THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Music blog

02 September 2016

Setting Shakespeare to Music

The British Library's popular exhibition Shakespeare in Ten Acts closes on 6 September 2016.  Over the years, the Bard has had a profound influence on music. Our holdings reflect this, with music contemporary to Shakespeare, new music composed for Shakespeare and music inspired by Shakespeare all to be found in our extensive music collections.

One particular gem is our manuscript of Felix Mendelssohn's incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream (Egerton MS 2955). Composed in 1843 as a result of a royal commission from Friedrich Wilhelm IV, it comprises the music for the famous Scherzo, Notturno and Wedding March movements (pictured below). The manuscript itself dates from around 1844 and is a piano arrangement of these well-known excerpts in Mendelssohn's own hand. 

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Felix Mendelssohn's 'Wedding March' for A Midsummer Night's Dream (Egerton MS 2955, folio 12 verso)

We're also in possession of the sketches and libretto for Richard Wagner's Das Liebesverbot, an opera based on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure. Both form part of the extensive Zweig Collection (Zweig MSS 104 and 119).

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 Sketch for Richard Wagner's Das Liebesverbot (Zweig MS 104, folio 1 recto)

From September 1839 to April 1842, Wagner spent a rather miserable two-and-a-half years in Paris. He was forced to earn a living by making arrangements of operatic selections and by musical journalism. This unhappy period also saw the composition of his opera Das Liebesverbot, which was accepted by the Théâtre de la Renaissance in March 1840. However, the work was a resounding flop, with the second performance cancelled because of backstage fisticuffs. Two months later, the theatre was forced into bankruptcy and the work was never again performed in Wagner's lifetime.

Full digital versions of the sketches and libretto of Wagner's Das Lieberverbot are available, and Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream is on our wishlist for digitisation. In addition, if you don't think you'll be able to get to the British Library to catch the Shakespeare exhibition before it closes, fear not - a wealth of Shakespeare-related material can be found on our Shakespeare web pages