The Kennedy Center

Hamlet, Fantasy Overture after Shakespeare, Op. 67

About the Work

Painting of Tchaikovsky Composer: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
© Peter Laki

The third and last of Tchaikovsky's Shakespearean overtures (after Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest), Hamlet had a particularly protracted gestation. It was Tchaikovsky's brother Modest who first suggested the topic to the composer in 1876, even offering him a programmatic outline. The idea was at the back of Tchaikovsky's mind for almost a decade before he started making the first sketches. An aborted theatrical production for which he was supposed to write music provided an additional impulse, but in the end the piece took the form of a concert overture and was performed as such. (Tchaikovsky did adapt and expand the music for the stage three years later.)

The exact relationship between Shakespeare's tragedy and Tchaikovsky's overture-fantasy is not spelled out clearly in the score. It is generally agreed that the turbulent F-minor passages refer to the Prince of Denmark, the lyrical oboe melody (in B minor the first time, B-flat minor the second time) to Ophelia, and the martial music (mostly in C) to Fortinbras, although only the last of these associations is confirmed by the sketches. A fourth, sweepingly lyrical theme that follows the oboe melody has been tentatively linked to the ghost of Hamlet's father. The themes are arranged in a free sonata form without development but with an extended slow introduction that sets the tone for the tragedy. Material from this introduction returns for the funeral march that forms the work's sombre conclusion.

Written in the immediate vicinity of the Fifth Symphony, the Hamlet Overture shares the dramatic passion of the symphony, although this time, of course, a triumphant ending is out of the question. The strong contrasts in tonality go hand in hand with an extremely wide emotional range, a highly expressive harmonic idiom and a powerful orchestration with prominent brass and percussion. Tchaikovsky frequently writes triple and quadruple fortissimos and one time-after a breathtaking crescendo based on a single rising sequence-even an astounding five f's, at a moment that represents, according to at least one commentator, Hamlet's death at the hands of Laertes. Frequent critical voices in the literature notwithstanding, the overture is a remarkable masterwork from Tchaikovsky's mature years; it is "Shakespearean," not necessarily in terms of a retelling of the story but rather in the compelling dramatic power of the music.