Doing It by the Book

Nov 18, 2020

“Reading is an act of civilization … it takes the free raw material of the mind and builds castles of possibilities.”– Ben Okri, Nigerian poet and author

There are lots of us readers who don’t need any excuse to cozy up with a book. It’s just that November’s colder and shorter days seem to signal the time is right to outfit our favorite book nook with all the essentials: comfy chair, fluffy pillows, throw blanket, reading lamp, maybe a basket to hold crunchy apples (or, cookies), and a little table stacked high with winter good reads.

There have been plenty of classical composers who liked a good read, too, and many of them turned those romantic, historical, or tear-jerker stories into music. Shakespeare’s plays, for example, inspired many composers including Henry Purcell, Claude Debussy, Edward Elgar, Jean Sibelius, Otto Nicolai, Benjamin Britten and Ralph Vaughan Williams.

Verdi took on Othello, MacBeth and Falstaff, making all three into operas that are still performed today. Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet was first performed in 1938, and has remained a favorite of ballet companies around the world. Tchaikovsky’s orchestral work, Fantasy Overture to Romeo and Juliet, is considered a masterpiece by many. And Felix Mendelssohn was almost 18 when he wrote A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, followed some 16 years later with incidental music for the play.

There wouldn’t be enough space left if I listed just the Shakespeare-inspired pieces, which include operas, ballets and orchestral works. They were either musical versions of the plays or about individual characters such as Falstaff, Hamlet, Beatrice and Benedict, King Lear, The Winter’s Tale, Much Ado About Nothing, Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, Anthony and Cleopatra, and The Merry Wives of Windsor.

In 1605 and 1615, Miguel de Cervantes wrote (in two parts) what many consider to be the first modern novel, Don Quixote de la Mancha. The most famous musical version of it may be Richard Strauss’ tone poem for cello, viola and orchestra; however, the story about the self-proclaimed knight errant sparked operas, ballets, and even a ballet with vocals from such composers such as Georg Philipp Telemann, Antonio Caldara, Antonio Salieri, Michel Richard de Lalande, Jules Massenet, George Balanchine, and Maurice Ravel.

The 1965 Broadway musical The Man of La Mancha included Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion's song “The Impossible Dream,” which has been recorded by numerous singers (and which became the theme song for the 1967 Boston Red Sox who went on to win the pennant).

Children’s stories captured the imaginations of composers, too. Maurice Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite retells fairy tales including “Beauty and the Beast,” “Little Tom Thumb,” and “Sleeping Beauty.” Gioacchino Rossini turned Charles Perrault’s “Cendrillon” (Cinderella) into an opera, while Prokofiev turned it into a ballet. Engelbert Humperdinck wrote an opera specifically for children based on the Brothers Grimm tale “Hansel and Gretel.” And Tchaikovsky turned ETA Hoffman’s “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” into the beloved Christmas ballet, The Nutcracker, and Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty” into a romantic ballet. Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass inspired a suite by Deems Taylor, and several works by David del Tredici. 

German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” prompted Paul Dukas to write a piece of the same title. His story about the Count Egmont prompted Beethoven’s famous Egmont Overture. The exotic stories from One Thousand and One Arabian Nights captured Europe’s imagination after they were translated by Antoine Galland; Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Carl Neilsen’s Aladdin Suite brought the thrilling stories to life musically. Russian composer Nikita Koshkin was inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The Fall of the House of Usher,” to write the Usher-Waltz for guitar. Franz Liszt’s Apres une lecture de Dante (After a reading of Dante) is based on Dante’s The Divine Comedy.

American composer George Frederick Bristow took Washington Irving’s short story “Rip Van Winkle” and turned it into an 1855 opera of the same title. Victor Hugo’s novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame inspired the romantic opera of the same name by Franz Schmidt, and his tragic play Ruy Blas inspired Mendelssohn’s exciting Ruy Blas Overture.

Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro opera was based on the Moliere play. Voltaire’s Candide, or Optimism served as the basis of Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 operetta. Works by William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, William Styron, and John Steinbeck all inspired ballets. George Orwell’s novel 1984 became Lorin Maazel’s opera which premiered in 2005. Benjamin Britten’s opera Billy Budd was based on Herman Melville’s novel of the same name.

What a list - and I haven’t even scratched the surface.

My fellow readers: you’re going to do it anyway, so what I recommend is that you settle into your book nook, turn on WCRB, and get lost... in the words and music.


Coda:  Disney’s 1991 animated musical Beauty and the Beast was based on French novelist Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villenueve’s story, published in 1740. Disney pushed the idea that the beauty, Belle, was a great reader. Here’s the establishing scene, titled “Belle.”