhaustive but yet quite big!) list of works inspired by the British writer, who died almost 400 years ago.
Let's start with Giuseppe Verdi, who composed four operas inspired by Shakespeare's drama, in particular Macbeth, Otello and Falstaff, composed after The Merry Wives of Windsor. A few decades beforewards, Otto Nicolai had already taken back the theme of this last piece to adapt it into an eponymous opera, for which a new production recorded at the Opéra Royal de Wallonie-Liège is webcast this week on medici.tv.
The story of Romeo and Juliet naturally inspired a lot of Romantic composers, such as Gounod who wrote an opera on this basis, Tchaikovsky who composed an overture for orchestra on the theme of the lovers of Verona, and of course Prokofiev, who composed the music for the ballet Romeo and Juliet (you can watch some extracts of Maya Plisetskaya dancing on this ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre in this archive). This last score was so acclaimed that it was declined into an orchestral suite, often performed in concerts (here with Yuri Temirkanov and there with Valery Gergiev); the orchestral suite itself has also been translated into a piano score (performed here by Evgeny Kissin and there by Nikolai Lugansky).
Even if this is not strictly speaking an adaptation, Beethoven, as for him, composed in 1802 a Piano Sonata No. 17 that quickly was qualified by the nickname Storm. Indeed the composer had advised to those who wanted to understand the piece to read Shakespeare's play in a first time. During the 20th century, Shostakovich adapted the novel Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District by Nikolai Leskov and composed an opera on its basis. The title is an allusion to Lady Macbeth and to Shakespeare's play, justified by the fact that in the novel as well as in the opera, Katerina Ismailova plans a murder.
This list is not exhaustive: there is no doubt that some other works inspired by Shakespeare will appear in the History of Music. Indeed, like the founding myths, Shakespeare's plays are part of the collective memory; they bring a resource that feeds every type of art, from music, to poetry (we remind of the poem Ophelia by Arthur Rimbaud, to painting (Henry Füssli, Eugène Delacroix, John Everett Millais…) or cinema (Othello by Orson Welles, and more recently Romeo + Juliet by Baz Luhrmann…)
Charles Mackerras, Nicolas Joel – Roberto Alagna (Romeo), Leontina Vaduva (Juliet), François Le Roux (Mercutio) – Royal Opera House, Covent Garden
Mariss Jansons, Martin Kušej – Eva-Maria Westbroek (Katerina Lvovna Ismailova), Ludovít Ludha (Zinovy Borisovich Ismailov), Christopher Ventris (Sergey) – De Nederlandse Opera
Vladimir Jurowski, Richard Jones – Christopher Purves (Falstaff), Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Mistress Quickly), Jennifer Holloway (Meg Page) – Glyndebourne Festival
Luca Ronconi, Giuseppe Sinopoli – With Renato Bruson (Macbeth) and Mara Zampieri (Lady Macbeth) – Deutsche Oper Berlin, 1987
New Year's Eve Concert 1990
English Chamber Orchestra. 1964-1970.
Christian Zacharias, David Hermann
Bolshoi Theatre, 1945-1977
Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra
Verbier Festival 2008
Symphony Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater – The complete Prokofiev symphonies. Moscow Easter Festival
Neil Armfield (director), Vladimir Jurowski (conductor), London Philharmonic Orchestra – Allan Clayton (Hamlet), Sarah Connolly (Gertrude), Barbara Hannigan (Ophelia), Rod Gilfry (Claudius)