Music has a particularly special relationship with the works of William Shakespeare: this is true of the musicality of the poetic language and the presence of music in the texts of his opuses (for example, in the playwright’s thirty-seven plays music is not mentioned in just five of them). It would be all but impossible to calculate just how many pieces of music have been composed after texts and motifs from works by Shakespeare: their number is constantly increasing, and one may be sure this will continue in the future. In Russian music the first to embody Shakespeare’s poetry and prose in sound were Alexander Alyabyev and Alexander Varlamov. In the two centuries that have since passed there have been many masterpieces inspired by Shakespeare’s genius. Among them, without any shadow of doubt, is Sergei Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet (1936). It is a well-known fact that the music for the ballet stunned contemporaries and how unusual its un-balletic lyricism was with its powerful Shakespearian contrasts, dramatic complexity and depth. Prokofiev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet was to be an incredibly important landmark in world dance, essentially rediscovering Shakespeare. Using the music for the ballet, the composer later wrote three orchestral suites and a piano cycle (1937), which featured ten pieces including the now world-famous Dance of the Knights (The Montagues and the Capulets). Although the composer did not retain the plot sequence in his piano cycle, the principle he selected of comparing contrasting scenes and images fully reflected the wealth of the music and content of the ballet.
The piano transcription of Felix Mendelssohn’s Scherzo from music for Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one of the most popular works by Sergei Rachmaninoff. In the performance, the Scherzo is performed before the start of Act II which opens with the scene of the Fairy and Puck. It is the music of the Scherzo that most closely resembles the image of the mischievous Puck and the other elves. In displaying his brilliance for arrangements, Rachmaninoff was able to turn unavoidable losses (in density and the timbre variety of sound) into gains, achieving, so to speak, an even greater “elfin” quality, underlining the unity of character in the music of the Scherzo.
The final Op. 35 of Nikolai Medtner, the piano Tale in C Sharp Minor, was given the title of A Lear of the Steppe and received the epigraph from scene 2 of Act III of Shakespeare’s King Lear: “Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks!” Here Lear, the “poor, sick, weak, hated old man”, abandoned by his own daughters, wanders the steppes in torrential rain during a mighty storm. Interestingly, in 1914 it was proposed that Sergei Rachmaninoff compose music for the same scene by the Committee to celebrate three hundred and fifty years of Shakespeare (the commission was never undertaken due to the outbreak of World War I). In his music Medtner also depicts the storm, but the explosive and crashing passages and harsh changes of chords are even more closely associated with the mental anguish that seizes Shakespeare’s protagonist. The rage, tragedy and soft, songful lyricism so close to Rachmaninoff are blended in a unique fashion in the music of this piece. There is no direct sequence paralleling Shakespeare’s tragedy in Medtner’s tale, although one can detect the composer’s aim to depict a specific portrait of Lear – a man with strong passions, contradictory, one who makes mistakes and one who suffers...
Already at the premiere of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s First Piano Sonata was accompanied by the brief title of Faust to which it owed so much, although the composer did not reveal a detailed programme to the audience. Later, in one of his letters Rachmaninoff thus described the “leading idea” of his work: “It is three contrasting types of one world literary work. (...) If I revealed the programme then the Sonata would become clearer.” According to the acclaimed pianist Konstantin Igumnov, the composer embodied the image of Faust in the first movement of the sonata, Gretchen (Marguerite) in the second and the third depicts the flight over Brocken and Mephistopheles. In general the music of the sonata matches this programme (to a lesser degree one can make out the image of Mephistopheles). But through the plot basis one can definitely distinguish Rachmaninoff’s recognisable lyricism – animated, extremely emotional – and the heroism and drama that create as if a parallel narrative plan of this piece of music.