The Supreme Inspiration I: Writers

William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
The world’s greatest playwright had a huge influence over western classical music, especially romantic music, because it was only at the end of the eighteenth century his plays were known outside the English-speaking world. Mendelssohn’s overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream was one of the earliest pieces of descriptive music specifically intended for concert. This was followed by Berlioz’s intense enthusiasm for the plays, fuelled by his love for the actress Harriet Smithson, and his King Lear overture and Romeo and Juliet symphony. In Russia, Tchaikovsky conformed to romantic convention with his Romeo and Juliet fantasy overture, Hamlet and The Tempest.

In opera, Rossini’s Otello was later overshadowed by Verdi’s, with its text faithful to the original. Verdi’s Falstaff takes opera into new territory with its emphasis on ensemble. The twentieth century saw Shakespeare inspiring interest from British composers. Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Rape of Lucretia based on Troilus and Cressida are probably the most firmly established in the repertoire today. By far the best-known ballet is Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet. And mention should also be made of Walton’s superb scores for Olivier’s Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)
One of the truly seminal figures of world literature, Goethe’s poems were often intended for music. The history of German song from Schubert to Wolf is dominated by him. From Berlioz to Mahler, his role in the history of large-scale choral works is massive. But Mendelssohn’s Erste Walpurgisnacht and Schumann’s Requiem for Mignon have probably been overshadowed by the Faust operas by Gounod and Boito. Faust with its story of selling one’s soul to the devil became a romantic obsession and one which asked important new religious questions.

Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)
For the extraordinary breadth and variety of character and the musical appeal of his language, the Russian poet Pushkin’s writing has had an enormous appeal to nineteenth- and twentieth-century composers. The impressive list of works he inspired includes Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla, Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Britten’s The Poet’s Echo.

Lord Byron (1788-1824)
Byron’s literary work, Manfred, drew a symphony from Tchaikovsky, as well as works from Schumann and Rachmaninov. He also inspired Berlioz’s Harold in Italy and R Strauss’ Don Juan.

W H Auden (1907-73)
As well as being a prolific poet, W H Auden formed close friendships with both Benjamin Britten and Stravinsky – his influence drawing works such as Britten’s Our Hunting Fathers and Paul Bunyan and Stravinsky’s Rake’s Progress and Elegy for J F K. His poetry also inspired Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers and The Bassarids.

Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805)
This German poet is probably most remembered for writing the words to ‘Ode to Joy’, included in Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. The libretto to Verdi’s Don Carlos was based on Schiller, and over 50 of his texts were set by Schubert.

Other writer muses: Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Bellini’s I Puritani, Rossini’s The Lady of the Lake and Schubert’s Ave Maria were influenced by Sir Walter Scott; and Rossini, Verdi, Liszt and Tchaikovsky by Dante. Petrarch inspired Liszt’s Petrarch Sonnets and was set by Monteverdi, Schubert and Schoenberg.

Classic CD magazine, 1996

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