Shakespeare400: The Tempest and Incidental Music

On Wednesday 10 February, and as part of our Shakspeare400 festival, we will perform excerpts from Sibelius’s incidental music for The Tempest. In preparation, we have had a look at Sibelius’s music and explored the musical concept of incidental music to find out how composers can effectively evoke their chosen texts, using only music. 

What is incidental music?

Incidental music is music that can be heard in plays, and used during radio and television programmes. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, playwrights have exploited the power of music for dramatic purposes, recognizing that music can affect the pacing of the plots, help establish mood and atmosphere, and add excitement in ways that words alone simply cannot.

Throughout history, playwrights have often worked closely with their assigned composers in order to create the best effect for their work, notable examples being Molière and Jean-Baptiste Lully, and John Dryden and Henry Purcell. Particularly famous pieces of incidental music used in plays have gained such recognition and popularity that they have been able to stand alone in the concert hall as pieces in their own right, such as Beethoven’s music for Goethe’s tragic Egmont, Grieg’s music for Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, and even Mendelssohn’s score for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, parts of which we will also be performing as part of our Shakespeare400 festival.

So what drew Sibelius to compose for the magical and mystical world of The Tempest? How does he create the atmosphere worthy of its place in a production of Shakespeare’s play? And with that in mind, can his music, or any piece of incidental music, ever be able to stand alone in the concert hall without the support of physical on-stage drama to aid in our understanding of a plot?

Sibelius’s music for The Tempest was given its first public performance during a production of the play at the Royal Theatre in Copenhagen, 16 March 1926. Danish publisher Wilhelm Hansen had asked Sibelius if he had already written music for the Shakespearean work, that they could incorporate into their new adaptation. Sibelius had not. But a close companion of the composer, Axel Carpelan, had commented,

'Now look here Mr S., shouldn't you someday direct your interest to the dramas of Shakespeare … The Tempest should be very appropriate for you’.

Clearly persuaded by the compliments of his companions, Sibelius was swiftly commissioned to write his own incidental music for the new adaptation of the play, directed by Johannes Poulsen.

So why was Shakespeare’s play considered to be so appropriate for Sibelius? Many have argued that Sibelius in fact identified rather closely with the play’s central character Prospero: recognizing the fates and traits of an aging artist, and writing himself into his score for Shakespeare’s work.

That said, how can we now understand the action in the concert hall, without Shakespeare’s words, or the use of actors to push the plot forward? Can programmatic music ever truly convey a storyline on its own? Sibelius’s score is undoubtedly a worthy effort and in particular, its musical setting of the opening storm acts as a significant example: lilting strings, violent oscillations and stirring percussion aptly creating an atmosphere to make anyone feel as if they are truly in the eye of the storm.

The Tempest: Storm

However, Sibelius does not rely solely on wordless music to carry the weight of Shakespeare’s plot: the score features a singer to represent Ariel, the magic fairy bound to serve Prospero. The delicate treatment of Ariel’s songs dotted throughout Sibelius’s score unquestionably emphasises the mystical and ethereal qualities of the character – make sure to listen out for Lilli Paasikivi’s performance of the role on Wednesday!

Whilst Sibelius may not be fully able to convey the entirety of the action in Shakespeare’s play, it is certainly in the setting and the creation of a mysterious atmosphere that Sibelius’s score is able to deliver in ways that the words alone cannot in embellishing the magical world of The Tempest: as an audience member commented after its first performance,

‘Shakespeare and Sibelius, these two geniuses, have finally found one another’.

The Tempest Synopsis

A huge storm batters a ship carrying King Alonso, his son Ferdinand, Stephano, Triculo and others. We discover that a magician, Prospero, accompanied by his daughter Miranda, has created the storm battling Alonso and company's ship. Ariel, Prospero's magic fairy, tells us that the men onboard the ship have all made it ashore unharmed. Ariel leads Ferdinand to Miranda and the two immediately fall in love, but Prospero is somewhat concerned about the match.

The rest of the shipwreck survivors wake up on the island. Trinculo, a jester on the ship, discovers Caliban, a misformed beast, and realizes that such a beast would earn a fortune for him as a novelty in England. Stephano, Trinculo's friend, finds them and gives Caliban alcohol, causing Caliban to think Stephano is more powerful than Prospero whom Caliban hates. The three men set off together deciding to kill the almighty Prospero...

Using magic to disguise himself, Prospero witnesses Ferdinand and Miranda expressing their love for one another, but after realising how much they truly love each other, Prospero approves of Ferdinand for his daughter and they get married. Prospero uses magic to create a party to celebrate, and instructs Ariel to lead the shipwrecked men on the island before him. Prospero forgives Stephano and Trinculo for plotting to hill him. Caliban is embarrassed that he followed a fool (Trinculo). Caliban is given his freedom. Prospero announces that in the morning they will all set sail for Naples. Ariel is at last set free.


Don’t miss our performance of Sibelius’s The Tempest on Wednesday 10 February, featuring narrations of the play by renowned British actor Simon Callow, and conducted by Sibelius expert Osmo Vänskä.

Also on the day: Don’t miss our pre-concert performance at 5.00pm as GCSE student composers showcase new music that they have written, inspired by Sibelius’s The Tempest, and at 6.00pm a panel of experts examine the idea of ‘late style’ and its association with the last works of creative minds, including Sibelius, Beethoven, Titian, de Kooning and of course, William Shakespeare.