About this Recording
5.110062 - SHOSTAKOVICH: Hamlet, Op. 116
English  German 

Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Hamlet, Op.116
Complete published film score (incorporating the Suite, Op.116a, arranged by Lev Atovmian)

In eighteenth-century Russia Slavophiles and Westernisers debated whether the way forward for the country lay in following its own traditions or those of the West. The latter saw Shakespeare as an artist to emulate and his plays were analysed, used as reference points and models for Russian works from then on. Unsurprisingly, Shostakovich, a brilliant dramatic composer, fell under his spell, but though he set Sonnet 66 and considered several other projects, the only two plays for which he wrote music were Hamlet and King Lear. Hamlet was the focus of a particular cult, probably because of his similarity to the indolent hero of Goncharov’s novel Oblomov. “Hamletism” became the description of indecisiveness and both Shostakovich and his Fifth Symphony attracted the description, but before that, in 1932, he had written music for Nikolay Akimov’s notorious production of the play, which presented it as a farcical comedy following the prince’s cynical attempts to gain the crown. A terrible failure, this was one of the last gasps of the avant-garde before state-encouraged Socialist Realism clamped down on such deviations.

The director Grigori Kozintsev had been fascinated by Hamlet since the early 1920s. In 1928 he and his co-director Leonid Trauberg met Shostakovich and they formed a film-making team though after the war the directors split under a political cloud and both struggled to rebuild their careers. Shostakovich and Kozintsev continued to work together, staging Hamlet in 1954 but reusing the music from their 1941 King Lear. After two heavily criticized biopics (Pirogov, 1947 and Belinsky, made in 1950 but released only in 1953) Kozintsev’s re-emergence began with Don Quixote (1957), his only film not scored by Shostakovich (Kara Karaev filled the breach). They then resumed their collaboration with two acclaimed Shakespeare adaptations, Hamlet (1964) and King Lear (1970).

Both plays deal with leadership, conscience, honour and social responsibility, themes which increasingly absorbed both Kozintsev and Shostakovich, who discuss them in their writings. Along with Don Quixote they also feature characters who in some way or another are or seem to be mad. Moreover, the Shakespeare films both end with funerals, leaving the state leaderless and at risk of attack. Ostensibly reminders that the Soviet Union needed to be strong and united, they could equally be seen as criticisms of a state under the control of an incorrigibly corrupt regime, an interpretation that must have occurred to some watching Akimov’s 1932 production. Kozintsev stressed the film’s contemporaneity: “We are not in a museum but facing the conflicts of modern man”, but the way that some of his comments relate the film to revolutionary theory is half-hearted at best. This was a potentially dangerous strategy, but the ‘classic adaptation’, especially of Shakespeare, helped clothe them in acceptability. In any case he had been planning the film for several years so we cannot map it too closely to the events of the 1960s and the ousting of Khrushchev in late 1964.

Musically the film is largely a three-way drama: the main themes are given to the three characters around whom are woven the main political and personal events. Shostakovich develops them in an almost symphonic way, combining and varying them as appropriate throughout the film. Some of the snapping rhythms that accompany Hamlet himself had also appeared in the Thirteenth Symphony (1962), another work about civic responsibility, and would be echoed in Creativity from the Suite on Verses by Michelangelo (1974). His music is the basis of the Overture, with black flags for the dead king as Hamlet gallops home and the drawbridge is raised, isolating Elsinore from the rest of the world. The ghost’s theme is a brass and percussion chorale, both when he appears himself and when he invades Hamlet’s thoughts: about to take his revenge on his mother, he draws back, remembering his father’s injunction to leave her for him to deal with. Contrasting with these muscular male themes (ironic for the ineffectual son) Ophelia is accompanied by more fluid, often dance-like music and the fragile sound of the harpsichord.

Some music also occurs within the context of the story and is more telling than ordinary fanfares and the like. The Military Music, mindlessly alternating two notes, embodies crushing conformity while the banally pompous Royal Fanfare shows the emptiness of the new regime. During the lively Ball at the Palace the court dances but much of it underscores Hamlet’s “How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable”, an internal monologue underlining his sense of isolation.

The Story of Horatio and the Ghost is underpinned by an unearthly and lugubrious version of the ghost’s music while the fireplace setting prefigures his descriptions of the tortures of hell. This contrasts with the exuberant Ball and in this recording we hear more music than is in the film where it fades down to prepare for Hamlet’s encounter with The Ghost. In this extended scene blasting brass and percussion accompanies the ghost, black-caped, moving in slow motion over the battlements, and follows the mood of the text through anger, pain, regret and anxiety. Hamlet’s Parting from Ophelia starts as a gentle contredanse but darkens with the arrival of the prince. His next soliloquy (“What a piece of work is man”) is accompanied by oleaginous music before, in the distance, we hear The Arrival of the Players. Fanfares frame the play, which takes place In the Garden and features the creeping threat of the Poisoning Scene. Hamlet pointedly explains the play to Claudius but for the film audience the ghost’s theme leaves no doubt what it is about. The king storms out with the court scurrying behind. Hamlet, feigning a desire to bring calm, orders music. The Flutes Play a thin and brainless piece leading to Hamlet’s famous comment that he will not be played like a musical instrument, a scene that was particularly important to both director and composer.

As Ophelia descends into insanity, consoling strings alternate with a brittle harpsichord (a last mannequin-ish echo of her dancing lesson), and a chorale is interrupted by tapping strings, as in his 1974 setting of Marina Tsvetaeva’s poem Hamlet’s Dialogue with His Soul. Such call-and-response gestures would recur in several late works including Night from the Michelangelo suite and his last two symphonies. The extended Death of Ophelia (in the suite renamed simply Ophelia) sees Hamlet watching a wind-blown gull (symbolising her soul) fly over the bay before the scene moves to the cemetery for her interment. But after the long duel scene, the film ends as it began, with rocks and the sea and Hamlet’s music reminding us that his failure has put the country’s future at risk.

Shostakovich was particularly happy with this score though a planned symphonic poem on the same theme came to nothing and he turned instead to his Ninth String Quartet. The film won prizes at various film festivals while the score was acclaimed and used for several Hamlet ballets. In 1964 Shostakovich’s friend Lev Atovmian arranged a suite and its eight movements have been integrated into this recording of the published score.

John Riley


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