Length: c. 20 minutes
Orchestration: 3 flutes (3rd = piccolo), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 cornets, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, tam-tam), and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: March 25, 1928, Georg Schnéevoigt conducting
There is a good deal of correspondence from the young Tchaikovsky to various colleagues and friends regarding his misgivings about writing program music, i.e., instrumental music that tells or suggests a story without employing words. But it shouldn't be too surprising that this man of infinite contradictions would subsequently pursue what he was earlier abjuring so passionately, creating no fewer that eight overtly programmatic orchestral works, among them The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, and Hamlet (all after Shakespeare), and the Dante-inspired Francesca da Rimini. And what if not programmatic is the Manfred symphony (after Lord Byron's dramatic poem of the same name) – and even the last three numbered symphonies, which though only one bears a faintly programmatic title, “Pathétique,” are accompanied by anxiety-ridden outpourings in his contemporaneous letters?
The notion of a Hamlet piece was presented to the composer by his brother, Modest, in 1876 and Piotr Ilyich immediately responded that his work would “fall naturally” into three parts: “1. Elsinore and Hamlet, up to the appearance of his father’s ghost, 2. Polonius (scherzando) and Ophelia (adagio), 3. Hamlet after the appearance of the ghost, and Fortinbras.” Some sketches were obviously made at the time, but they have little or nothing to do with the music that would emerge in 1888 when the French director-actor-impresario Lucien Guitry, who was planning to tour a French-language production of Hamlet in Russia, asked Tchaikovsky to provide an overture and incidental music. The production itself came to naught, but Tchaikovsky decided to go ahead anyway with a Hamlet-based orchestral piece, the present Op. 67. For what could be more natural than this woeful Russian gravitating toward the melancholy Dane?
The score’s lento lugubre opening (in violas and cellos) reminds us of passages in the introduction to Francesca da Rimini of a decade earlier. The Hamlet introduction broods mightily (in F minor) until midnight is struck by the muted horns, presumably signaling the appearance of the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Ophelia is introduced in the form of an exquisitely plaintive B-minor tune (oboe solo), then a march theme (Fortinbras?) appears. The three themes mingle and the piece ends in the F-minor gloom of its misty beginnings.
Tchaikovsky dedicated the overture to Edvard Grieg – whom he had recently met and admired greatly – and conducted the first performance in St. Petersburg in 1888. Some months later, with Guitry’s revived plans for Hamlet – for his farewell tour of Russia – Tchaikovsky hastily fashioned an incidental score from bits and pieces of earlier works and to these added a reduced version of the Hamlet overture.
— Herbert Glass, after serving on the administrative staffs of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Opera, was for 25 years a critic / columnist for the Los Angeles Times. He recently completed his 15th season as English-language editor / annotator for the Salzburg Festival.