The Tempest, Shakespeare's Most Musical Play

By James David Jacobs

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The Tempest was written and premiered exactly four centuries ago in 1611. It's the last play that Shakespeare wrote without collaboration. And it's one of only two plays he wrote which is not an adaptation of an existing story or history.

(The other one is Love’s Labours Lost, one of Shakespeare’s first plays.)

It is truly an original work, one that stands at the crossroads of theatrical history: between the Renaissance and the Baroque, between the Elizabethan theatre of the imagination and the Jacobean spectacle, between the primacy of the word and the primacy of sensory entertainment.

The common link between all of these is music. It's no coincidence that at the same time these upheavals were taking place in England, the art form known as opera was being born in Italy (the first operatic masterpiece, Monteverdi's L'Orfeo, was premiered in 1607.)

One of the most remarkable aspects of the play is how aware it is of its own historical position, how consciously Shakespeare bids farewell to past trends and welcomes new ones, reinventing himself even at the end of his career. This is particularly evident in his use of music and sound cues, which are integrated into the text in an unprecedented way.
 

Be not afeard, the isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears; and sometime voices,
That if I then wak’d after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again, and then in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I wak’d
I cried to dream again.
(Caliban, Act III scene ii)

 

George Romney's The Tempest, Act I, scene i (1797)

At just over 2,000 lines, The Tempest is one of Shakespeare’s shortest plays on the page (only The Comedy of Errors has fewer lines), but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the shortest in performance.

There are many places where the music takes over, and whole scenes are performed in mime and dance, or, most remarkably, with the characters themselves just standing there listening to the music along with the audience.

We have a better idea of what the music in the original production sounded like than we do for any other Shakespeare play.  That's thanks to surviving settings by the composer and lutenist Robert Johnson of two songs from the play ("Full Fathom Five" and "Where the Bee Sucks").

Since this play was written to be played indoors for a court theatre, there were possibilities for more subtlety in the scoring than would be possible at an outdoor theater, and we can be sure Shakespeare took advantage of that; you certainly couldn’t hear a solo lute, or a viol consort, at the Globe.

(Another new innovation of the indoor theater was intermission; outdoor productions were played without a break, but court performances had long intermissions with plenty of refreshments available, not unlike the Metropolitan Opera today. Near the end of Act III scene i, Miranda says to Ferdinand, apropos of nothing related to the plot, “And now farewell / Till half an hour hence.”)
 
While many of Shakespeare’s plays have inspired musical settings through the years, what’s unique about The Tempest is how few changes are necessary to make the play adaptable to music of many centuries, not to mention film.

Many of the settings of Romeo and Juliet, for example, could just as easily refer to the older tragic love stories Shakespeare himself drew on when writing that play. But The Tempest is truly a world Shakespeare himself created, and it is no coincidence that it is the least dated of Shakespeare’s plays, the one that requires the least translation for a modern audience.

And one of the main reasons for this is that it is the play in which he puts the most trust in the power of music.



In March, the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed a concert devoted in large part to music inspired by Williams Shakespeare's The Tempest.

Thomas Adès conducted scenes from his own opera based on the play, along with Tempest-inspired pieces by Tchaikovsky and Sibelius. In addition, Anthony Marwood was the soloist for Adès's Violin Concerto, "Concentric Paths." Adès talked with Brian Bell about the entire concert, including the conception of a program built around The Tempest:
 

Hear WGBH's BSO broadcast producer Brian Bell's interview with
composer and conductor Thomas Adès
.


Brian Bell also talked with Hila Plitmann, who sang the role of Ariel:

Hear WGBH's BSO broadcast producer Brian Bell's interview with
soprano Hila Plitmann
.




MORE BACKSTAGE WITH BRIAN BELL

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