For three weeks in April, Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony are honoring the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, whose words have inspired more composers than any other writer. Shakespeare’s plays, with their many musical allusions, and the sheer musicality of their language—the rich lyricism, the dazzling rhythms, the counterpoint of voices and ideas—have always seemed to call for music.

And, of course, there was music in the plays right from the start. Actors in Shakespeare’s time were expected to be accomplished musicians, capable of picking up the lute or the viol, or of bursting into song.  The texts of the plays include some 100 songs and many cues for instruments—a march, a dance and sometimes simply the direction: music. Since the poet’s death, his works have enticed composers time and time again into the challenge of writing music to accompany, illustrate or replace his words. A Shakespeare Music Catalogue, published in 1991, listed 21,362 pieces of music written to Shakespearean works—operas, songs, overtures, symphonies, tone poems and of course, incidental music designed to fulfill the numerous cues for music in the plays—and it is a tally that continues to grow.

The first composer whose Shakespeare settings are still performed today is Robert Johnson, the English composer and lutenist who actually worked with Shakespeare late in the playwright’s career and wrote the original music for some of his best-known lyrics. Much later, many composers tried their hand at writing incidental music designed for staged productions of Shakespeare’s plays—Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich for Hamlet, Sibelius and Sir Arthur Sullivan for The Tempest, Mendelssohn for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Humperdinck for Twelfth Night, Korngold for Much Ado About Nothing. But none of these are still regularly used in the theater, and only Mendelssohn’s has become a staple in the concert hall.

Oddly, there is nothing of Shakespeare in Mozart or Beethoven, two of the few composers who have been compared in stature to the playwright himself. The closest brush Mozart had with Shakespeare was watching his Magic Flute librettist and his first Papageno, Emanuel Schikaneder, play the role of Hamlet on stage. And Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture is based not on Shakespeare’s final tragedy but on a new play by Heinrich von Collin. From Haydn, we have just a setting of five lines from Twelfth Night; from Schubert a mere handful of songs, including “Who Is Sylvia?” and “Hark, hark the lark,” both translated into German.

However, the increasing interest in Shakespeare in the early 19th century coincided with the rise of programmatic music, which inspired some of the finest Shakespearean treatments, beginning with Mendelssohn’s Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1826—written 18 years before his complete set of incidental music for the play—and Berlioz’s dramatic symphony, Romeo and Juliet, in 1839, and including the two late-romantic scores by Tchaikovsky that the CSO is performing in April.

In the 20th century, Shakespeare was treated to all kinds of music, from ballet (Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet) and film scores (William Walton’s three soundtracks
for Henry V, Hamlet and Richard III, all with Laurence Olivier) to works that defy classification, such as Vaughan Williams’ choral Serenade to Music, a setting of the homage
to music from the last act of The Merchant of Venice. And then, of course, there are the distantly related offspring—everything from Kiss Me, Kate, Cole Porter’s takeoff on The Taming of the Shrew, and Bernstein’s West Side Story remake of Romeo and Juliet, to Duke Ellington’s Such Sweet Thunder Suite and Disney’s The Lion King, an animated, updated Hamlet.

Surprisingly few good operas have been made from Shakespearean drama. But as Anthony Burgess once pointed out, “take the poetry and the incredible psychological insight away, and you have artificial plots that were not Shakespeare’s own to start with, full of improbable coincidences and carelessly hurried fifth-act denouements.” Many composers, however, have been unable to resist the challenge (at least 20 operatic versions of Hamlet have been staged), and a few have written works that achieved modest popularity, such as Thomas’ Hamlet, Nicolai’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet, or Rossini’s Otello. (Some of the lesser-known operas—Berlioz’s Beatrice and Benedict and Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream—are, in fact, better works of music theater.)

Only Giuseppe Verdi, who loved Shakespeare above all writers, was able to make the transition from play to opera successfully, beginning with Macbeth, which Riccardo Muti conducted here with the CSO two seasons ago, and then, at the very end of his career—and with the inspired help of his librettist, Arrigo Boito—producing Otello and Falstaff, among the greatest treasures in all of music.

The Chicago Symphony programs in April offer a banquet of Shakespearean music, from the infrequently performed Tempest by Tchaikovsky to what is perhaps the most familiar of all, Tchaikovsky’s earliest Shakespearean effort, the fantasy-overture Romeo and Juliet. The CSO’s celebration is anchored by what are arguably the two greatest full-length works of music inspired by the playwright. The month opens with Berlioz’s own, singular, highly visionary take on Romeo and Juliet—triggered by a performance of the play given in Paris by a visiting English company that handed Berlioz “the supreme drama” of his life. And Verdi’s final opera, Falstaff, a score that is genuinely Shakespearean in its miraculous mixture of lightness and depth, brings down the curtain on this tribute (with one performance occurring on the date of Shakespeare’s death, April 23) and completes Riccardo Muti’s landmark triptych of the Verdi-Shakespeare operas with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Phillip Huscher is the program annotator for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.