Thursday, April 28, 2016

Otto Nicolai and the Merry Wives of Windsor

Last time we looked at Verdi’s setting of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor in his comic opera Falstaff. Though Verdi’s setting is probably the most famous, there are other composers who wrote works based on the same story including Otto Nicolai, whom we will discuss today.

Otto Nicolai was a German composer who wrote in the Italian style. He is known for founding the Vienna Philharmonic. He might have been more famous if he had accepted a commission to write the opera Nabucco. Following his rejection, Verdi took the project and created the opera we know and love today.

The overture to Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (1849) is perhaps the best-known portion of his opera today. While it draws from the entire opera, it prominently highlights the scene at night in Windsor Park when Falstaff arrives as a fairy-tale character and encounters “fairies.”






Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Verdi's Portrayal of Falstaff

This month, Clef Notes is exploring various musical settings of Shakespeare in honor of the 400th anniversary of his passing that took place this past Saturday, April 23. This week, let’s look at several famous settings of his comedy The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Did you know that Falstaff was Verdi’s final opera, premiered in 1893 and completed just before the composer turned 80? With the success of Otello, Verdi’s librettist, Arrigo Boito, persuaded him to write a comic opera based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. The hilarious plot follows the story of Sir John Falstaff, who desires to seduce the wives of two of Windsor’s wealthiest men. Shakespeare first introduced his Falstaff character in the Henry IV plays. Legend says that he then brought him back in Merry Wives at the queen’s request to witness Falstaff in love.

The opera is challenging for both the performers and audience as it’s quite fast paced, the plot beginning immediately without an overture or prelude! You can watch below.




Next time, we’ll continue looking at The Merry Wives of Windsor by exploring Otto Nicolai’s setting. 

Saturday, April 23, 2016

To Shakespeare!

Did you know that it is believed Shakespeare was born and died on the same date? In honor of his birthday and to mark the 400th anniversary since his passing, let’s listen to a few Shakespeare-inspired works that we haven’t already explored this month!

Edward Elgar, Falstaff, based on Henry IV


Robert Schumann, Overture to Julius Caesar, based on Julius Caesar


Igor Stravinsky, Songs from William Shakespeare: “When Dasies Pied”, based on Love's Labour's Lost


Giuseppe Verdi, Macbeth, based on Macbeth


Erich Korngold, Much Ado About Nothing, based on Much Ado About Nothing


Leonard Bernstein, West Side Story, based on Romeo and Juliet


Jean Sibelius, The Tempest, based on The Tempest


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Dvorak's Othello: Overture

This week we are looking at musical settings of Shakespeare’s Othello. Last time, we took a glance at Verdi’s operatic settings and today, we’ll talk about Dvorak’s approach to the tragic tale.

Dvorak’s overture Othello (1892) is part of a greater symphonic triptych consisting of overtures originally titled Nature, Life, and Love. Each overture was later renamed to better express his narrative. You may now know them as In Nature’s Realm, Carnival, and Othello. The triptych walks the listener through the appreciation of nature, the joys of life, and then ends in the tragedy that results when people ruin the goodness they’ve gained from nature and life.

The three overtures were first performed together in Prague in 1892 and later they were presented at Dvorak’s first American public appearance after he moved to New York. Below, you can listen to all three overtures. For today’s purposes, however, let’s focus on a few fun facts about Othello.

Did you know that Dvorak actually noted in his score how the music was meant to line up with Shakespeare’s drama? The story shows how jealousy drives one man to end the life of his lover and ultimately, his own. Othello’s jealousy is depicted in the forceful, triplet theme heard throughout. Dvorak also reflects when Desdemona falls asleep at the end when he quotes Wagner’s “magic sleep” motif from Die Walk├╝re. He also uses his own Requiem to foreshadow Desdemona’s ultimate fate.

As you listen to all three overtures below, note how Dvorak uses the same “nature” theme in each, only in a distorted fashion in Othello.






Join me on Saturday for a Shakespeare-inspired playlist in honor of his birthday!

Monday, April 18, 2016

Verdi's Setting of Othello

This Saturday marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s passing. In honor of this great playwright, Clef Notes is highlighting several of his works that have been set to music over the years. This week, let’s look at the tragic tale of Othello.

Following the premiere of Aida in 1871, Giuseppe Verdi decided to retire. Upon finishing his setting of the Requiem mass in 1874, he hoped to use his fortune to spend his remaining years relaxing and enjoying life. His publisher, Giulio Ricordi, had different plans. After several years of persuasion, he convinced the composer to take up composition again and to join forces with librettist Arrigo Boito in an opera on his beloved Shakespeare’s Othello. The collaboration was a success and resulted in a powerful opera with demanding leads and a strong orchestral role.

