Side by Side: Great Words Become Great Music (55+)

Romeo and Juliet became West Side Story. Pygmalion became My Fair Lady. Classic Greek comedies combined to became A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The Matchmaker became Hello, Dolly! Opera too, including Faust, Carmen and Macbeth, often derives from treasured works of literature. And many of our most cherished poems have been given musical settings by the greatest composers.

We will place literature and musical adaptations side by side in order to appreciate the individual genius of each work. We’ll explore how the demands of music and musical theatre are met by the composers and librettists who transform the literary sources they draw upon. By studying poetry, opera, musical theatre and great drama alongside one another, we’ll see how words and music can combine to stimulate the human spirit.

Note: Back by popular demand, in a revised version, from spring 2006.

Please note that enrollment in this course is reserved for adults 55+.

Currently not available for registration.

Learning outcomes

By the end of the course, you should be able to:

  • Describe and identify the unique qualities of literature that make them amendable for transformation into music
  • Describe how music and literature, when combined, can give body and substance to our deepest thought and emotions
  • Identify how individual works of literature and music reflect the historical context from which they have emerged
  • Identify how the needs of musical presentation lead composers and librettists to make material changes to their scripts (e.g. adding or changing characters to enhance voice mix)

Learning methods

You will learn through lecture and music, with time for questions and answers (may vary from class to class). For Liberal Arts Certificate for 55+students: you will write a reflective essay.


Week 1: Introduction: The importance in our lives of music and literature

Literature and music in the Old World. Stravinsky adopts Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Roman comedies re-set to 20th-century music, with Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.

Week 2: The Bible is set to beautiful music!

Psalm 137: “By the Rivers of Babylon” set to contemporary calypso rhythm. Handel’s Messiah. Camille Saint-Saens’ operatic setting of the story of Samson and Delilah. Richard Strauss’ setting of the gospel story of Salome.

Week 3: Shakespeare is turned into opera

Charles Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette, and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. Verdi’s Otello. Benjamin Britten’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Cole Porter’s adaptation of Taming of the Shrew, “Kiss Me Kate.” John Donne’s Holy Sonnet XIV, “Batter My Heart,” set to operatic aria, from the contemporary opera Dr. Atomic.

Week 4: 18th and 19th-century literature into music (Part I)

Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro and Barber of Seville become the operatic masterpieces by Mozart and Rossini. Goethe’s Faust is adapted by Gounod for a splendid operatic version. Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” set to music in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Week 5: 18th and 19th-century literature into music (Part II)

Victor Hugo’s La Dame aux Camellias becomes the great favourite opera, La Traviata. Hugo’s Les Miserables becomes the Broadway hit. Merimée’s novelette Carmen as adapted by Bizet. Puccini’s Madama Butterfly receives an interesting reworking by the American playwright D. Hwang, M. Butterfly.

Week 6: 20th-century words into music

The great poem by Robert Frost, “Whose Words These Are” receives a beautiful choral setting by Randall Thompson. Garcia Lorca’s “Little Viennese Waltz” is adapted by Leonard Cohen, “Take This Waltz.” Thornton Wilder’s The Merchant of Yonkers becomes the wonderful musical Hello Dolly. And, finally, George Bernard’s Pygmalion becomes the wonderful My Fair Lady.

Books, materials and resources

Reading material (if applicable) will be available in class. Some course materials may be available online.

Academic integrity and student conduct

You are expected to comply with Simon Fraser University’s Academic Integrity and Student Conduct Policies. Please click here for more details. Simon Fraser University is committed to creating a scholarly community characterized by honesty, civility, diversity, free inquiry, mutual respect, individual safety, and freedom from harassment and discrimination.

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