Setting Shakespeare to Music

On Thursday 25 November and Thursday 16 December the LSO celebrates all things Shakespeare with music inspired by some of The Bard’s most famous works: Romeo and Juliet, Macbeth and King Lear.

To mark the occasion, we take a closer look at how music featured in Shakespeare’s drama, how his audience experienced music and different interpretations of his plays in classical music.

How did Shakespeare use music in his productions?

For Shakespeare, music was an ornamental and comedic device for his productions. Songs were often included in plays and members of Shakespeare’s troupe devised a particular musical-comic genre – the jigg. Jiggs were improvised, bawdy musical sketches which lightened the mood at the end of a history play or tragedy. Popular melodies were sung accompanied by instruments like fiddles or citterns.

However, in Tudor and Stuart England full-scale instrumental music was the preserve of the Royal Court and not accessible to the general public. Shakespeare therefore only used instrumental music for royal or courtly performances as patronage made it financially viable. For a more typical performance at the Globe Theatre, Shakespeare would have used a trumpeter, a wind player (performing on a hoboy – double-reed ancestor of the oboe), flute, recorders and occasionally violin, viol or lute players.

Urbano Cittern 1582 VA

Urbano Cittern (1582) housed at the V&A.

Musical Metaphor

Whilst vital for creating a dramatic atmosphere, music was also a rich source of metaphor for The Bard. The power, beauty and elegance of music made it the perfect vehicle to convey love metaphors. In Romeo and Juliet Shakespeare suggests the magical quality of the lovers’ exchange describing their ‘silver-sweet sounds […] [as being] like softest music to attending ears’. Similarly, in Twelfth Night music is depicted as sustaining, even addictive: ‘if music be the food of love, play on; / Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting, / The appetite may sicken, and so die’.

Symbolism of Sound

In the same way that a modern-day cinema-goer intuitively understands that the dissonant strings suggest danger in a film like Jaws, for Shakespeare’s audience certain instruments carried symbolic value. The sound of the oboe, for example, foreshadowed doom or disaster as its breathy sounds were reminiscent of ill winds. In Macbeth the oboe accompanied the vision of the kings in one of the witches' scenes. Contrastingly, the lute or viol were thought to heal and ease melancholy.

Reinventing Shakespeare

Though music remained a dramatic accessory for Shakespeare, his stories continued to resonate with future generations in different artforms. In the 19th century Shakespeare’s works were transformed into musical masterpieces. Thanks to industrialisation, there were a growing number of middle-class customers with an appetite for music. Ballet and opera therefore enjoyed a golden age with composers like Verdi, Berlioz, Tchaikovsky and Strauss trying their hand at these forms.

These composers soon discovered that Shakespeare’s works translated perfectly to classical music. The dramatist’s plays characterised human emotion, our vices, desires and obsessions and they therefore made compelling drama for ballets, operas and incidental music.

Ford Madox Brown Lear and Cordelia Tate 700 x 500 px

Pre-Raphaelite painter Ford Madox Brown's Lear and Cordelia (1849) inspired by King Lear.

Shakespeare’s tragedies proved highly engaging for audiences and there were multiple works inspired by Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Macbeth and Othello. Indeed, when Hector Berlioz first saw Romeo and Juliet at the theatre in 1833, he was so profoundly impacted by the performance that he fell in love with, and later married, the lead actress Harriet Smithson. Berlioz composed his Romeo and Juliet in 1839 and the Russian composers Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev would later follow his lead in creating their own musical versions of the play in 1880 and 1940 respectively.

Beyond opera and ballet Shakespeare inspired a whole host of incidental music and symphonic poems. Composers embraced Shakespeare with open arms with works like Elgar’s Falstaff (1913) inspired by the character Sir John Falstaff from Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and Smetana’s Richard III, a 13-minute ‘Fantasia for Full Orchestra’ (1858). Perhaps most famous though is Mendelssohn’s music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1842). First composed as a concert overture when he was just 17 years old, the composer reworked it some 16 years later as incidental music.

Perhaps, though, the most inventive musical creation inspired by Shakespeare is Leonard Bernstein’s musical West Side Story (1957). Co-created with lyricist Stephen Sondheim, Bernstein transposes Shakespeare’s play set in fair Verona to the streets of New York where the Sharks and the Jets are the rival gangs. Lovers Maria and Tony, like Romeo and Juliet, are from opposing sides and doomed to their tragic fate. The musical was made into a film in 1961 by Ernest Lehman and was a box office triumph winning 10 Academy Awards. Indeed, West Side Story’s success has been long enduring and this December Stephen Spielberg releases a remake of the musical romance.

West Side Story c Donaldson Collection

Actors Natalie Wood and Richard Beymer star as Maria and Tony in Bernstein's West Side Story.

Related Reading

Gianandrea Noseda: What makes Shakespeare a master?

Thursday 25 November 7pm, Barbican 

Strauss Macbeth
Prokofiev Selected movements from 'Romeo and Juliet'

Gianandrea Noseda conductor
London Symphony Orchestra

Tickets: £60 £48 £35 £24 £18

Wildcard tickets from £10


Thursday 16 December 7pm, Barbican

Debussy Fanfare and Le sommeil de Lear from 'Music to King Lear'
Berlioz Overture: King Lear
Mahler Symphony No 4

Sir Simon Rattle conductor
Lucy Crowe soprano
London Symphony Orchestra

Tickets: £60 £48 £35 £24 £18


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