Music Post: When words inspire music


If you think words can convey information better than music can, you will be interested to know that Felix Mendelssohn, who wrote poetry and whose letters are a joy to read even today, felt that music could convey emotions too complex to be explained using words. Music, he felt, was more specific than words.

A few years ago I did a whole show on musical moods, but I want to revisit that theme one day, because my intention, only partly realized the first time, was to explore music suggesting moods too complex to categorize as happy or sad.

Despite this, composers of four generations have enjoyed, or in some cases perhaps appreciated the challenge of, writing music depicting stories of great literature.

Hours of music has been written about Shakespeare’s writings. Tchaikovsky, Berlioz and Prokofiev are but three composers inspired by “Romeo & Juliet,” and Tchaikovsky’s excellent “Francesca da Rimini” is straight from the most anguished pages of Dante’s “Inferno.” The orchestral reputations of Franz Liszt and Richard Strauss rest largely on tone poems inspired by literature.

Arnold Schoenberg, Claude Debussy and Jean Sibelius, whom you will agree were three very different composers, all wrote music inspired by “Pelleas et Melissande.” Mendelssohn himself wrote incidental music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that is beloved to this day while Antonin Dvorak was one of many composers to write a tone poem on “Othello.”


The writings of the ancient Greeks inspired Beethoven’s “Creatures of Prometheus” and Taneyev’s “Temple of Apollo.” Stories of the ancient Romans led to Florent Schmitt’s “Anthony and Cleopatra” while Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote a tone poem on “Julius Caesar.”

Lord Byron inspired Schumann’s “Manfred” – and Tchaikovsky wrote an entire “Manfred” Symphony, which could have been added to the six numbered ones but wasn’t.

Grieg’s “Peer Gynt” incidental music was written for Ibsen’s play while Ibsen was still around to be the composer’s collaborator. If you’re not familiar with the play I should mention that it’s mostly about the hero’s travels far from Scandanavia and some of the most memorial pieces Grieg wrote, which people associate with fjords, are about Africa.

Liszt’s “Les Preludes,” often described as being inspired by Lamartine’s poem of the same name, are actually inspired by the writings of Liszt’s girlfriend the Princess of Sayn-Wittgenstein, though the gist is the same, that life is but a series of preludes to whatever comes after.

Gustav Holst’s “The Perfect Fool” is an interesting case because the writings that inspired the music were the composer’s own libretto to an opera. He had tried and failed to get others to give him the words.

American composers have not been immune to all this. Aaron Copland’s “A Lincoln Portrait” comes to mind, and his settings of poems by Emily Dickinson, and Louis Coerne’s “Excalibur,” and the “Tempest” music of John Knowles Paine. And as recently as 2002, Paul Moravec wrote a “Tempest Fantasy.”

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