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Shakespeare in Vogue
by Rex Levang
April, 1999

YOU HEAR IT ALL THE TIME NOWADAYS - Shakespeare is hip, Shakespeare is fashionable - but with composers, he’s hardly ever been unfashionable. And with his birthday upon us (April 23, by most accounts), it seems only fitting to celebrate some of the most famous classical works inspired by the Bard.
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At first, of course, it was English composers (Matthew Locke, for example) who provided the songs and atmospheric music that the plays require. Then, after the great 18th-century revolution in taste that made Shakespeare common cultural property, composers of all countries and styles started writing Shakespeare music.

Listen - Locke, from The Tempest

Some of the pieces have been wowsers. Ambroise Thomas wrote a Hamlet with a "happy" ending - Hamlet is alive at the end, and becomes King of Denmark. In Shostakovich’s King Lear, one of the Fool’s tunes turns out to be Jingle Bells. In Rossini’s version of Othello, Othello confronts Desdemona to a jaunty little tune that also shows up in The Barber of Seville, which lends the whole thing a certain air of Bugs Bunny and "What’s Opera, Doc?"

There are also some interesting what-ifs. For years, Verdi wrestled with the idea of a King Lear opera - fruitlessly. Mozart had some familiarity with Shakespeare, but it never bore musical results. It’s tantalizing, though, to think of a Mozart Twelfth Night or Tempest. But on Shakespeare’s birthday, let’s concentrate not on the obscure, but on some of the best-known classical pieces inspired by his plays:

Mendelssohn: Wedding March from A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Mendelssohn never dreamed of this piece being used in an actual wedding service, but after a member of British royalty used it as her wedding recessional, that’s where it wound up.

Tchaikovsky: Romeo and Juliet
Tchaikovsky’s piece describes several contrasting moods from the play, but it is the "love theme" that everyone remembers.

Listen - Tchaikovsky, love theme from Romeo and Juliet

Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on Greensleeves
This quiet instrumental piece is really an excerpt from an opera, Sir John in Love. Sir John is, of course, Sir John Falstaff.

Bernstein: West Side Story
Classical music? Apparently so, judging by the performers who have recorded songs from this updated version of the Romeo and Juliet story: Placido Domingo, Jose Carreras, Kiri Te Kanawa, Leontyne Price, Angela Gheorghiu. . . .

Elgar: Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1
"The spirit-stirring drum, the ear-piercing fife, / The royal banner and all quality, / Pride, pomp and circumstance of glorious war!" (Othello, III, iii, 358-60) OK, so the music may not be Shakespearean, but the title definitely is.

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