6 Ways Literature Has Inspired Composers

In honor of National Classical Music Month, we’d like to share some beautiful instrumental songs that were inspired by gorgeous books! We’ve even prepared a Spotify playlist for you that is the perfect length for a long commute to and from school or work. We hope you enjoy reading and listening along to some beautiful literary tunes.


Musicals

Perhaps one of the most exciting ways books influence and inspire composers is in the creation of musicals. Take for example, how the composers of Les Miserables, Ragtime, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame each captured the raw emotion of their respective fictional characters. Whether you’re listening (or singing along to) Éponine’s tears over Marius, Tateh’s excitement about his new home in America, or the gorgeous choral singers at Notre Dame, musicals have a special sort of literary magic that is distinct from other genres of music.


Orchestral Works

As a former orchestra member (Do I have any fellow violists out there?), I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to talk about how literature has been an integral part of classical music. The first influential story that comes to mind is William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Tchaikovsky’s “Fantasy Overture” is an absolute masterpiece and my personal favorite musical take on Shakespeare’s writing. Hungarian composer Franz Liszt’s “Faust Symphony” is equally as fascinating. In this work, Liszt creates three character sketches from Goethe’s Faust: Faust, Gretchen, and Mephistopheles. Instead of recreating the drama’s plot, as many other composers do when inspired by a work of literature, Liszt writes musical portraits that explore the three unique fictional characters.


Operas

Operas lend themselves well to literary inspiration, needing dramatic narrative and compelling, emotional characters. Verdi adored Macbeth so much that he composed a four act opera that begins with an appropriately dramatic overture. Henry Purcell used opera to capture the betrayal of Aeneas to Dido from The Aeneid. What better way to musically express the stormy drama in these works than elaborate operatic arias?


Ballets

Combining both music and dance, ballet is another beautiful art form that can benefit from literary motivation. For example, Charles Perrault’s Sleeping Beauty inspired Tchaikovsky to compose the famous waltz in his “Sleeping Beauty.” (Also, can we take a moment to appreciate how well-read Tchaikovsky must have been to make all of his literary references?) Prokofiev tackles the classic Romeo and Juliet in his ballet, which he ended up using to build three orchestral suites and a solo piano piece later on in his life. I have to say, my favorite part of Prokofiev’s work is the scene where Tybalt recognizes Romeo. That particularly catchy song has definitely been stuck in my head a couple times!


Plays

What’s a play without a little musical accompaniment? Shakespeare is once again an influential force in the musical arena. Several of his plays are accompanied by well-composed music. In fact, Robert Johnson, an English composer and lutenist, is well-known for working directly for Shakespeare to provide music, like “Galliard” and “Full Fathom Five,” for his plays. Mendelssohn is another Shakespeare-admirer known for his music composed to accompany Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


Film Scores

Last, but certainly not least, literature has been instrumental (pardon the pun) in the “book-to-movie” film scores we listen to today. This just might be my favorite form of literary influence on music; it’s always so exciting to see a movie recreation of one of your favorite books complete with costuming, scenery, and a beautiful soundtrack. To name just a few books that have inspired recent film scores, theres’ the Harry Potter series, The Hunger Games, Pride and Prejudice, The Handmaid’s Tale, Alan Turing: The Enigma, The Hobbit, and Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption.


The artwork featured on our blog was
provided by local artist Kelly Seifert.


You can find a Spotify playlist with the songs mentioned in 
our post below. We hope you enjoy the music collection!

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