The Tempest – William Shakespeare and Robert Johnson
As we all know, 2016 marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. After four centuries Shakespeare still remains at the top of the list as the most loved, copied, performed, stolen from writer in history. The New Grove Dictionary of Opera lists some 400 stage-works (operas for the most part) based on plays by Shakespeare. The Shakespeare-idolatry began in 1769, with a Stratford-upon-Avon becoming a place of pilgrimage: everyone who was someone, traveled to that small market town that had given birth to a genius, happy to dance around in the muddy streets with their courtly shoes. Music was part of the service, with composer Thomas Arne. Arne was not however the first one to toy with Shakespeare’s works: there seems to be evidence of a quite strict collaboration between the Bard and court composer Robert Johnson, on at least one of Shakespeare’s most famous works: The Tempest.
That Shakespeare loved music is quite a known fact. That he held it into high consideration can be assumed by his writings. For example:
The man that bath no music in himself
Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils,
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus.
The tempest has frequently been described as Shakespeare’s most lyrical play. It comes as no surprise that it inspired famous composers like Tchaikowsky (with his symphonic fantasia) or Sibelius (with his incidental music for the Copenaghen Theater). More recently, it was also turned into an opera by English composer Thomas Ades as well as into a chamber opera by Joseph Summer for his Shakespeare Concert Series. No matter the era in which one lives, it seems like Shakespeare is an endless source of inspiration for composers and artists in general, from Purcell to Verdi, Bernstein, and Elvis Costello.
An immortal mirror on our loves, our flaws, our hopes.
If you’re interested in the film version of The Tempest and in a summary of the play and its characters, take a look at this:
Sources and resources:
 – The Merchant of Venice (V, I, 83-85)
Resources: Cambridge Digital Library: http://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/collections/music
Internet Shakespeare Edition: http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/
The Tempest: Critical Essays by Patrick M. Murphy: excerpts from the book
Cover photo by Matt Hardy