Music Inspired by Shakespeare | Rhapsody of Words

By September 3, 2014 No Comments





The City of London Sinfonia is putting on a series of concerts focused around Shakespeare from October 8 to the beginning of November of this year. They have an impressive line up of repertoire including newly composed music, and actors to read text to go along with some of the pieces. This concert series made me remember some of my favorite pieces for orchestra inspired by Shakespeare, and I thought I would share them here for those of us not able to be in London for the performances there.

Here is Vaughn Williams Serenade to Music, a orchestral and choral arrangement of some of the text from The Merchant of Venice, and it’s stunningly beautiful.

How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank!
Here will we sit and let the sounds of music
Creep in our ears. Soft stillness and the night
Become the touches of sweet harmony.


One of the most famous pieces for orchestra connected with Shakespeare is Mendelsohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s actually only one of a whole set of incidental music to go along with the play, and it’s famous for its donkey brays and flittering fairies audible in the course of the piece.


The story of Romeo and Juliet has inspired a great deal of music, everything from Russian ballet to Taylor Swift, and these last three are some of my favorites. Prokofiev’s ballet music is as wonderful as it is harsh. This dance at the ball does not seem the least bit frolicsome, but bears the full weight of the play in its heavy rhythms.

Another Russian composer taking on the story of romance and death was Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. This Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture has themes so popular they have become cliches of “romantic music.” But with good reason, it’s a tremendous work and one well worth listening to again and again.

Although a completely different vibe than the rest of the work for orchestra in this post, Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story score is the best part of that excellent musical. It’s very difficult to pick just one selection from this re-telling of Romeo and Juliet, but the Mambo gives a taste of the party and a taste of the world of the play.

Those are some of my favorites for orchestra. Feel free to share your own, and if you’re in London, do check out check out the London Sinfonia’s excellent lineup of concerts.

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