“Hamlet”, Overture-Fantasy, Op. 67a (1888)

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Shakespeare! Romanticism and Music performed on Sep 26, 1993 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Hamlet was the last of Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s symphonic poems based on Shakespeare and other literary sources. The idea of doing Hamlet first had been suggested in the early 1870s by the composer’s brother, Modest. At that time Tchaikovsky made effort to write a Hamlet symphonic poem but abandoned the task. He returned to the idea only after he had been asked in 1888 to write incidental music for a benefit performance of the play in St. Petersburg. Tchaikovsky finished the piece at the end of the summer in 1888, even though the scheduled performance of the play had been canceled. In the fall of 1888 the symphonic poem Hamlet received its premiere under the baton of the composer. Although Tchaikovsky had used two other Shakespeare plays as the basis for symphonic poems (Romeo and Juliet and The Tempest), Hamlet presented by far the most psychologically and philosophically daunting challenge. When Tchaikovsky came around to writing Hamlet, he no longer relied on his brother’s literary script. Interestingly, the symphonic poem presents both characters and ideas. One can hear Hamlet, depictions of fate, Ophelia (as many commentators have noted, set in a distinctly Russian manner), the ghost of Hamlet’s father, and Fortinbras. Although the symphonic poem possesses the outlines of what we associate with sonata form, there is really no development. One is tempted to hear in the work the evocation of a mix of psychological distress and despair with which Tchaikovsky himself identified. Of all the elements in the work it is perhaps the recurring motive of fate that gives the piece its overarching coherence. The work ends, appropriately, with a death march.