Skip to page content

Hamlet, Op. 67

Composed: 1888

Length: c. 18 minutes

Orchestration: 3 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 cornets, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (snare drum, tam-tam, cymbals, bass drum), and strings

The symphonic poem, the form that belongs firmly to the later 19th century, was perfectly suited to the aspirations of Romantic musicians. It offered an organic, integrated one-movement form; it embodied the faith that instrumental and particularly orchestral music could be as expressive and dramatic as opera; and it linked music with the world of poetry and dramatic literature. No resource was mined as thoroughly as the plays of Shakespeare, and it is appropriate that Tchaikovsky, the most powerfully demonstrative of all Romantic composers, should have turned three times to Shakespeare for his symphonic poems. Dante provided him with the theme of Francesca da Rimini (to be heard on March 2) and Byron was the source of the Manfred Symphony, but the three Shakespeare tone poems to be heard tonight most completely reveal the vivid impact that the plays had upon both the composer and his audience.

The first, Romeo and Juliet of 1869, remains the most popular. The Tempest followed in 1873, and Hamlet in 1888. Soon after finishing Swan Lake in 1876, Tchaikovsky was urged by his doctor to take the cure at Vichy, in France. While he was there, his brother Modest suggested three subjects for orchestral works: Hamlet, Othello, and Francesca da Rimini. Tchaikovsky considered Hamlet too tough a proposition at that time, so he composed Francesca da Rimini instead. In 1885 he scribbled out a couple of themes for Hamlet but made no more progress. It was the invitation to provide incidental music for a production of the play in St. Petersburg in 1888 that finally brought the music into being, for although the production was canceled soon after and although he had begun work on his Fifth Symphony, Hamlet took definite shape and was completed in October. The premieres of the new Symphony and of the Fantasy-Overture took place in St. Petersburg within a week of each other in November 1888.

Tchaikovsky certainly knew that Liszt had composed a symphonic poem on Hamlet, and he probably knew of other such works by Joachim (1853, the first) and Niels Gade (1861). None of these pieces, Tchaikovsky’s included, attempted to represent the full action of the play, for it was the character of Hamlet himself – tense, vindictive, full of self-doubt – that lent itself best to musical representation, enough in fact to provide an extended character sketch. Ophelia, the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and the final scenes were also within the scope of such a piece, but they do not determine the form, and each composer was free to build a structure from themes and episodes without following Shakespeare’s sequence of acts and scenes.

The atmosphere of tension and conflict was never portrayed with such force as in the pages of Tchaikovsky’s score, for we do not need to identify any particular theme with Hamlet to grasp the powerful impulse behind the tragedy. The music opens decisively with a stern theme that we naturally take to be a portrait of Hamlet himself, although Tchaikovsky never specified its allusion. Some interpret it more loosely as a “fate” theme. The twelve strokes of midnight (two horns) followed by the appearance of the ghost (tam-tam) are clear enough, followed by an Allegro in which Hamlet seems to promise:

                                                                Foul deeds will rise,

                Though all the Earth o’erwhelm them to men’s eyes.

We recognize Ophelia’s gracious outline in a lovely melody for the oboe (albeit of a Russian tint), and perhaps the warm theme that follows represents the passion that should have held her and Hamlet together. Fortinbras appears to a march theme. All the themes are recapitulated in due course, while Hamlet’s presence is represented throughout by the music’s surging rage, leading inevitably to his death. At the end he is carried solemnly from the stage. 

The published score was dedicated to Grieg.

Two years later Tchaikovsky was held to his undertaking to write incidental music for the stage production of Hamlet that had failed to materialize before. He found the work arduous and unappealing, and he made extensive use of music recycled from earlier works. It was surely not the play that made him feel that way; more likely the feeling that he had put his heart and soul into the Fantasy-Overture and had nothing more to say on the subject.

- Notes by Hugh Macdonald