Storms of Musical Invention: Sibelius and Àdes Take on Shakespeare's Tempest
A modified version of this essay appeared in the Cleveland Orchestra's program book for the 2022–23 subscription concert "The Tempest Symphony."
Why has Shakespeare's The Tempest — a fantastical tale of magic and mysticism, romance and revenge — inspired so much music? To understand why the Bard's play has been the springboard for dozens of operas, tone poems, concert overtures, and more, one could first look to the play's text.
"[T]he isle is full of noises, sounds, and sweet airs," remarks an inhabitant of the remote island where the story unfolds. Two members of the Milanese court shipwrecked on its shores hear a "solemn and strange music" as they navigate their new surroundings. And when the central figure, Prospero — the usurped Duke of Milan who has spent 12 years here in exile, and whose white magic (and more than a touch of revenge) propels every facet of The Tempest's plot — renounces his wizardly abilities, he calls for a "heavenly music" as he breaks his staff in two.
Those literal references aside, it's also The Tempest's function as an allegory of creation that has likely inspired generations of composers — from Berlioz to Arthur Sullivan and from Tchaikovsky to Michael Nyman — to bring this tale to life through sound. For just as Prospero uses his magic to summon electrifying storms from thin air, so does a composer's work transmute silence into noises, sounds, and sweet airs.
But another interpretive layer has emerged from The Tempest's pages in the 400 years since the First Folio's publication — one that posits Prospero as less of a tormented hero using magic to right wrongs, and more of a master manipulator who exploits the forces of nature and enslaves the island's inhabitants to aid his quest for vengeance. For as much as The Tempest evokes the mythological voyages of Aeneas and Jason, it also mirrors the dawn of England's quest for a global empire, hinting at the human carnage European slavery and colonialism would unleash.
So how should we read The Tempest — as a fanciful fable where human creativity paves the way for reconciliation and understanding, or as an anti-colonialist allegory?
On this week's program, works by Jean Sibelius and Thomas Adès show us that Shakespeare's text enables both readings, and infinitely more. By juxtaposing these works, written nearly a century apart, we realize how composers and listeners alike can approach The Tempest on any level — a romantic fairy tale, a drama of deceit, a warning call against empire and oppression — and be consumed by a spectacularly operatic story.
Sibelius's Tempest: A mysterious retreat from the world
One of the last of the great composers of the Romantic tradition, Jean Sibelius drew largely from two primary wells of inspiration: nature and mythology. So when the composer received a commission in 1925 from Copenhagen's Royal Theatre to write the incidental music to a lavish new production of The Tempest, Sibelius could hardly decline the opportunity. Over the next four months, he feverishly composed 34 numbers to weave throughout the play's action — an enormous score that called for vocal soloists, choir, and large orchestra.
This deep dive into Shakespeare's play flexed different creative muscles for the composer and gave him a much-needed break from the supreme musical logic that dominated his symphonies, which Sibelius called his "confessions of faith." The premiere of his Seventh Symphony in 1924 had closed an 11-year period that birthed the final three symphonies the composer would complete. As a temporary liberation from the pressure to write such large-scale works, Sibelius welcomed a return to incidental music for the theater — a form of composition in which he had excelled throughout his career. Within this genre he could expertly merge his talents for grand orchestral intensity with light, tuneful music that quickly illuminates a character's motives or evokes a specific mood.
With his imagination set free to convert The Tempest into music, Sibelius catered to his playful side throughout his score, emphasizing the pastoral and comedic elements of the story. But even after the Copenhagen premiere, Sibelius couldn't release himself from Prospero's world. For four years he continued revising the score, penned an epilogue, expanded upon the stormy overture, and crafted two suites for concert presentation — in which he omitted some numbers, combined others, and ordered the movements according to a musical, rather than dramaturgical, logic.
In the First Suite, the story's humorous elements take center stage. "The Harvesters" is a jolly polka performed during Ariel's illusory feast, while "Humoresque" light-heartedly paints the hair-brained scheme Caliban and two foppish members of the Milanese court hatch to kill Prospero. Even in the brief "Intrada," during which Prospero renounces his magical abilities, there is wit within the music: two plucked chords in the strings mimic each half of Prospero's staff falling to the ground.
Contrasting those numbers is the violence of the tempest that triggers the action of the play. In Sibelius's expanded overture, the storm slowly builds in volume to a calibrated chaos. Waves of strings restlessly rise and fall. Whirlpools of sound emerge from the depths of the orchestra, harbingers of the doom to come. Icy flutes and piccolos evoke gale-force winds while sea swells lash the ship's sides in snarls from percussion and horns. Antithetical to his symphonies, there is zero musical development applied to the overture — Sibelius is content to paint a portrait of the surging sea in as literal terms as possible, prompting one musicologist to deem it "the most thoroughly onomatopoetic stretch of music ever written."
Sibelius's time on Prospero's island proved a prescient moment in his career. Just as Prospero puts his powers of creation behind him to return to courtly life in Milan, so did Sibelius ultimately set aside his powers, embarking on a three-decade voyage of musical silence until his death in 1957. The suites and a pair of additions made to the score in 1929 were the final musical creations Sibelius released into the world. An Eighth Symphony he wrestled with for nearly a decade never saw the light of day — the manuscript lost forever after Sibelius incinerated its pages in his dining room stove.
