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Falstaff: A Musical Inspiration

Shakespeare’s rich stock of characters have inspired many people to write music over hundreds of years, and the beloved Falstaff has been one of the most popular characters to set to music.

Shakespeare’s rich stock of characters have inspired many people to write music over hundreds of years. Falstaff has been one of the most popular characters to be set to music, particularly by orchestral composers. Various aspects of Falstaff’s character have inspired different types of music. These include his raucous and bawdy episodes in the tavern, his hilarious and feeble attempt to chase women, his quieter reflective moments in his childhood home and his ultimate downfall as he is shunned by Henry V.

Surprisingly, Falstaff is not a particularly musical character in the three plays he appears in. He only sings once – a brief snatch of a ballad – in Henry IV Part 1, and he does not sing at all in Henry IV Part 2 or The Merry Wives of Windsor. Many modern productions of the plays, however, include more musical elements, as they fit very well with his raucous and bawdy life in the taverns of Eastcheap. The middle picture below shows Roger Allam in his role as Falstaff in the Globe Theatre's latest production of Henry IV Part 1 playing a cittern in the tavern song scene.

Falstaff Trio
Falstaff drawing (1800); Roger Allam as Falstaff sketch by Rachel Stewart; Beerbohm Tree as Falstaff (1856)

For more images of Falstaff, click to go to the exhibition's Flickr gallery on "Revelry" in Shakespeare's music.

Falstaff’s rich, larger-than-life character throughout the three plays have appeared in a huge variety of music, from classical orchestral pieces to music-hall comedy. Falstaff seems to have been a particularly popular figure in opera, as his character is suited to a rich baritone voice. Giuseppe Verdi, Ralph Vaughan Williams, and Gustav Holst have written operas based on Falstaff. Verdi's Falstaff is an amalgamation of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 and The Merry Wives of Windsor, and incorporates classic scenes from all three plays. Vaughan Williams' Sir John in Love focuses on the plot of The Merry Wives. It emphasises the Englishness of the play, incorporating a number of well-known folk songs such as Greensleeves into the score. Holst's At the Boar's Head uses a similar approach, incorporating music from Shakespeare's time and various folk tunes into the plot of Henry IV Parts 1 and 2.

Other English composers have been inspired by Falstaff: the most famous being Edward Elgar. Elgar wrote a symphonic poem on Falstaff. Although the piece is purely instrumental, episodes from Falstaff's life in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 can be clearly heard. These include a rich, mellow theme for the main character, his visits to the tavern with giggling mistresses, a ragged march with his "Army of Scarecrows", and his decline as Prince Hal is transformed into the glorious Henry V.

The playlist below includes a selection of music written by Verdi, Vaughan Williams, Holst, and Elgar which has been inspired by Falstaff (only available for Spotify users).

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