Inspired by the Bard

Posted by on


Violist Trevor Jones has been performing with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for over 30 years. With his vast musical experience, we asked him how he first encountered Shakesepeare, and which particular play has had the most influence on his musical life (hint: it features two star-crossed lovers).

My first introduction to Shakespeare was in high school when we studied Romeo and Juliet for English, and were also shown the Zeffirelli film. I remember it vividly and it made a very strong impression on me at the time. I also remember loving the Nino Rota score for the film and particularly the main love theme, ‘A time for us’, which I played by ear on my violin.

Another memory in my early years is of playing Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture for the first time in the TSO (Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra) at the age of 19, having just changed from violin to viola. Interestingly the love theme happens to be played by the violas and cor anglais, and as it’s not very common for violas to play the tune, it resonated with me, and since then it has always been a favourite of mine.

But what immediately comes to mind when I think of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet are the two iconic masterpieces from the 20th century: Prokofiev’s ballet score and Bernstein’s West Side Story.

The Prokofiev score is so evocative and descriptive. He captures the amazing diversity of the emotions, the range of characters in the play, and creates an intensity in the music that is without comparison. His innovative use of all the instruments of the orchestra and his masterful orchestration creates the musical emotional texture that results in perfect synergy with the choreography.

One of the most memorable concerts of my long tenure with the MSO is a collaboration we engaged in with the Bell Shakespeare Company, in which we alternated scenes from the play with the music that Prokofiev wrote for the same scene in the ballet. It was absolutely riveting.

And now to Leonard Bernstein. I have long been a lover of all of his creative output, as a pianist, conductor and composer, but for me, West Side Story is a work that is absolutely unique. His fusion of musical styles and the ever contemporary and relevant setting, as well as his treatment of the social issues and themes makes this a work that, just like Shakespeare’s play, is absolutely timeless.

The elements of song, dance and instrumental combine seamlessly to create, for me at least, the most expressive and emotionally powerful adaptation in the entire repertoire. I have played the ‘Symphonic Dances’ many times with the Orchestra, as well as seeing two productions here in Melbourne, and each time it has been a highlight in my musical life.

There are of course many other composers who have set this particular play to various musical forms, and also a number of his other plays that have inspired composers to create other great settings, but for me these three are the pinnacles of classical music.

Be inspired by Shakespeare

This July, the Orchestra will perform Shakespeare inspired works by four composers – Mendelssohn, Korngold, Walton and Richard Strauss – during Shakespeare Classics.