Sibelius, Shakespeare and The Tempest

How does one angry exiled duke stranded on an island with his beautiful daughter and deformed servant get revenge? A very big storm.

Shakespeare and Sibelius’ works combined, both titled The Tempest, illustrate the isolation of the sea in relation to the corruption traditional society of Milan.

"Miranda - The Tempest" by John William Waterhouse

“Miranda – The Tempest” by John William Waterhouse

The play The Tempest is set on a remote island where the rightful Duke of Milan, Prospero, has been stranded with his daughter Miranda on an island by his brother Antonio. Claiming father and daughter were lost at sea, Prospero’s jealous brother Antonio usurps his dukedom. Equipped with food and his precious sorcery books by a faithful servant, Prospero spends years mastering both his powers and the inhabitants on the island.

Through divine intelligence, Prospero sees that Antonio will be sailing close to the island and conjures up a furious tempest to overturn the ship and bring its survivors to the island. This will provide the setting in which Prospero will watch over, manipulate and work his way back to his rightful place as Duke of Milan.

Young composer Jean Sibelius

Young composer Jean Sibelius

The island in Shakespeare’s The Tempest represents the utopic world Prospero has built in place of Milan. Prospero, a godlike character in the play, maintains a manipulative hand in the characters’ lives, as he separates the shipmates from one another while they wander the island. The distance the sea creates between society and the island remains advantageous to Prospero as it provides a disconnect in communication between characters and renders prestigious name titles meaningless. In this vulnerable state, Prospero casts strategic spells and tricks using harpies, mythical food and deep sleeps to confront characters with their inherent folly.

Through the trials Prospero imposes on his islanders, every character in the play experiences a rebirth as they overcome personal corruption and return to Milan renewed. Even Prospero creates a news life for himself as he breaks his staff and drowns his book of spells before assuming the role of Duke of Milan.

Jean Sibelius’ suite The Tempest is an incidental piece which acts as background music in various stage adaptations of Shakespeare’s play. The suite paints a visual picture where each movement directly compliments each plot point. This suite differs from programmatic orchestral pieces, which symphonies often perform, as they invite audiences to picture a story or concept in their imaginations.

Sibelius’ piece enriches Shakespeare’s play through its evocative movements, from Prospero’s chaotic storm to the play’s concluding jovial court dance.

Can you hear the scene changes in Sibelius’ suite?


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