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Music Literary Arts

Music that's lit

Writers and literature that influenced composers


Published: 3 Feb 2022

Time taken : ~10mins

Throughout the centuries, composers have been inspired by works of literature, and sometimes sought to express the meaning and drama of the text through music. For this edition of Cool Classics, Esplanade’s free programme series for February, we put the spotlight on literary pieces that have connections to music and look at how some composers have taken stories and written some of the most well-loved tunes in classical music today.  

William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)

Throughout the centuries, Shakespeare’s plays have been an inspiration to many composers. Perhaps the most famous was Romeo and Juliet, the tragedy of star-crossed lovers which served as inspiration for Tchaikovsky’s symphonic tone poem, a large symphonic work for chorus and orchestra by Berlioz, an opera by Gounod, and Bernstein’s West Side Story. Countless movies have also been made; the one with the most famous film score was the 1968 version directed by Franco Zeffirelli, which spawned the hit love theme by Nino Rota, A Time For Us.

If music be the food of love, play on—and indeed, the Bard’s romances have proved fertile ground for composers. Mendelssohn wrote incidental music to the comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with the Wedding March from the suite being one of the most often-used wedding marches by brides and grooms through the centuries.

Dante Alighieri (1265 – 1321)

Italian poet, writer and philosopher Dante Alighieri depicted Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise in his epic poem Divine Comedy. Some 14,233 lines of text describe Dante’s journey through nine circles of hell and the terraces of purgatory led by the ancient Roman poet Virgil, who then hands over to Dante’s muse and inspiration Beatrice to guide him through the nine spheres of heaven. Among the most famous settings inspired by the Divine Comedy are Franz Liszt’s Dante Sonata for solo piano and Symphony to Dante’s Divina Commedia, Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini – Symphonic Fantasy after Dante based on an episode in Inferno, and more recently, Dutch composer Louis Andriessen’s film opera in five parts La Commedia written in 2008.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832)

German playwright, novelist and poet Goethe is best remembered for the story of Faust, a man who sells his soul to the devil. Many writers have told this story, but Goethe’s is perhaps the most important version of the legend; he was working on it for the whole of his life. Where others condemn Faust to eternal damnation, Goethe’s Faust is redeemed at the end by his love Gretchen, and brought to heaven. This play in two parts, whether a few lines or a section, has inspired a whole list of works in the music repertory.

The first musical reference to Goethe’s Faust is in Beethoven’s Op. 75 collection of lieder, with No. 3 titled Aus Goethes Faust: "Es war einmal ein König". Franz Schubert’s lieder Gretchen am Spinnrade about Gretchen at the spinning wheel pining for her lover Faust was written a few years after, in 1814. At the height of Romanticism, the 1840s and 1850s saw many large symphonic works inspired by Goethe’s Faustian legend, including Hector Berlioz’s La Damnation de Faust for four solo voices, a seven-part chorus, a large children’s chorus and orchestra, Wagner’s Faust Overture for orchestra, and Robert Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust, a musical-theatrical work in three sections involving a chorus, a boy’s chorus, orchestra, and at least seven soloists. Franz Liszt had watched Berlioz conduct his own work, and had conducted Schumann’s Scenes from Goethe’s Faust before embarking on his own Faust Symphony (dedicated to Berlioz), and later, the four Mephisto Waltzes for piano. 

Goethe’s most famous ballad, Der Erlkönig, has been set to music by numerous composers, but none has come close to the enduring popularity of Schubert’s lied Der Erlkönig. Schubert used the piano part to set the scene of a dark, stormy night, and propel the drama forward with the father’s intense worrying and the beguiling Erlking’s charms. 

Heinrich Heine (1787 – 1856)

Heinrich Heine’s Buch der Lieder or Book of Songs is a publication of all his poetry up till 1827. Divided into five main sections, the subject matter comprises the adoration of nature and the self-mockery of bittersweet verses about unrequited love. This collection established his reputation as a poet, and his poetry has been set to various tunes over 10,000 times. 

Robert Schumann set 16 of Heine’s poems about love and betrayal into a song-cycle Dichteliebe (A Poet’s Love). This song cycle came to be Schumann’s best known, with the role of the pianist further elevated from Schubert’s scene-setter (in Der Erlkönig) to companion, emphasising the text and even commenting on it in wordless ways. 

Felix Mendelssohn’s Gruß, a short setting of Heine’s Leise zieht durch mein Gemüt (Softly, flow through my soul) expressing the joys of spring was so popular that it achieved the status of a German folk song.

His sister Fanny Mendelssohn beautifully captures the bittersweet quality of the text in Heine’s Schwanenlied (Swan Song) one year before her untimely death. Schubert’s own swan song which he wrote at the end of his life, the song cycle Schwanengesang, sets 14 poems to music, six of which were poems by Heine. 

