What's YOUR Favorite Shakespeare Music?

Apr 23, 2014

Since his death four hundred years ago, the Bard has let imaginations flow - notably, those of musicians. Today, April 23, 2016, is the 400th anniversary of his death, so I thought I'd bring back a post I put up two years ago collecting lists of favorite Shakespeare-inspired classical music. As before, please let me know what YOU might put on the list! - Barney

The original text, from 2014:

It MAY be SHAKEspeare's BIRTHday, SO they SAY, and WHAT muSIcian can reFRAIN from PLAY? That is (to drop the iambic pentameter), who can resist listing favorite Shakespeare-inspired classical works? Below are a couple of lists from other sources, followed by my own additions and comments. What would make YOUR list? Let us know on our Facebook page or on twitter @IPRClassical, or by email (bsherman@iowapublicradio.org).

William Blake's 1786 painting of Oberon, Titania, and Puck - painted before Mendelssohn defined them musically!
Credit wikipedia

I love the list put up by our friends at Performance TodayI'm a little puzzled by the one from Gramophone which wouldn't bother me except for their indefensible title, "Top-10 Shakespeare-inspired works." With  a hey and ho and a hey nonny-no, I realize that there are no right or wrong answers; still, I'll boldface the ones I personally would choose, and then add some of my own favorites at the end.

- Performance Today (The great thing about their list is that they give youtube video for each piece):

1. Giuseppe Verdi's Otello

2. Jean Sibelius's Tempest incidental music

3. Hector Berlioz, Romeo and Juliet

4. Claude Debussy, Le roi Lear

5. Bedrich Smetana, Richard III

6. Edward Elgar, Falstaff

7. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Much Ado about Nothing

8. Henry Purcell, The Fairy Queen

9. George Frideric Handel, Julius Caesar

10. Samuel Barber, Anthony and Cleopatra

  - Gramophone (their list links to their reviews of favorite recordings):

1.  Piotr Tchaikovsky, Romeo and Juliet

2. Giuseppe Verdi, Falstaff

3. Edward Elgar, Falstaff [Note: this tone poem made both lists!]

4. Hector Berlioz, Romeo and Juliet [Also made both lists. And the composer's, too -  The "Love Scene" was his favorite among all of his works. I'll embed a video of a beautiful performance:]

5. Hector Berlioz, Beatrice et Benedict [The composer called this opera "a caprice written with the point of a needle."]

6. Sergei Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet

7. Piotr Tchaikovsky, Hamlet [Forgive the snarky comment, but: Really? I do love Tchaikovsky, but this doesn't seem to me his very best music.]

8. Giuseppe Verdi, Otello [made both lists with good reason; it is in many ways better than the play!]

9. Gioachino Rossini, Otello [Odd choice, whatever its merits]

10. Thomas Ades, The Tempest [One of the finest operas of our time. Good choice!]

- And finally, here are a few I would add:

1. Felix Mendelssohn, Midsummer Night's Dream (The overture and incidental music that defined how "fairy music" sounded and how the play was understood for over a century.  I find it hard to comprehend why it wasn't on either of the above lists, but maybe they consider it TOO familiar? Here's a lovely performance)

2. Ralph Vaughan Williams, Serenade to Music (an utterly magical setting of a text from The Merchant of Venice)

3. Franz Schubert, An Silvia (German setting of the text "Who is Silvia? What is she/ That all our swains commend her?" from Two Gentlemen of Verona. Schubert's piano part, by the way, is meant to evoke a lute):

4. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Four Shakespeare Songs - sung here by the great Anne-Sofie von Otter:

5. Benjamin Britten, A Midsummer Night's Dream (Amazingly, over a century after Mendelssohn defined the dream musically, Britten managed to capture the moonlit magic in a new, original, and personal way):

6. Leonard Bernstein, West Side Story - It's based on Romeo and Juliet set in New York; but is it a great Broadway show or a great opera? It's both. Bernstein's own last recording may go too far in the opera direction, while the soundtrack may be too much in show style.  Thus the best-ever recording, for me, is a new one that does perfect justice to all its facets at once. It's by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony: here's a video of excerpts.

7. Alfred Reed, Rosalind in the Forest of Arden - the American composer, a master neglected outside his favored domain of band music, had a special feeling for Shakespeare, and this is my favorite example: 

8. Michael Ching, A Midsummer Night's Dream - as I wrote in 2014: "...if a composer sought to create an opera as fresh and appealing as Shakespeare's play, where could he or she find convincing musical options that have not already been tried? Enter Ames resident Michael Ching: he (brilliantly) dispenses with instruments altogether. In a tale centered on youthful infatuation he finds vitality in our musical vernacular. You find yourself humming the tunes, dancing to the occasional vocal-percussion effects, and feeling the youthful love. The singing by the Memphis vocal groups Delta Cappella and Riva makes you smile as it melds classical, pop and Broadway styles into a perfect unity (I'm paraphrasing conductor Curt Tucker) - and the effortless virtuosity of this live performance suggests that it had Puck's blessings."

9. William Walton, Henry V - For the 1944 film of the play, starring Laurence Olivier, the score was composed by no less a figure than William Walton; it was later turned into an orchestral suite. This piece was nominated in response to my original post, by James Inverne, and he's right - it is amazing that nobody mentioned it on any of the lists so far!

10. Michael Tippett, Songs to Shakespeare (nominated by Daniel Leech-Wilkinson - excellent catch!)