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.
Jonathan Kent (stage director), William Christie (conductor) – With Lucy Crowe, Ed Lyon, Adrian Ward...
Peter Hall (stage director), Vladimir Jurowski (conductor) – With Maxim Mironov (Don Ramiro), Ruxandra Donose (Cenerentola)...
Martin Kušej (stage director), Daniel Barenboim (conductor) – With Rolando Villazón (Don José), Marina Domashenko (Carmen)... and the Staatskapelle Berlin
Annabel Arden (stage director), Enrique Mazzola (conductor) – With Danielle de Niese (Rosina), Alessandro Corbelli (Dr Bartolo), Taylor Stayton (Count Alma...
Neil Armfield (director), Vladimir Jurowski (conductor) – With Allan Clayton, Sarah Connolly, Barbara Hannigan, Rod Gilfry...
Philipp Himmelmann (stage director), Stefan Soltesz (music director) – With Erwin Schrott (Mefistofele), Charles Castronovo (Faust)...
Jonathan Kent (stage director), Vladimir Jurowski (conductor) – With Gerald Finley (Don Giovanni), Luca Pisaroni (Leporello), Kate Royal (Donna Elvira)...
Gustav Mahler Jugendorchester
Adrian Noble, Marc Minkowski – Anja Harteros (Alcina), Veronica Cangemi (Morgana), Vesselina Kasarova (Ruggiero)... – Wiener Staatsoper
Christoph Marthaler (stage director)
Europakonzert 2000, Berlin
Michael Gees (piano)
Verbier Festival 2012
Verbier Festival 2010
Recorded during the 31st Piano Festival at La Roque d'Anthéron
Richard Jones (stage director), Vladimir Jurowski (conductor) – With Christopher Purves (Falstaff), Marie-Nicole Lemieux (Mistress Quickly), Jennifer Hollo...
Willy Decker (stage director), Antoni Ros-Marbà (conductor) – With Giorgio Giuseppini (Lodovico), José Cura (Otello), Vittorio Grigolo (Cassio) – Gran Teat...
Luca Ronconi, Giuseppe Sinopoli – With Renato Bruson (Macbeth) and Mara Zampieri (Lady Macbeth) – Deutsche Oper Berlin, 1987
Yutaka Sado, Peter Mussbach – Mireille Delunsch (Violetta), Matthew Polenzani (Alfredo Germont)
Kent Nagano, Nikolaus Lehnhoff – Tom Fox (Friedrich von Telramund), Klaus Florian Vogt (Lohengrin) – Festspielhaus Baden-Baden
Christoph Marthaler (stage director), Peter Schneider (conductor) – With Robert Dean Smith (Tristan), Robert Holl (King Marke)...
Alina Cojocaru (Princess Aurora), Federico Bonelli (Prince Florimund), Christopher Saunders (King Florestan XXIV) – The Royal Ballet
Alexander Vedernikov, Dmitri Tcherniakov
Michael Boder, Gilbert Deflo – With Misha Didyk (Hermann), Emily Magee (Liza) and Ludovic Tézier (Prince Yeletsky) – Gran Teatre del Liceu
Frank Beermann, Ansgar Weigner – Die Theater Chemnitz
Michel Plasson, Benoît Jacquot – Jonas Kaufmann (Werther), Sophie Koch (Charlotte)
Philippe Jordan, Robert Wilson – Stéphane Degout (Pelléas), Elena Tsallagova (Mélisande), Anne Sofie von Otter (Geneviève), Vincent le Texier (Golaud)
Tamara Rojo (Manon), Carlos Acosta (Des Grieux) – The Royal Ballet