Aloysius Bertrand (1807 – 1841)

In 1842, Aloysius Bertrand published Gaspard de la nuit, a book of prose-poetry filled with nightmarish, hallucinatory fantasies not unlike the writings of Edgar Allan Poe, whom Ravel revered. Bertrand suggested that “Gaspard” (whose name in Persian translates to a man who guards mysterious, jewel-like treasure) was a pseudonym for the devil, and that he was the true author of the book. Ravel selected three poems in 1908, setting them to musical imagery: the seduction of Ondine, a water spirit, the grotesque world surrounding a corpse hanging from the gallows, and Scarbo, an evil dwarf who appears in the dead of the night to taunt and provoke.

E.T.A. Hoffmann (1776 – 1822)

If you’ve heard of The Sandman and The Nutcracker, then you would have heard the stories of E.T.A. Hoffman. Born Ernst Theodor Wilhelm Hoffmann, he changed the Wilhelm to Amadeus, out of admiration for Mozart. He was a music critic, a composer and an artist who drew, painted and wrote scary stories that blurred the lines between fantasy and reality. These stories were so famous that other composers read them and then set them to music. Jacques Offenbach set three of these stories into an opera, The Tales of Hoffmann, and one of which is based on The Sandman, a man who steals the eyes of children who stay up past their bedtime and feeds them to his own children on the moon. Offenbach’s opera is based on one portion of the Sandman story, where evil inventors create a robot girl. This, then, is loosely the basis for Leo Delibes’ comic ballet Coppelia, where a young man falls in love with a life-sized dancing doll.

Hoffmann’s most famous story today is The Nutcracker and the Mouse King, a story-within-a-story about a little girl Marie and her toys, which Tchaikovsky set to music for a ballet in two acts

Hoffmann also created a character Johann Kreisler, a brooding, eccentric composer, who appeared in three of his novels and several of his writings. This character inspired Robert Schumann to compose a large, dramatic piano work Kreisleriana in eight movements.

A.E. Housman (1859 – 1936)

Alfred Edward Housman was an English poet best known for his collection of 63 poems titled A Shropshire Lad, written in 1895 and published the year after. The idyllic descriptions of the countryside (“Loveliest of trees, the cherry now”) as well as the narrative folk-ballad style content of the poems (“When I was one-and-twenty”, and “Is my team ploughing?”) that touched on young lads going off to fight and die in the war were tragic and eerily-prophetic, and struck a chord in numerous English composers.

John Ireland’s song cycle The Land of Lost Content, as well as solo piano piece Spring Will Not Wait that ends off his trilogy We’ll To The Woods No More have quoted texts from A Shropshire Lad; Ralph Vaughan Williams’ song cycle On Wenlock Edge sets six of Housman’s poems to music for tenor, piano and string quartet.

George Butterworth set eleven of these poems for voice and piano between 1909-1911, and later took the themes to write an orchestral rhapsody in 1911. It was ironic that Butterworth was drawn to Housman’s regret-filled poetry, for he was killed five years later in the Battle of the Somme at the young age of 31 while serving in the Durham Light Infantry, shortly after he was awarded the Medal of Courage. 

1,001 (Arabian) Nights

A collection of folk tales in Arabic from the Islamic Golden Age, 1,001 Arabian Nights is framed by the story of the Sultan Shahryār and Scheherazade. The sultan was bitter and resentful at his first wife’s infidelity that he decided to take a new bride every night only to have her executed at dawn. One bride Scheherazade begins telling the sultan a story without finishing it, forcing him to postpone the execution to hear the ending of the story. In telling a succession of stories and being sure to end each night in the middle of a story and postponing their endings over 1,001 nights, she outsmarts the sultan and saves herself. 

Teeming with exotic scales and harmonies, Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov took separate, unconnected episodes from the various tales (the sea and Sinbad’s ship, Prince Kalandar’s narrative, the love story of the Prince and the Princess, and the Baghdad Festival) and connected them by the use of a solo violin to represent the voice of Scheherazade. He then gave the work the title of Scheherazade.

Some of the recognisable characters in the stories include Sinbad and his seven voyages, Aladdin and the magic lamp, and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. These individual stories have inspired composers to write works: CM von Weber wrote Abu Hassan in 1811, Luigi Cherubini wrote the opera Ali Baba in 1833, and various settings of Aladdin abound, two of which are Carl Nielsen’s Aladdin Suite and Christian Horneman’s opera Aladdin.


Catch Cool Classics’ free performances all through Feb 2022.

Contributed by:

Natalie Ng

Natalie Ng writes about music, plays three instruments and dances to music. She is a programmer at Esplanade.

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