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HPM Top Ten List: Great Literature That Inspired Music

A list of literary works that have inspired composers over the years.


HPM Top Ten List: Great Literature That Inspired Music

August is Arts Appreciation Month, and Houston Public Media’s Arts & Culture team is celebrating by focusing on works of art that are inspired by or done in collaboration with other art forms. Each week will be devoted to a specific type of art. We begin with the world of literature. Here is a list of great literary works that have inspired composers over the years.


10. The Lord of the Rings ­J.R.R. Tolkien

It would be difficult to find someone who has not heard of The Lord of the Rings in some way at this point. Between the success of the original book series and the film adaptations from 2001 to 2003, the fantasy-adventure trilogy has become one of the most recognized stories of the twentieth century. Preceded by The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings presents the archetypal hero’s journey through the young hobbit Frodo Baggins and his comrades in the Fellowship of the Ring, a group of adventurers destined to destroy the One Ring, a mysterious item of power created by the deposed evil warlord Sauron. The story is full of epic battles between Men, Orcs, Elves, Dwarves, and numerous other imaginative races and creatures. Having created such a vividly detailed world, Tolkien has had an undeniable influence on subsequent works of fantasy fiction and their tried and true tropes. Though Howard Shore’s musical scores to The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films are probably the best-known examples of musical inspiration from the series, there is also Johan de Meij’s Symphony No. 1, “The Lord of the Rings” for concert band, which features movements inspired by Gandalf, Lothlorien, Gollum, the Mines of Moria, and the Hobbits.


9. Works of W. H. Auden 

Having coined the phrase “the Age of Anxiety,” English poet W. H. Auden was a prominent figure in the highly industrialized and war-torn twentieth century. Much of his work was influenced by contemporary issues in society and politics as well as his travels across the world. Though he lived in England for the first few decades of his life, he eventually became a United States citizen in 1939. His Pulitzer Prize-winning work The Age of Anxiety: A Baroque Eclogue focuses heavily on the societal ramifications of World War II and the world’s growing industry, and it inspired Leonard Bernstein’s Symphony No. 2, subtitled The Age of Anxiety. Auden was also directly involved in the creation of multiple other works of music, having written the libretto for Igor Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress and Benjamin Britten’s Paul Bunyan, he also wrote a text specifically for Britten’s Hymn to St. Cecilia at the request of the composer.


8. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There Lewis Carroll 

Steeped in escapist fantasy, these two stories by Lewis Carroll were pioneers in the literary nonsense style. Featuring bizarre characters like the enigmatic Caterpillar, the mischievous Cheshire Cat, and the crazed Queen of Hearts, the bemused Alice is hurled through a series of ridiculous situations that cause her to literally grow and shrink, including a mad tea party. Throughout this lunacy, Carroll regularly tosses around odd portmanteaux and absurd words like “unbirthday”, “Bandersnatch”, and “Jabberwocky”. Widely popular in their own day, the two stories have maintained a hold in popular culture with numerous adaptations, and the fantastic, surreal quality of the narrative lends itself to vivid and sometimes psychedelic interpretations. Disney has probably had the strongest influence with its animated 1951 movie and its live-action 2010 film. There have also been several composers interested in the musical possibilities, such as multiple works by David del Tredici, a suite by Deems Taylor, and a contemporary opera by Unsuk Chin.


7. Works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Goethe was a German author at the forefront of the sturm und drang (storm and stress) literary movement, and he is best known for adapting the German legend of Faust into a play, which led to the story’s massive popularity and many subsequent takes on the “deal with the devil” trope. Beyond Faust, he was also a noted poet, and one of the early figures of the Romantic period in the nineteenth century. Some famous subjects of his delve into the supernatural like the sinister Erlkönig, or the fantastic Der Zauberlehrling (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice). Other popular works have mythological subjects like Ganymed and Prometheus. His influence on music is apparent in the sheer number of text settings by German/Austrian composers like Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, and Mahler, as well as others like Charles Gounod, Hector Berlioz, and Franz Liszt who composed popular pieces based on Faust. Goethe also contributed to scientific fields like optics and evolution.


6. Candide ou l’OptimismeVoltaire

A prominent figure during the Enlightenment of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Voltaire was a French writer and philosopher who is probably best known for his humor and wit. Candide is one of the great classics of satirical writing, and like many works in this mood it is riddled with social commentary and criticism. As the hero of the story, Candide, carries on through a perpetual string of troubles to find his one true love, he gradually begins to discover that his teacher’s philosophy – that they live in the “best of all words” – is not so. With its full title meaning Candide, or Optimism, the story is an indictment on foolish optimism in the face of continual strife and misfortune, and Voltaire targets all manner of political, social, and religious subjects in his narrative. The most famous musical interpretation of the story is certainly that of Leonard Bernstein’s 1956 operetta. With a life almost as troubled as its main character, the operetta was not an immediate success, and it has since undergone many revisions since its premiere. Though not among the most widely performed operatic programs, the music has still maintained a solid popularity, and the Overture is a common staple of both the orchestral and concert band repertoire.


