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Hamlet (Overture-Fantasia), Op. 67 (1888), 18 minutes

Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk, Russia on May 7, 1840 and died in Saint Petersburg on November 6, 1893. Hamlet was first performed in November 1888 in Saint Petersburg conducted by the composer. The work is scored for 3 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and english horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 cornets, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, tam-tam, cymbals, bass drum and strings.

The words of William Shakespeare have had a powerful effect on composers. The Bard’s plays have inspired many to create songs, symphonies, ballets and operas; among them, Brahms, Verdi, Rossini, Mendelssohn, Debussy, Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, Berlioz, Dvořák, Smetana, Elgar, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Britten, Barber, the list goes on. Tchaikovsky was no exception devoting a triptych of symphonic overtures and tone-poem fantasies based on Romeo and Juliet (1869), The Tempest (1873) and Hamlet (1888).


Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet, an overture-fantasia, unfolds in one continuous movement. While there is no strict program, the composer’s brother Modest had written early in the process to suggest the work could unfold in three sections:


  1. Elsinore and Hamlet before the appearance of the ghost.

  2. Polonius (scherzando) and Ophelia (adagio).

  3. Hamlet after the appearance of the ghost. His death and Fortinbras.


While not following Modest’s suggestion exactly, it is a helpful roadmap to listening and correlating the work to the drama. An ear for changes in tempo and character will illuminate a descriptive musical program. It is the equivalent of “cliff-notes” so often needed for modern English speakers deciphering Shakespeare’s Early Modern English tongue.


With a crescendo in the timpani, the overture sets the stage with two knife-strikes of E-major, decapitating in two, statements of a brooding theme in the violas and cellos. This is the music of Prince Hamlet. The stark sparseness of the orchestration is cold-blooded. If stones could speak, this music weeps, thawing the icy black sanguine tears that once soaked the shadowy blue crevices and cracks of the Danish castle at Elsinore (known today as Kronborg).


Low woodwinds will blood stain the melody with harmony, driving the music to descend into the depths of more agitation. The strings whip into a fury with a ferocious staircase of 32nd notes and the winds continue in an afterimage of a mind spinning dizziness. The theme will return in the winds over a trembling of strings, then the violins will milk the melody for every drop of pathos as the winds answer in torment and the violas and cellos boil in 32nd figures. The grief of the Prince of Denmark is palpable. His father (King Hamlet) was murdered by his uncle (Claudius), who then usurping the throne, married his mother (Gertrude). There is a blood-fueled fury building, the sense of alone-ness, despair and aguish as Hamlet pleads in a kind of musical soliloquy to cast eyes on the rumored ghost of his father, witnessed at Elsinore. 


With a violent silence, the entity will appear. The buzzing bells of the stopped french horns toll 12 times in a not-quite living way. As the strings arpeggiate the evening mist and wind, gusts of the netherworld answer Hamlet. There is blood in this music, the music blood that runs in his veins, now beckon at him from the fatherly and ghostly pronunciations of his own theme in the horns and trombones. A vision and edict, perhaps, of the last moments of the father to the son to avenge:



I am thy father’s spirit.


Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.


The serpent that did sting thy father’s life

Now wears his crown.


[Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 5]


And so the blood in Hamlet boils and spoils in vengeance. Orchestral hammer-blows propel the music into a frenzy of the Allegro vivace. The plot of secret revenge shrouded in the farce of madness begins. 


While too heavy and dark to be a scherzando as Modest suggested, the whirlwind and frenzy of this dramatic section of music sets into motion a blood doom, and speaks to palatial uproars as Hamlet unleashes erratic behavior that transition the story from Act 1 into 2. The attention now turns to Polonious, an elder adviser to Claudius, and that of his daughter Ophelia who has taken interest in the prince.


