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Tchaikovsky (1840-93) - Overture: Hamlet

Most celebrated for his symphonies and ballets (though he wrote more operas), Tchaikovsky also produced oodles of chamber, piano, vocal, choral and concertante music, plus a substantial body of other orchestral works. I'm not sure what distinguishes “Symphonic Fantasy” from “Fantasy Overture”, but Tchaikovsky assures us that, of his three Shakespeare-inspired orchestral works, The Tempest (1873) is of the former, while Romeo and Juliet (1869) and Hamlet are of the latter persuasion. 

Hamlet (1888) was, for some reason, dedicated to Grieg, though the idea may have been prompted by Lucien Guitry, a French actor who wanted incidental music for his final benefit performance in St Petersburg, in 1891 - an improbable degree of forward planning. Tchaikovsky duly composed incidental music, drawing (not surprisingly) on the Overture

The premiere of Hamlet was not a resounding success. Balakirev was unimpressed, and one critic even bemoaned the lack of narrative (?). Tchaikovsky had deliberately eschewed “narrative” in favour of more generalised reflection on the drama, at least partly, one would guess, to allow the piece to have a clear-cut musical form. Yet Hamlet seems thoroughly rhapsodic: the ear is confused by a form which is not musical, but theatrical! The brilliantly innovative composer moulds his music like a play, cumulatively introducing six main ideas as the “plot” develops. 

Using the following symbols for the various themes, a description of the layout of the work follows:
 
A
leaden, mournful, but noble on strings
B
whirls upwards through strings, at its summit wavering on woodwind
C
sequence of dotted rising intervals, convoluted by bassoon
D
oboe melody, coiling in on itself
E
creamy, flowing, with wide, surging intervals
F
militaristic march triggered by a rattling snare-drum

The discourse of [A] and [B] in the “slow introduction” ends in burgeoning chords and a climactic blow on tamtam, precipitating a baleful brass statement of [A]. 

The massive “development”, the main drama, is an allegro based throughout on [C], music of ferocious conflict twice interrupted, like alternating two scenes. The first allegro evolves à la 1812, all stamping trombones, banging bass drum, crashing cymbals, and slithering strings. [D] laments; [E] emotes gorgeously. The resumption of the 1812 mode sees [F] provoking [B] into action. [D] and [E] are reprised, subtly intensified. In the final conflict, [A] at last responds (resounding on horns), and [F] builds a huge climax on [A], suddenly yielding to [B]. 

The introduction's chord sequence prepares the “coda”. 'Cellos and basses descend into an abysmal gloom of woodwind and brass over a pulsing drum: a transformation like that of the love theme in Romeo and Juliet seals [A]'s tragic fate. 

What do the themes represent? “Alas, poor Yorick,” no part for him here, but maybe [A] is Hamlet, also (rising out of a swirling miasma) alluding to his father's ghost? Perhaps [B] is Hamlet's indecisiveness, [D] Ophelia's dementia, and [E] their strange love? The answer once offered to me was, “Well, what do you want them to represent?” Good point. If Tchaikovsky had called this work Coriolanus, it would still be as meaningful. Well - wouldn't it?
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© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street, Kamo, Whangarei 0101, Northland, New Zealand


 

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