5. One Thousand and One Nights

Without a definitive author and essentially a collection of folk tales, the Arabian Nights, as they are sometimes called, are an exotic series of adventures that grew popular in the Western world after a translation was published in the early eighteenth century by Frenchman Antoine Galland. The stories are narrated by the Persian princess Scheherazade, who is to be beheaded by a murderous king; thus, she tells him a new story every night, each one more thrilling than the last, so as to stay her execution. Eventually after 1,001 nights of storytelling have passed, the king falls in love with the princess and makes her his queen. Some of the most famous stories in the collection are those of “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor,” and “Aladdin and the Lamp”. Carl Nielsen’s Aladdin Suite and Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade are two famous pieces based on these stories.


4. Fairy Tales of Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm 

Though a couple of centuries apart, Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm share equal responsibility for the popularization of fairy tales. Perrault, being the elder, wrote many of the original French stories like Little Red Riding Hood, The Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella, and the German brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm altered some stories slightly and published them in their own collection of tales. Though many of the stories are notorious for their dark and sometimes gruesome nature, they have since been watered down for use as children’s literature in the modern age. Like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Disney has taken full advantage of these tales and adapted them into an extensive filmography. Of course, with such a vast array of stories there is a great deal for composers to pull from. There is a Cinderella opera by Rossini and a ballet by Prokofiev, a Sleeping Beauty ballet by Tchaikovsky, and a Hansel and Gretel opera by Engelbert Humperdinck.


3. Don Quixote – Miguel de Cervantes 

A precursor to the comical adventure of Candide, Miguel de Cervantes’ story of the foolish knight Don Quixote and his stalwart squire Sancho Panza is another enduring work of satire. The novel parodies the stories of chivalrous knights and shows how the protagonist believes these stories to be his call to knighthood (though he is merely a retired country gentleman). Setting out with his squire, Quixote battles all kinds of foes, real or imagined, though Sancho Panza is always the reader’s true insight, revealing, for example, that the giants Don Quixote so valiantly attacks are actually windmills. Like Candide, the hero goes through a series of misfortunes that are presented with humor, and the farce of the story is rooted in his ludicrous beliefs, which change by the end of the story after some revelatory experiences. Adopting the nature of the plot as a series of adventures and mishaps, Richard Strauss’ tone poem Don Quixote is a large theme-and-variations piece where each variation represents an episode of the character’s quest. The comical nature of the work lends itself to unique musical treatments, and many other composers like Telemann, Mendelssohn, and Massenet wrote pieces with Don Quixote subjects (though they tend to diverge from the original story).


2. Works of William Shakespeare

Between tragic heroes, swordplay, magical forests, lovers, betrayals, and the supernatural, William Shakespeare pretty definitively covered all available bases of entertainment value. His plays and poems are some of the most famous examples in the English literature, and the Bard’s command of the language even gave us some new words. Even those who are not intimately familiar with the works are sure to recognize phrases like “To be or not to be,” “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears,” and “Now is the winter of our discontent.” As one of the best-selling authors of all time, Shakespeare has had a remarkable effect on art, and many of his greatest characters have lived on in new adaptations or alternative interpretations. Like Goethe, composers have flocked to Shakespearean works for inspiration, and a large portion of the musical repertoire bears his mark. There have been operas from the likes of Verdi and Britten, incidental music for the plays from Mendelssohn and Sibelius, and large orchestral works from Tchaikovsky and Liszt; and this only just scratches the surface of Shakespearean musical tributes.


1. La Divina CommediaDante Alighieri

One of the quintessential works of religious allegory, Dante’s The Divine Comedy is an epic Medieval poem that imagines the author himself being guided by the Roman poet Virgil through Hell and Purgatory to reach Heaven. It is from this poem that the idea of the “circles of Hell” originates, with each tier representing a sin and containing perpetrators of those sins who are being punished for their transgressions. The subsequent stories of Purgatory and Heaven also contain symbolic levels with terraces and spheres, respectively. This is all part of Dante’s allegory of personally becoming closer to God through his arduous journey. Like Shakespeare’s writings, being several centuries old has led to The Divine Comedy holding a massive amount of influence in multiple areas of art, from literature, to painting, sculpting, and, of course, music. A contemporary example is Dan Welcher’s Dante Dances, a piece for clarinet and piano that imagines different dance styles representing the circles of Hell. The most famous musical representation, however, is likely Franz Liszt’s Dante Symphony, a two-movement work in three large sections that represent the three stories of the original poem, ending with a female choir singing the Latin Magnificat to represent Dante’s arrival in Heaven.

Joshua Zinn

Joshua Zinn

Producer, Houston Matters

Joshua is a producer for Houston Matters on News 88.7 as well as the host of Encore Houston on Houston Public Media Classical. He joined Houston Public Media as a radio intern in 2014 and became a full-time announcer the following year. Now he prepares segments and occasionally records interviews...

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