Musical Shakespeare

Since yesterday (April 23) was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, I decided to revisit some of my favorite musical settings of his works. (We could have waited 3 days and celebrated his birth on April 26 instead, but I guess everyone loves centennials!)

Although it could be argued that everything Shakespeare wrote was “music” in the sense of “musical,” he did in fact write lyrics for some of his plays. He marked these by indicating “song” in the stage directions and it’s presumed that an actor actually sang at that point. But alas, he didn’t write down the music, so we have to guess how these songs actually sounded! (You can get a general idea, though, if you think of “Greensleeves,” since it was already a well-known song in Shakespeare’s day and is representative of English music of the late 1500’s.)

Here are some of my favorites:

Ralph Vaughan Williams: Full Fathom Five

Cleo Lane: It Was A Lover And His Lass

Here’s anther one by Cleo Lane, where she sings Shakespeare’s “Complete Works” in 1 minute and 25 seconds!

I myself once wrote choral music for a few of the bard’s works. Here’s a round I wrote called “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” It’s a fun version of the great play.

Finally, none other than jazz great Duke Ellington, along with his co-composer Billy Strayhorn, wrote an entire instrumental suite based upon Shakespeare’s characters. It’s a true jazz classic; here’s the title piece, “Such Sweet Thunder.”

Even though he was English through-and-through, there’s something about Shakespeare that’s so universal it comes through loud and clear in all these very different musical interpretations.

Who’s going to write the next musical composition based on his work? Who knows, perhaps it will be you!

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