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The Many Lives of Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare

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People are always saying William Shakespeare is the greatest English language writer. Did you know he translates well, too? Giuseppe Verdi supposedly kept the complete Shakespeare (in Italian) beside his bed.

This week on Exploring Music, Bill McGlaughlin explores the synergies between Shakespeare’s words and different composers around the world.

The most straightforward of these musical interpretations is the simple song setting. In one example, composer Gerald Finzi borrows the poem Who is Sylvia and writes a melody to it. In this way the composer lets the dramatic arc of the text serve as his guide to the shape of the music; a performer then sings the poem. A slightly less straight forward musical setting of Who is Sylvia comes from the hand of Franz Schubert, who set the same poem to music, but used a German translation.

Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, and Elgar wrote instrumental works, symphonic poems, on plays by Shakespeare; in these instances, there are no words, just characters—their trials and their tribulations—expressed in purely musical terms. Berlioz turned Romeo and Juliet into what he called a Symphonie Dramatique, complete with chorus and orchestra.

And then some of the most enduring and complex homages to Shakespeare come in the form of opera. Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story is loosely based on Romeo and Juliet. Giuseppe Verdi based three of his 28 operas on plays by Shakespeare.

Who is Silvia?

This poem by Shakespeare was set to music by Gerald Finzi, as well as by Franz Schubert in German translation.


Gerald Finzi

Who is Silvia? what is she,
That all our swains commend her?
Holy, fair, and wise is she;
The heaven such grace did lend her,
That she might admirèd be.
Is she kind as she is fair?
For beauty lives with kindness.
Love doth to her eyes repair,
To help him of his blindness,
And, being helped, inhabits there.
Then to Silvia let us sing,
That Silvia is excelling;
She excels each mortal thing
Upon the dull earth dwelling:
To her let us garlands bring.


Choral Settings by Ralph Vaughan Williams

Vaughan Williams produced a set of a cappella choral pieces, Three Shakespeare Songs, for a festival in 1951. He lifted two of the verses from The Tempest, the third from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Ariel’s Song
from The Tempest

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Come unto these yellow sands,
And then take hands:

Curtsied when you have, and kiss’d
The wild waves whist,
Foot it featly here and there;
And, sweet sprites, the burthen bear.
Hark, hark!
The watch-dogs bark.
Hark, hark! I hear
The strain of strutting chanticleer
Cry, Cock-a-diddle-dow.
Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes:
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.Falstaff1
Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell:
Hark! now I hear them—Ding-dong, bell.


Verdi’s Falstaff

In writing his final opera Falstaff, Giuseppe Verdi intended not to make a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, but to create an opera about the comic character Sir John Falstaff; a corpulent drunkard who appears in the two-part history plays Henry IV, and more prominently in The Merry Wives of Windsor. Arrigo Boito adapted Shakespeare’s lines for the purpose of the opera.

See the two side-by-side. In this excerpt, Falstaff arrives at the park wearing a pair of dear antlers. He is bursting with anticipation of a romantic encounter, of course the merry wives have other plans for him:


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