In the last third of the 18th century during the “Storm and Stress” period (Sturm und Drang), the works of William Shakespeare (1564–1616) were rediscovered on the European continent. His plays were translated into many languages, providing inspiration to many playwrights, and many actors made careers playing Shakespearean roles. The popularity of the Renaissance dramatist has never waned. This is seen in today’s programme, in which Shakespeare links music from four centuries.
The texts of Shakespeare’s dramas call for the singing of songs, but with rare exceptions the original music has been lost. This has given composers of later generations all the more opportunity to create their own musical settings. A 43-volume edition of Shakespeare’s plays was published in Vienna (1824–1826) in German translations by Ferdinand Mayerhofer and Eduard Bauernfeld, members of the circle of friends of Franz Schubert (1797–1828). In 1826 the composer wrote musical settings of several texts from that edition including the song “An Sylvia” from the comedy Two Gentlemen of Verona (D 891). We encounter the name of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832) at the threshold of Franz Schubert’s fame as a song composer and at the beginning of the history of the Romantic concert lieder genre with which Schubert is associated. We find the title Wanderers Nachtlied (The Wanderer’s Nightsong) twice in Schubert’s works as settings of two different texts by Goethe; the song on today’s programme dates from 1824. In the last years of the composer’s life, the circle of poets whose verses he set to music was expanded to include Ludwig Rellstab (1799–1860), Karl Gottfried von Leitner (1800–1890), and Johann Gabriel Seidl (1804–1875). All three wrote poetry in addition to working in less poetic professions: the journalist Rellstab is connected to Schubert by seven songs included in the posthumous collection Schwanengesang (Swansong); Leitner came from a family of Styrian nobility and worked as a teacher; besides writing lyric poetry and stories, Seidl also worked as a historian and archaeologist.
The verses of Eduard Mörike (1804–1875) inspired a number of composers. Hugo Wolf (1860–1903) encountered the poetry during a period of personal crisis, when he needed to build confidence in his creative ability and convince himself of his talent. From February to May 1888 he set 43 of Mörike’s poems to music in almost a single breath, and that autumn he added ten more songs. Wolf was able to identify perfectly with the poet’s ideas. He conveys Mörike’s lyrical, romantic, epic, and balladic verses about a fictitious island somewhere in the Pacific Ocean, which Mörike and his friends called Orplid, which was under the protection of the goddess Weyla. There is also a satirical poem in which the composer (together with the poet) expresses his opinion about art critics.
For the English novelist (originally an architect) Thomas Hardy (1840–1928), the impulse for his poetry was the death of his wife Emma. Although the author had not been living with her for several years, the news of her death took him back 40 years to the time when they met. Hardy felt guilty for having taken Emma away from the places she loved, for her being buried far from her place of birth, and for not having accompanied her on her last journey with friends, when she already sensed that she did not have long to live. He expresses this concretely in the poem Without Ceremony, from which the English composer Mark-Anthony Turnage (*1960) took the title of his cycle. According to the composer’s own words, his music is stimulated by powerful emotional topics. He works in close cooperation with the performers of his works, and he found an ideal interpreter of his vocal music in Gerald Finley, for whom he created a role in the opera The Silver Tassie (2000), which is a reflection on the events of the First World War. Also devoted to a similar theme is the cycle The Torn Fields for baritone and orchestra with texts by several poets, which Gerald Finley also premiered (2002). Turnage wrote the cycle Without Ceremony in 2019, and the world premiere took place on 16 November 2021 in Vienna.
The final part of the programme, named Shakespeare in Love after the 1998 American-British film, takes us back to William Shakespeare. The many composers who chose to set his verses to music demonstrate the undying popularity and worth of his poetry. Thomas Morley (ca 1557–1602), a music theorist, singer, composer, and representative of the English madrigal school, was one of the few contemporaries of Shakespeare from whom we have preserved musical settings of the bard’s texts. The song “O Mistress Mine” is sung by the fool Feste in Act II of the comedy Twelfth Night. In 1934 the film director Max Reinhardt invited Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897–1957) to Hollywood, where he was filming A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For the film, Korngold’s task was to arrange the music of Felix Mendelssohn. For the composer, the invitation was an opportunity to establish important contacts and to earn more commissions for film music. After the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany, he remained in the USA. He settled in Hollywood, and today he is regarded as the creator of a special genre of film music. Between 1937 and 1941, his encounter with Shakespeare also led to the creation of two song cycles, Songs of the Clown, Op. 29, and Four Shakespeare Songs, Op. 31. Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928–2016), a leading representative of Finnish music of the 20th century, went through periods when he was under a variety of influences and tried out a number of compositional techniques, on the basis of which he created his own style. He wrote operas, eight symphonies, and concertos, and his main contribution to the field of vocal music was a series of choruses. He wrote his Three Sonnets of Shakespeare in 1951. The important English composer Michael Tippett (1905–1998) wrote his Three Songs for Ariel as part of the incidental music for a production of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest in 1962 at the Old Vic, a theatre in London. The songs exist in versions accompanied by harpsichord, piano, or a small instrumental ensemble. Madeleine Dring (1923–1977), a woman of diverse talents, studied piano and violin as well as singing and acting, and she also composed. She found success in all of those fields. In her music, she employed elements of jazz, and she wrote songs for revues and cabaret performances. She also composed works for the stage. Her Three Shakespeare Songs were published in 1949, and she added more later on (the complete set was published in 1992). The song “Take, o Take Those Lips Away” is from Shakespeare’s comedy Measure for Measure.
And finally we have one of Shakespeare’s most successful comedies, The Taming of the Shrew adapted for the musical Kiss Me, Kate by Cole Porter (1891–1964). The musical was premiered on Broadway in 1948, and it was made into a film in 1953. It masterfully employs the principle of a play within a play: the divorced couple of Fred and Lilli play Petruchio and Katherine in Shakespeare’s comedy, and real life and the play constantly overlap. In the song “Where Is the Life That Late I Led?”, Petruchio (actually Fred Graham) sings a kind of “catalogue aria” expressing regret that he ever attempted to bind his life to a one particular woman.