Verdi’s Otello (1887) tells the tragic tale of how Othello’s jealousy drives him to murder his wife and then take his own life. The vocal lines are challenging, the villain Iago, for instance, having to change his musical style to match whomever he associates with in order to deceive and carry out his evil plot. For a full synopsis of Otello, you can read here

Below, you can enjoy the famous “Willow Song” and “Ave Maria” sung by Renee Fleming as the innocent Desdemona.




Next time, join me as we look at another famous setting of Othello by Antonin Dvorak. 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Tchaikovsky's Hamlet Fantasy-Overture

Many of you may be quite familiar with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, but did you know he also wrote a Hamlet Fantasy-Overture in 1888? The idea to write something based on Shakespeare’s tragedy first was suggested to Tchaikovsky by his brother in 1876. The composer quickly dismissed the idea, claiming it too difficult an undertaking. It wasn’t until 1885 that he began sketching a few ideas and in 1888, following a commission to compose incidental music for the play, that he finally conceded. The production ended up being canceled but Tchaikovsky still completed his Fantasy-Overture.

The work is a symphonic poem much like what we discussed concerning Liszt’s setting during my last post. Rather than reflect a play-by-play of the plot, Tchaikovsky’s setting seems to express characters in the story. For instance, the opening theme is tense in nature, much like Hamlet. A few minutes in, you can hear the sound of the clock chiming midnight with twelve consecutive, pulsing notes in the horns. At this, the gong sounds, possibly insinuating the appearance of the ghost to the young prince. Another character to listen for during this work is Ophelia, who perhaps can be heard in the oboe melody.




Years later, Tchaikovsky was given another opportunity to write incidental music to a Hamlet production, however he had trouble putting his full self into the project since he had already said all he needed to say in the Fantasy-Overture.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Liszt's Setting of Hamlet

Franz Liszt (1811–1886) was considered a piano virtuoso and skilled composer of his time. Beginning studies with his father at age six, it soon became apparent that the young boy had great talent so he went on to study piano and theory with other prominent musicians including Carl Czerny and Antonio Salieri. As an adult, Liszt spent much of his time traveling as a “star” pianist, and also composing. He was actually the creator of the symphonic poem— an orchestral work, typically in one movement, that is based on a descriptive theme such as a poem, dramatic play, etc.

One of Liszt’s symphonic poems was based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a dark tale of a prince avenging his father’s death. You can listen to Liszt’s musical interpretation of the story below. Do you think he accurately depicts the tense and eerie nature of this play?




Next time, we’ll take a look at another setting of Hamlet written by Tchaikovsky. 

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Purcell's Fairy Queen and A Midsummer Night's Dream

Did you know that Baroque composer Henry Purcell’s (1659–1695) Fairy Queen is loosely based on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Today we will continue our look at musical settings of Shakespeare by learning about Purcell and his work.

Henry Purcell was born into a musical family, his father a singer at Chapel Royal. Purcell was a chorister and organist at Westminster Abbey as a result of his father’s influence. He also spent time as a court composer and as Keeper of the King’s Instruments!

Purcell’s Fairy Queen is known as semi-opera because it contains choruses, solos, and instrumental selections that alternate with a dialogue inspired by Shakespeare’s play. The dialogue was written by an anonymous adaptor who had no problem taking liberties with Shakespeare’s original text and plot line. In fact, no original line in Shakespeare’s play was kept intact for Purcell’s work. At its premiere in 1692, Fairy Queen used expensive and delightful stage props to enhance the performance. The semi-opera eventually disappeared and was not rediscovered until the 20th century. Today, it is often performed without the added spoken dialogue.





Next week, we’ll take a look at musical settings of Hamlet

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Mendelssohn and Shakespeare

Did you know that April 23 marks the 400th anniversary of the passing of William Shakespeare? Composers throughout history have drawn from Shakespeare’s work, musically setting many of his plays. This month, Clef Notes will explore some of these settings. Though there’s not time in one month to explore this topic to the fullest, this should give you a good highlight. Since we just looked at musical settings of Romeo and Juliet this past February, we will skip over that play this month.

This week, let’s begin by looking at a couple composers who musically set A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Did you know that Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847) wrote his famous Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he was just 17 years old? Growing up in a well-to-do family, young Mendelssohn was exposed to music early on and given excellent musical instruction from Carl Friedrich Zelter. His parents often hosted performances in their own home, inviting society’s rich and famous to attend. It was at one of these in-home performances that Mendelssohn first performed his overture, playing it as a piano duet with his sister, Fanny. Shortly thereafter, he orchestrated the work and it became quite successful.

Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream was conceived as a concert overture, not originally intended to accompany the play. It is likely that Mendelssohn first encountered Shakespeare as it was read aloud or acted out at some of the performances his parents held in their home.

Over a decade after the completion of his overture, Mendelssohn was approached by the King of Prussia who desired incidental music for a new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It was at this time that the remaining music came to be. You can listen below. Can you hear love, adventure, fairies, and even a donkey in this setting?