Perhaps the pressure to constantly produce, to find a place for his lush symphonies amidst the pointillistic modernism overtaking European music was too much for Sibelius to bear. "Not everyone can be an 'innovating genius,'" he wrote in his diary, "As a personality and an apparition from the woods, you will have your small, modest place." One can't help but see those woods to which the composer retreated, literally and metaphorically, in the same vein as Prospero's island of exile — with Sibelius hearing noises, sounds, and sweet airs as winds gently whip the trembling trees around him.
Adès's Tempest: A brooding, flesh-and-blood Prospero
Whereas Sibelius's Tempest marked the end of his public life as a composer, Thomas Adès's take on Shakespeare's fantasy marked a defining moment early in his career. Premiered at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 2004, when the composer was just 33 years old, Adès's opera was overwhelmingly acclaimed by audiences and critics alike. In the following decade, Covent Garden revived its production, and the opera made its way to houses in Copenhagen, Strasbourg, Santa Fe, Vienna, Québec City, and New York — an impressive number of productions for a contemporary opera.
Adès and Meredith Oakes, the opera's librettist, created a synthesis of music and text that's surgically precise in how it communicates the moral themes and individual traits of Shakespeare's cast of characters. For Adès, the ultimate goal was to compose "a symphonic opera," a work "driven by the musical logic at least as much as by the logic of the drama itself."
But Adès and Oakes do much more than paint a mesmerizing musical portrait of the play's fantastical world. Rather, they add flesh, blood, and psychological depth to the characters, showcasing the range of human emotion lurking in the shadowy underbelly of the play — including positioning Prospero as a man driven by his loss of power and a profound sense of wrath festering within.
"Prospero’s relationship with the island is a metaphor for somebody who is cut off from his own life, cannot assume his role," Adès said in conversation with the BBC's Tom Service. "First, he was usurped from Milan; but the island isn't his either. The island is basically a kind of depression, and he has to make everybody else suffer it in order to dig his way out, because he has to prove to himself the redundancy of his power."
Gone is the Byronic hero of Shakespeare's text. In Adès's Tempest, Prospero's political downfall and subsequent exile transform him into a somewhat sadistic, vengeance-driven contagion. One who will stop at nothing to inflict fear and suffering on those around him — not only the Milanese court that usurped him 12 years before the play begins, but the two indigenous figures he enslaves on the island: the air spirit Ariel and the monster Caliban, who are forced to carry out many of Prospero's cruel plans. From the storm that makes castaways of his opponents to the many illusory traps and horrific visions he orders Ariel to create to terrify them, Prospero's obsessive desire for retribution is the engine that runs the opera — which ultimately makes his inevitable journey to reconciliation all the more satisfying.
Composed in 2022, The Tempest Symphony retains much of Adès and Oakes's overarching characterization of the play, condensing north of two hours of music into a 20-minute quintet of movements that traces the opera's sequence of events while maintaining the musical logic so important to the opera's structure.
In the "Overture (Storm)," Adès unleashes the tempest's full power from the very first bar. A relentless rush of sharply attacked notes from every section of the orchestra drives the music forward with increasing fury until we land on a deep, bombastic chord in which we can imagine the ship capsizing in real time. (In the opera, a chorus of voices from the ship trembles with fear, intoning: "Hell is empty, all the devils here.")
The second and third movements present a pair of contrasting character studies. First, "Ariel and Prospero" showcases the stratospheric vocal lines Adès writes for the coloratura soprano performing Ariel, demanding musical acrobatics taken up in the symphony by flutes, oboes, and clarinets. Here Ariel reports on the shipwrecked visitors, and Prospero recounts his plan not to harm them immediately, but rather to launch a cat-and-mouse game of terror. "Ferdinand and Miranda" paints with shimmering orchestral textures the meeting of Prospero's daughter, Miranda, and Ferdinand, the son of Prospero's archenemy, the King of Naples. It's love at first sight, much to Prospero's disappointment. In the scene's final moments, a solo cello mournfully sings the line in which Prospero admits defeat: "I've lost her. I cannot rule their minds. My child has conquered me — a stronger power than me has set the young man free."
"The Feast" brings us to Act III, where Ariel creates a mirage of a banquet for two of the shipwrecked characters, which the starving men interpret as a gift from heaven. A solo tuba imitates a noble soliloquy in which the wise counselor Gonzalo dreams of ruling over a utopic land where mankind knows no crime, there is no need for money, and every person can delightfully savor such a feast (a moment that's brutally cut short in the opera as Ariel transforms into a harpy leading a pack of vicious dogs).
"Prospero's Farewell / Caliban" is taken from the opera's closing pages, where Prospero relinquishes his magical abilities and breaks his staff — actions that set the enslaved Ariel and Caliban free. Strings tremble as Prospero makes his final plea for Ariel to stay by his side, with oboes taking up the spirit's ethereal vocalise. As Ariel departs the stage, Caliban alone contemplates the chaos he's witnessed and what to make of the "human seeming" intruders who dominated the island for 12 years:
"Who was here?
Have they disappeared?
Were there others?
Were we brothers? ...
They were human seeming
I was dreaming
In the gleam of the sand"