The music for Ophelia is unmistakable. As if smitten by beauty, the frenzy of Hamlet’s music is soothed away into a sublime andante. So enters sweet youth upon the reeds of the solo oboe. The orchestration dissipates to winds and string pizzicato as Ophelia’s melodic curves are ornamented with triplet turns. There is pageantry and tragedy in this brief glimpse of youth and feminine innocence, soon to be plunged and drowned into the abyss of Hamlet’s plot. In the Moderato con moto, the introduction of triplet rhythms, currents of doom, propel a sweeping love theme that will recall another doomed pair of the Bard, a Montague and Capulet.


The music becomes increasingly less romantic, like laughing at a joke that goes on too long, becoming sadistic and deprecating. In true Tchaikovsky fashion, the music sequences and modulates into a festive gala tinged with forbidding chaos at the hands of a deus ex machina. The maddening music from before returns and Hamlet’s and Ophelia’s music can be heard welded together, their fates intertwined. With a snare drum and fanfare, the stage is set in a dance macabre,  the power play begins. A play within a play, Hamlet stages The Murder of Gonzago, which will feature a similar crime of poisoning to expose the guilty conscious of Claudius.


At this point, correlating a series of chronological event to the actual play is unwieldy but possible. It would seem, Tchaikovsky unveils the drama for the final three acts, as three simultaneous scenes, much how a Hollywood film intercuts events on different timelines, juxtaposing them to bring out seemingly nail-biting synchronizations to maximize dramatic cause and effect. Claudius flees realizing the plays meaning, and Hamlet will end up savagely butchering Polonius thinking he is Claudius. The death spurs Ophelia into her own madness to roam Elsinore, later to be found drowned dead. 


Ophelia’s reed music returns accompanied by syncopated triplet waves in the strings. Tchaikovsky composes her theme in 4/4 time, but the triplet accompaniment implies 12/8. There is a resistance in this duple against triple battle, a resistance to fate, to madness, torn between the living and un-living realms, it is prophetic. She is whisked away never to be seen again. Her music withers in the softest of diminuendos in the violas and horns, extinguished into nothingness.


The “love” theme is given new meaning when it returns in the Moderato con moto, come sopra, now accompanied with 16th notes and with increased urgency. Hamlet happens upon Ophelia’s funeral, devastated, he proclaims his love openly. The music erupts into the epic blood soaked events of Act 4 and 5, the duel between Hamlet and Ophelia’s brother Laertes marked Allegro ma non troppo. The clash and klangs of swordplay spark with triangular contours as strings and winds hurl their gestures as sabres through air meeting silver alloys. Hamlet’s theme resounds in fragments first in the horns, but it is more than one man’s theme, it is a harbinger of a doomed bloodline. Trumpets hail this doom, and lastly the trombones in a tragi-comedy of falling dominos; Gertrude mistakenly drinks poison meant for Hamlet, Hamlet kills Claudius but is slashed with Laertes poisoned blade only to be slashed with it himself as weapons change hands in the kerfuffle. Revenge is consummated with a bloody price, the total demise of the royal family.


The musical carnage comes to a violent harmonic interruption with a dynamic marked “fffff.” The anguishing ascending scales from the beginning return in the strings, but in the score, they are notated at half the speed, tired, beaten, mortally wounded, arms grasping and reaching. In the final Grave section, the last words of Hamlet groan in the cellos and violins. To his friend Horatio, a command to remember him and tell his story. A stunning reversal of the specter that was his father now he himself becomes:



Thou livest. Report me and my cause aright

To the unsatisfied.


[Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2]


With the battle drums of Prince Fortinbras of Norway thundering softly in the distance, the chess board of nations is a trivial worldly matter. The work concludes in dead calm, as Hamlet shuts his eyes for the final sleep, so does the music cease into death’s deep slumber. Tchaikovsky instructs under the remaining last sounding instruments, morendo[si], dying. © MTF

*Digitally published for the Hawaiʻi Symphony Sheraton Starlight Series on June 4-6 2021.

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