We take a look at Iain Burnside's survey of the role the Bard's writing has played in the art of song composition throughout history.


How Shakespeare's words inspired music

Verdi’s Otello. Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict. Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The operatic stage has done Shakespeare proud. If symphony orchestras want a Romeo and Juliet, they can choose between Prokofiev, Berlioz and Tchaikovsky. If they’re feeling patriotic they can have a go at Walton’s Henry V or Elgar’s Falstaff. Or blow the budget on their 16 favourite singers, and put on Vaughan Williams’s ravishing Serenade to Music.

Entries in a recent catalogue of music inspired by the Bard number over 20,000. Turn to the world of the song recital, and again the roll-call of composers who set Shakespeare is not for the faint-hearted. Seas of unfamiliar names from the 17th and 18th centuries give way to big hitters of the 19th: Schubert and Brahms giving a European focus before Stanford, Parry and Quilter weigh in for the Brits. The 20th century mainstream brings songs by Strauss and Poulenc, Finzi and Tippett.

About the music Shakespeare actually heard in his plays we know next to nothing. What’s abundantly clear, though, is the importance Shakespeare laid on song, and the care he took with their placing - whether as light relief (It was a lover and his lass, in As You Like It), elegy (Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun, in Cymbeline) or the poignant adaptation of a popular ballad (Desdemona’s Willow Song in Othello). The film Shakespeare In Love inadvertently reminded us that the voice of Desdemona would have been a thin boy treble. No need, for quite some time, for Gwyneth Paltrow to take singing lessons.

Songs like Arne’s Where the bee sucks, then, are theatrical - written to be sung on stage. Later on, Brahms wrote songs for Ophelia to sing off-stage, 19th-century Vienna primly protecting their audiences from lascivious women in full voice. The result sounds quite unlike any other Brahms: pale vocal lines floating unaccompanied through the ether. A century later Sir Michael Tippett wrote incidental music for The Tempest - quirky, faintly Elizabethan songs originally scored for a small ensemble but also adapted for voice and piano. Magic music for the most magical of plays.

In the 19th and 20th centuries, though, we hit a paradox. Most Shakespeare settings then were written not for the stage but for the concert platform; and yet most continue to set songs from the plays, out of their context. Listen to Gerald Finzi’s haunting Come away, death and you’re unlikely to guess that in Twelfth Night it’s sung by the clown Feste - sung with as many layers of irony as the director chooses. No matter. Whichever way you cut it, Come away, death is a wonderful poem, and Finzi’s sophisticated melancholy stands perfectly on its own. There is a parallel here with Shakespeare’s biggest fan, Goethe. You don’t need to have read Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister from cover to cover to enjoy Wolf’s setting of Kennst du das Land.

Besides, darker songs always travel well. When we get into It was a lover and his lass terrain, though, I have a problem. Any song written after 1700 containing the words 'hey nonny no' induces in me mild physical nausea. Roger Quilter, to take one notable Merrie Englander, wrote some terrific songs; but when he buckles on his codpiece and goes all jolly, count me out. Whole generations of English composers bought into these faux-Elizabethan high spirits. For my personal taste the various Greenwood Trees they lay under, and the various Greasy Joans who keeled their pots, add little to our musical heritage.

More interesting by far to look at a song like When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes by Hubert Parry. It may not count as a towering masterpiece, but in his choice of the 29th Sonnet Parry is at least aiming high. Tackling Shakespeare head on. When it comes to the Sonnets, few composers have dared, and even fewer succeeded. The density of both thought and diction has acted as a ring of fire, keeping out all but the bravest of souls.

What surprises me is how few composers have crafted songs from Shakespeare using poetry that was not originally sung. Particularly when there are two triumphant prototypes. Both come from non-Brits. With a bit of crafty editing Joseph Haydn took part of Viola’s speech She never told her love from Twelfth Night, and condensed it down to 5 lines, ending with Patience on a monument, smiling with grief. It is great poetry which becomes a great song text - the two rarely coincide! These 5 lines inspire from Haydn 2 sublime pages of music, uniquely eloquent in his writing for voice and piano.

My other favourite Shakespeare song is in French: a loose translation of Gertrude’s speech There is a willow grows aslant a brook, describing the drowning Ophelia and set to music by Hector Berlioz as La Mort d’Ophélie. Might not Berlioz top Goethe as Shakespeare’s biggest fan? Goethe did not after all go to the lengths of marrying Ophelia, as Berlioz did with the actress Harriet Smithson. What intrigues me is that rather than set Ophelia’s own songs to music, like Brahms and later Richard Strauss, Berlioz chooses narrative: third person rather than first, with a faintly watery accompaniment trickling below. From Ophelia’s own lips we only hear a repeated Ah! at the end. It’s a gentle, compassionate piece, with none of the hard edges of Strauss’s Ophelia Lieder - alarmingly vivid portraits of insanity. Strauss’s Ophelia is first cousin to Wolf’s Mignon. She sings from a padded cell.

In our own time Giles Swayne has written for a virtuoso Ophelia. Her hysteria comes with top Cs. Somewhere in the State of Denmark there must be an awfully good singing teacher. A different sort of madness emerges in Joseph Horovitz’s Lady Macbeth: a Scena, from 1970: bleeding chunks of her speeches ingenuously woven together. When you’ve had enough of Out, out, damned spot! try Cleo Laine’s CD Wordsongs, irresistible solo vehicles created for her by John Dankworth. Some are poignant, others funny.

Above all, they’re fresh. Kenneth Branagh has raised purist hackles by using Cole Porter songs in his new film version of Love’s Labours Lost. Tsk tsk – sacrilege! Well, I haven’t seen the movie yet, but I love the idea. Canny pincher of popular songs as he was, I doubt if Shakespeare would be taking the moral high ground. Would he not be more likely to say, suck it and see? After all, can we not look for our own hey nonny no’s? If music really is the food of love, we had better find new ways to sing on.


Iain Burnside (2000)