Tchaikovsky (1840-93) - Overture: Hamlet
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.
(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.
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.
the following symbols for the various themes, a description of the layout
of the work follows:
mournful, but noble on strings
upwards through strings, at its summit wavering on woodwind
of dotted rising intervals, convoluted by bassoon
melody, coiling in on itself
flowing, with wide, surging intervals
march triggered by a rattling snare-drum
of [A] and [B] in the “slow introduction” ends in burgeoning chords and
a climactic blow on tamtam, precipitating a baleful brass statement of
“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].
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
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
© Paul Serotsky
29, Carr Street,
for use apply. Details here
Copyright in these notes is retained by the author without whose prior written permission they may not be used, reproduced, or kept in any form of data storage system. Permission for use will generally be granted on application, free of charge subject to the conditions that (a) the author is duly credited, and (b) a donation is made to a charity of the author's choice.