Musical Adaptations from Shakespeare

What is Shakespeare’s appeal to composers – is it his verse, plots, characters or a combination? We’ll consider operas, ballets, musicals (even jukebox musicals), soundtracks, incidental music, and symphonic poems. We’ll look at adaptations of major works such as “Romeo and Juliet”, “Othello”, “Midsummer Night's Dream”, and “Hamlet” but also comedies such as “Twelfth Night” and “Taming of the Shrew”. Composers studied will include Berlioz, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Verdi, Purcell, Prokofiev, Saariaho, Shostakovich, Bernstein, Cole Porter, Walton and Elvis. We’ll also include Wagner and Britten and use our musical study to gain a new appreciation of Shakespeare’s poetic and dramatic genius.

This class will be delivered online via the online platform Zoom. Enrolling students need to ensure they have an email, a reliable internet connection, microphone/speakers and access to a tablet, smartphone or computer.


  • Romeo and Juliet
  • Midsummer Night’s Dream
  • Othello
  • Hamlet
  • Richard II


  • Various Romeos: A look at one of the most popular stories for adaptation. A taste of various Romeos, including Tchaikovsky’s “Fantasy Overture” and Prokofiev’s 1940 ballet (no words), which originally had a happy ending. Students will gain a sense of the aspects of Romeo and Juliet that appeal to composers.
  • Something’s coming: Continuing to look at adaptations that make use of Romeo and Juliet’s plot, with particular emphasis on Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette – Dramatic Symphony, and Bernstein’s West Side Story. A sideways look at Humperdinck’s music to The Merchant of Venice and its love scene.
  • How many adaptations are masterpieces in their own right?: A look at Verdi’s Otello and whether it measures up to its source. And what about Verdi’s Macbetto or Falstaff, and other adaptations of The Merry Wives of Windsor by Otto Nicolai and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Students will gain a sense of the ways in which Verdi and other composers replicate the majesty of Shakespearian drama in music.
  • A philosopher’s medium?: A look at musical portrayals of Shakespeare’s moody hero, Hamlet – Tchaikovsky’s tone-poem, operas by Ambroise Thomas, Franco Faccio, and Australian Brett Dean, and of course soundtracks by Shostakovich and William Walton. What about operas that focus on Ophelia? Students will gain a sense of how music underlines dramatic depth.
  • The conjuring of magic: Musical adaptations of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with particular concentration on Mendelssohn’s incidental music to the play and Benjamin Britten’s opera. We’ll also look at Kaija Saariaho’s The Tempest Songbook and a Tempest using music of Elvis. Students will gain a sense of the magical dimension music adds.
  • Opera’s advantages and shortcomings: Romeo’s conversion to another dramatic form, with a look at Italian and French approaches to the story: Bellini’s I capuleti e i montecchi and Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette. A side-glance at other favourite sources of composers – Goethe, Pushkin and Victor Hugo, with some consideration of whether Rigoletto, based on Hugo, may have been Verdi’s King Lear. Students will gain a sense of Shakespeare’s universal appeal.
  • Dealing with difficulty/dealing with fun: Has anyone succeeded with King Lear? And how about the comedies, such as The Merry Wives of Windsor, Sir John in Love, Berlioz’s Béatrice et Bénédict (based on Much Ado About Nothing) and Wagner’s Das Liebesverbot (based on Measure for Measure)? Students will assess whether some Shakespeare plays are more suitable for musical adaptation than others.
  • And then there are the relative rarities: Samuel Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra (with libretto based on Shakespeare by Franco Zeffirelli), or Hermann Goetz’s Der Widerspenstigen Zähmung (The Taming of the Shrew) a favourite of George Bernard Shaw! But let’s finish with a really fun Shrew, Cole Porter’s Kiss me Kate! Students will be able to evaluate the essence of Shakespearean expression through a comparison of the course’s musical adaptations.

By the end of this course, students should be able to:

  1. Discuss the musical qualities and potential of Shakespeare’s plays;
  2. Discuss a large range of composers who have made adaptations from Shakespeare;
  3. Compare the plots of several Shakespeare plays and their adaptations;
  4. Discuss the effectiveness of various adaptations;
  5. Suggest why some of the plays have not been made into popular musical adaptations, and even
  6. Suggest what aspects of “Richard II” might have musical potential.
$232 Limited / $209

<p>What is Shakespeare’s appeal to composers – is it his verse, plots, characters or a combination? We’ll consider operas, ballets, musicals (even jukebox musicals), soundtracks, incidental music, and

14 Oct

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