An Unexpected Concertmaster
How Shakespeare Influenced the Romantic Era
I like Mozart. Beethoven is good too. But my go-to classical musician is Shakespeare.
You thought Shakespeare was all about the language? Not according to the scholars who estimate there are over 20,000 Shakespeare-inspired pieces of classical music! During the Romantic Era, composers such as Johannes Brahms, Giuseppe Verdi, and Antonín Dvořák drew inspiration from tragedies like Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello. They gravitated to Shakespearean drama instead of the musical brethren like Mozart or Beethoven, who preceded them, because Shakespeare’s works were synonymous with emotion, passion, and freedom. Shakespeare helped usher in new approaches to classical music and contributed to the revamping of classical music beyond what Mozart and Beethoven ever imagined.
Take a step back into the era of Bach, Vivaldi, and Handel, known as the Baroque Era (1580-1730). This is the period where the stereotypes of classical music come from: boring, one-dimensional, and lackluster to the common ear. With this lack of expressivity, Baroque music, even to a classical music lover like me, can be dry. Composers quickly caught onto this need for emotion, and up rose the Romantic Era.
Next time you watch a string player perform, pay close attention to the left wrist of the artist. The violent shaking of the wrist was an element of expression called vibrato, a technique developed in the Romantic Era that creates a rapid fluctuation of pitch. That’s one of the ways they found emotion and passion. Another was Shakespeare.
That might be surprising to the high school English student reading Romeo and Juliet or Hamlet, the one seeing Shakespeare’s plays as formalities to get through; the iambic pentameter and predictable storyline bore students. But I recently began noticing the emotional nuances in the tragedies, especially juxtaposed with musical references.
Hamlet has an inherent musicality. Shakespeare repeatedly incorporates trumpet bugles to announce the arrival of royalty. Songs mark the downward spiral of Ophelia: “Tomorrow is Saint Valentine’s day,” she sings. “The young man rose and donned his clothes.” She’s undressing the young man (Prince Hamlet) in music. Ophelia’s songs of ache and desire gave Romantic composers the expressionism they yearned for.
One of Shakespeare’s final comedies, The Tempest, lies at the core of numerous Romantic compositions by Jean Sibelius, Hector Berlioz, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Ralph Vaughan Williams. The Tempest possesses a kind of lyricism and musicality that begs the work to be tackled in the concert hall. The play mentions an airy spirit named Ariel, who sings to lure Ferdinand to follow him towards Prospero. Music is a means of coercion, highlighting its magical powers.
The Russian Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was inspired by The Tempest and composed his own one movement fantasia in f minor in 1873. He opens with the strings, playing arpeggios that are pianissimo (pp) and legatissimo, supported by a low brass section filling the hall with tied whole notes, painting the picture of a quiet sea in the minds of the listeners. However, the title implies a storm must be brewing. When presented with the ensuing storm, Tchaikovsky recognized the need to “depict the fury.” And boy did he ever. He created a new dynamic level: fortississississimo (5f, fffff) (Figure 1).
Why did Tchaikovsky need 5 forte symbols? It was the only way to capture Shakespeare’s storm. The Tempest was so emotionally strong that Tchaikovsky was required to conjure up new levels of intensity to emulate its vigor. His bonkers dynamical level shows that the intensity and emotion that the Romantic Era sought to portray was hidden beneath the dusted texts of Shakespeare. Shakespeare had composed his own fantasia in The Tempest. We simply needed musical masterminds like Tchaikovsky to reveal the symphony within Shakespeare.
Like The Tempest, Shakespeare’s Othello influenced many musical works of the Romantic Era, including Antonín Dvořák’s overture Othello. But Dvořák makes a striking omission. He dilutes Iago’s role, focusing instead on the final scenes of the play in the bedroom of Othello and Desdemona. Her voice is symbolized by the woodwind section, mainly switching between the oboes and flutes. His masculine dominance is associated not only with overpowering ominous bass interjections, but also with the array of chromatic modulations, rapid acceleration in tempi, and subdivision. The aborted chord resolution (landing instead on diminished and augmented chords) symbolizes the disharmony that exists throughout the play; in his opening section 1, the progression of the cellos from an “A” to a “B” lead the ear to predict the resolution note, a “C♯” in the overture’s key of A major (Figure 2). Yet Dvořák, instead of resolving the passage, lands on an unusual and rare “B♯,” a harmonic dissonance – a return of the meddling Iago.
Max Serrano-Wu is a sophomore at Harvard University, majoring in Human Developmental and Regenerative Biology.