Monday, April 2, 2012

Shakespeare and Music by Julia Sanders

Shakespeare and Music – Afterlives and Borrowings by Julie Sanders, 2007. Read in February 2010.

Shakespeare and music touched me early in my life, as mentioned in the introduction to this blog, without me being aware of the connection to Shakespeare, or indeed to much awareness or interest that something called Shakespeare even existed. The first was the 1950's soundtrack to Kiss Me Kate that my parents bought and I listened to. The second was probably the pop song “Just Like Romeo and Juliet” from the early 60's followed by Donovan's “Under the Greenwood Tree” and then “What a Piece of Work is Man” from Hair.

Not all of these are mentioned in this book but this is the kind of things it deals with. It starts with a chapter on jazz with such examples as Duke Ellington and Cleo Laine. That a lot of classical music has Shakespeare connections comes as no surprise nor is Shakespeare in ballet and opera unknown to most of us.

However I wasn't aware of how many musicals have been done on Shakespeare's plays. West Side Story is probably the most famous but rock musicals have been made of Twelfth Night, Two Gentlemen of Verona and Othello. Those I would like to see! Sanders didn't especially like Kenneth Branagh's musical treatment of Love's Labour's Lost – she isn't alone on that, but it's one of my favorites and I think she misses the undertone, admittedly subtle but nevertheless there, of seriousness in the movie. She's less negative to the use of rock, jazz and pop music in three of my other favorites: Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet, Taymor's Titus and Loncraine's (Ian McKellan's) Richard III.

There is a chapter about symphonic scores to Shakespeare films and she mentions the Shostakovitch scores for Kosintsev's Hamlet and King Lear, the Kurosawa versions and others but she also spends quite a lot of time with the Patrick Doyle score for Branagh's Hamlet. She doesn't like this either, and once again we disagree. The dramatic build-up of the scene in which Hamlet stands on the icy plain at the end of Act 4 Scene 4 ending with “O, from this time forth, My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” is, according to Sanders, overdone, while I never fail to be deeply moved by it.

Disagreements aside, I found much of interest in the book and will undoubtedly refer to it from time to time.


  1. This looks like the perfect book for me, but Amazon Look Inside reveals disturbing dryness, formality and even obscurity in the writing. Not terribly insightful, either. At least what I could glimpse from the "classical part", the only one I have some familiarity with, was disappointingly perfunctory or pedestrian - or both.

    That said, all those chapters on jazz, musical and film scores look rather interesting. I should love to hear "Othello" as musical. It might just work better than Verdi's "Otello", a music drama which - to borrow G. B. Harrison's descritpion of Shakespeare's "Macbeth" - has been "extravagantly overpraised".

    Even in the classical field Julie can be quite stimulating as a starting point. I for one had no idea that Debussy composed an incidental music to "King Lear", Dvorak an "Othello" overture and Smetana a "Richard III" one. Nor was I aware of Elgar's "Falstaff". All these are fascinating curiosities. One wonders why they are so under-performed and under-recorded.

  2. I agree that the book suffers from dryness but as you say there is valuable information that serves well as an introduction to the subject.

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