AMSGNY Meetings

Shakespeare and Music abstracts

Jacquelyn Sholes - “Joseph Joachim’s Overture to Hamlet in Relation to Shakespeare and Liszt”

Now known primarily as a violinist, Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) was regarded by Mendelssohn, Liszt, Schumann, Brahms, and others as a promising young composer before professional demands as performer and teacher brought an end to his compositional aspirations. Among his early works is an Overture to Hamlet completed in 1853 and dedicated to the Weimar Kapelle, in which Joachim had recently served as Concertmaster under Liszt. Despite the serious attention the piece received from Liszt (who conducted the work), Brahms (who arranged the piece for piano, four hands), Schumann, and others, and regardless of the rich network of literary and musical contexts for the Overture, the work has remained largely unknown. This paper represents the first in-depth examination of the Overture and its relationship to Shakespeare’s play, as well as a first attempt to explore the work’s relationship to the symphonic poem Hamlet, which was completed five years later by Liszt.

 Melissa Khong – “Ophelia as Creative Agency in Guillaume Lekeu’s Second Symphonic Etude”

The tragic figure of Ophelia has long been seen as a symbol of feminine fragility, malady, and enigma. While recent studies by Elaine Showalter and Philippa Berry have encouraged a greater appreciation of the character, the common perception of Ophelia as a mere pawn in Shakespeare’s play persisted into the nineteenth century. In Guillaume Lekeu’s second symphonic etude (1890), conceived as an tripartite orchestral poem based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Ophelia serves as a creative agency through which Lekeu could express his own ideas on the Eternal Feminine and its idealized representation. This paper explores the compositional decisions behind Lekeu’s work and the extent to which contemporary ideology governed his musical portraits of Hamlet and Ophelia.

Ren Draya – “The Music in Shakespeare’s Othello”

Shakespeare's comedies are often suffused with music--romantic lute melodies, jolly jigs, melancholy serenades. But every Shakespeare play contains at least a mention of music, and the tragedy of Othello presents a number of examples of both instrumental music and songs. Music is not a mere filler: it plays an integral role in illuminating character and mood.

Samantha Bassler – “’That suck’d the honey of his music vows’: Music and Madness in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Othello"

Disability studies in musicology, as a form of study of arts and the body, has emerged as an exciting methodology for scholarly analysis of music. To date, most scholarly studies on music and disability focus on music written and performed after the eighteenth century. Therefore, to illuminate how disability theory might enhance understanding of early music outside of the common practice era, the proposed paper is a study of how madness was understood in early modern England, with case studies in Shakespeare’s plays. The healing and soothing properties of music were well known in the early modern period, and were often related to character and therefore madness. Jesuit scientist Athanasius Kircher (1602-1680) names notes from a tune that he claims can cure madness, all the while “mad songs” sung by possibly mad characters feature prominently in Shakespeare’s plays, such as Hamlet, King Lear, and Othello. Indeed, mad songs were a common feature of English musical landscape in the seventeenth century, and were connected to the larger folk tradition of the broadside ballad. This paper shows the association between mad song and broadside ballad, and further connect these traditions with ideas of madness, melancholy, and the body, as expressed in Shakespeare and music. The result will be a fuller understanding of the relationship between music and madness in early modern culture, and particularly to madness in Shakespeare.

Ji Yeon Lee - Climax and Anti-Climax: Verdi's Musical Rendering of Lady Macbeth's Dramatic Narrative

Verdi once stated that Lady Macbeth dominates and controls the dramatic action in his Macbeth. Certainly, the “Gran scena e duetto” and “Scena e sestetto,” of Act I, scene 2, center on her characterization as a daring, ruthless murderer. Although the duet and the subsequent ensemble finale are individual set pieces, they seamlessly merge as a portrayal of Lady Macbeth’s pursuit of power and climactic realization of her goal. However, her death near the end of the opera is merely related as an offstage incident, bypassing a grand death scene. Instead, her final appearance onstage is the sleepwalking scene, which lacks the bravura technique and crescendo-driven closure of the conventional rondo-finale aria. The merciless figure is replaced by a zombie roaming an eerie, otherworldly space of mental collapse (“Gran scena del sonnambulismo,” Act IV, scene 2). Shakespeare’s anti-climatic negation of character presents a narrative disjunction that is difficult to convey through traditional Italian operatic tropes; this paper explores Verdi’s musical solution to the problem of rendering the dramatic trajectory linking these strikingly opposed characterizations

Alessandra Jones -- Massenet’s Scènes Dramatiques (1874) and the French Art of Distilling Shakespeare

Jules Massenet composed his fifth orchestral suite, titled Scènes dramatiques, just prior to achieving international success. He based the suite on dramatic moments from several Shakespeare plays. The first movement, drawing on The Tempest, begins with a large storm before shifting focus to the fantastical elements of the play. The second movement depicts Desdemona before her murder in Othello—a scene not found in the original play, but one that is clearly of interest to Massenet and, later, Giuseppe Verdi. Verdi’s presence also looms over the third and final movement, which attempts a larger narrative as it brings us through some of the major moments of Macbeth: the witches, Banquo’s ghost at the banquet, and the coronation of King Malcolm. This paper analyzes Massenet’s interpretation of these plays and places this work in the wider context of Shakespeare’s French musical reception.

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