Classical Chat: Music inspired by great reads

Orchestras play an array of masterpieces inspired by literature
Orchestras play an array of masterpieces inspired by literature

Programme music - pieces directly telling a story or intimately influenced by a narrative – are a comparatively recent development.

Well into the 19th century it was rather looked down on, with critics suggesting music’s formal structures and logic should be enough to create meaning.

Related: Tone poems write stories with sound
Since the early Romantic era, though, composers have often ignored such narrow warnings and produced a glut of works inspired by art, sculpture, theatre and, perhaps above all, by literature.

Setting poetry in songs goes back hundreds of years, of course, but in great verse and books writers have also found inspiration for a host of brilliant instrumental pieces.

Here’s a few examples bookworms and music fans alike may love:

Berlioz – Harold en Italie. This symphony with an added solo viola part is inspired both by the landscapes and culture of Italy and Byron’s poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The dreamy central figure represented by the viola is one the composer also rather identified himself with.

Tchaikovsky – Francesca da Rimini. A descent into the darkest corners of Dante’s Inferno for a tale of forbidden passion, with ardent love music surrounded by furious and stormy depictions of Hell.

Mahler – Symphony No.1. This is full of snatches of Mahler’s own song settings of folksy poems from Das Knaben Wunderhorn as it depicts Nature, a hunter’s funeral and a dramatic storm.

Strauss – Don Quixote. A 40-minute tone poem brilliantly bringing Cervantes’ knight to life. The Don is a cello, his sidekick Sancho Panza a viola, the sheep battle full of horn bleating and death bringing a beautiful closing solo.

Beethoven and Janacek – The Kreutzer Sonata. Beethoven’s torrential chamber music masterpiece inspired Tolstoy to write a short novel about love

and rage which Janacek then turned into a string quartet.