This week marks the 456th birthday of William Shakespeare. The Bard is famous for his plays, but his work has also inspired a lot of classical music, so WPLN News’ sister station, 91Classical, has teamed up with the Nashville Shakespeare Festival to celebrate with music and text that is as relevant today as it was centuries ago.
People have been performing Shakespeare’s plays for 400 years, and his work has been inspiring composers from the very beginning. Shakespeare himself wrote musical moments into lots of his plays. Since then, composers have set his words to music.
But some of the most iconic pieces inspired by Shakespeare are instrumental —like Felix Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. So 91Classsical sent a playlist over to some actors at the Nashville Shakespeare Festival, and they responded with video performances of favorite scenes related to that music.
Over the course of his career, Shakespeare wrote 37 plays, but one in particular has inspired musicians: Romeo and Juliet. Tchaikovsky wrote a famous Fantasy-Overture, and Leonard Bernstein reworked it into West Side Story, as just a few examples.
Sergei Prokofiev also set the tragic love story to music for his 1938 ballet. One particularly poignant moment in the music happens in the movement titled Romeo Bids Juliet Farewell, which corresponds with a scene where the lovers have a hard time time saying goodbye after spending the night together.
The Nashville Symphony recently performed this with conductor JoAnn Falletta, and she emphasized just how timeless the score is. It’s one reason Shakespeare and classical music pair so well together: No matter how long ago it was written, there is always a fresh way to experience it.
With venues closed due to COVID-19, performing arts organizations have had no choice but to find new ways to connect with audiences. All the performances for the collaboration between 91Classical and The Nashville Shakespeare Festival were recorded by actors at home. Fortunately, Shakespeare is known for some excellent monologues.
But even a scene with two actors in different places, like the one from Romeo and Juliet, worked. Actors Mason Conrad and Morgan Davis brought the star-crossed lovers to life via a Zoom call.
Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet in the 1590s, but watching the scene this way feels so current — not only because the characters are using a technology that many people use every day, but also because the heartache of not being allowed to be with loved ones physically is something that a lot of people are dealing with.