Many of you may be quite familiar with Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, but did you know he also wrote a Hamlet Fantasy-Overture in 1888? The idea to write something based on Shakespeare’s tragedy first was suggested to Tchaikovsky by his brother in 1876. The composer quickly dismissed the idea, claiming it too difficult an undertaking. It wasn’t until 1885 that he began sketching a few ideas and in 1888, following a commission to compose incidental music for the play, that he finally conceded. The production ended up being canceled but Tchaikovsky still completed his Fantasy-Overture.
The work is a symphonic poem much like what we discussed concerning Liszt’s setting during my last post. Rather than reflect a play-by-play of the plot, Tchaikovsky’s setting seems to express characters in the story. For instance, the opening theme is tense in nature, much like Hamlet. A few minutes in, you can hear the sound of the clock chiming midnight with twelve consecutive, pulsing notes in the horns. At this, the gong sounds, possibly insinuating the appearance of the ghost to the young prince. Another character to listen for during this work is Ophelia, who perhaps can be heard in the oboe melody.
Years later, Tchaikovsky was given another opportunity to write incidental music to a Hamlet production, however he had trouble putting his full self into the project since he had already said all he needed to say in the Fantasy-Overture.