Murder, madness and stirring melodies

Delusions. © Charles Thibo

“Du blanc, rien que du blanc! Je suis la mariée!”1 Ophelia has lost herself once more in her delusions. The grief over the death of her father Polonius, killed inadvertently by Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, has driven her crazy. What a tragedy! While Hamlet feigns to be mad to plan in secrecy the death of King Claudius, brother and murderer of Hamlet’s father, Ophelia, the woman he loves, has succumbed to true madness because her father Polonius’s death through Hamlet’s hand. William Shakespeare’s play “Hamlet” is one of my favourites, and Pyotr Tchaikovsky has composed in January 1891 a wonderful incidental music inspired by the play.

Hamlet: Overture and stage music

Tchaikovsky was in a hurry and not at all motivated at the beginning. he had composed an overture-fantasy on the subject of “Hamlet” (Op. 67) in 1889 and then in 1890, the French actor Lucien Guitry asks him to write incidental music to accompany the play. The text is based on a translation by Alexandre Dumas and Paul Meurice. “Hamlet is coming along”, he writes to his brother Modest. “But it is such unpleasant work!”Within less than a month however he had finished the 16 sections and sometimes Tchaikovsky’s way to work reminds me of a little child: A little pressure here and there and – look at the result. Unexpected by the composer, the music was well received, undeterred by the objection of the composer, his publisher Pyotr Jurgenson had the score printed.

The ghost, the guide through the plot

The overture of the incidental music “Hamlet” (Op. 67a) introduces a stirring theme, but the most beautiful melody is the one associated with the ghost of Hamlet’s father, appearing at different moments guiding us through the play and guiding Hamlet through the planning of his revenge. It is first heard in Act I, Scene 1, and fully developed later in Act 1, Scene 5, and I just love the dance-like part of the woods. You need to hear this, it is crazy – dark, sombre and yet a kind of childish joy, the one you may feel when you are up to some mischief. Tension is building: Something dreadful is going to happen, the audience knows it, put the characters on the stage blindly run into disaster.

The theme comes back in Act III, Scene 2, when a theatre company performs in front of the Danish court the story of Gonzago, a tale of murder through poisoning, an undisguised allusion to King Claudius’ poisoning of Hamlet’s father, and later in Act V, transformed into a funeral march in C minor. Very impressive! Act V also features the part written for a bass voice, the song of the grave-digger.

Ophelia’s madness scene

The entr’acte music leading from Act II to Act III is a Romantic little thing, that Tchaikovsky borrowed from his other incidental music “The Snow Maiden”. And then, in Act IV, Scenes 4 and 5, Ophelia (written for a soprano voice) enters and sing three songs, full of sorrow and fear, and declaims her delusions: “Mon Dieu, qu’est-ce que c’est? La noce? Ou le convoi?”2 On my recording of the music by the London Symphony Orchestra, Janis Kelly lends her voice to Ophelia, the mocking, almost hysterical tone of her voice and the plaintive oboe for the melody make this moment one of the highlights of the music.

Tchaikovsky disavows his work

Tchaikovsky remained unconvinced. Years after the first performance in St. Petersburg, he wrote to the polish composer and conductor Michal Hertz: “The music for Hamlet which I wrote a few years ago is not really a serious work of art. I wrote it in fact very quickly for the benefit performance of a friend, just to afford him the pleasure of being able to print my name on the playbill […] I therefore recommend you not to play my so-called Hamlet music. I have composed a big Hamlet overture: you could play that, though it is too big – more of a symphonic poem than an overture – and requires a very strong orchestra.”

© Charles Thibo

1 White, only white! I am the bride!
2 Oh my God, what is it? A wedding? Or a funeral procession?

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de Chareli

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