Opus 32: Hamlet (1931-1932)

Hamlet, op. 32 (1931-1932)
CD:  “Shostakovich: Hamlet & King Lear”, various soloists, City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Mark Elder (Signum SIGCD052)

When critics see a heroic play,
they declare that it does not go far enough . . .
Whereas when they see a satirical play,
they describe it as over the top.

Nikolai Akimov put this little barb in Rosencrantz’s mouth in his 1932 production of Hamlet, scored by Shostakovich; the words are spoken, tagged with short satirical signifiers of drama and comedy, respectively.  (The translation in the CD booklet is by Gerard McBurney, who orchestrated five of the score’s selections in the 1990s.)  Akimov’s show, a sprawling expansion / reimagining / parody of Shakespeare’s tragedy, apparently aimed well over the top and, predictably, failed with the press and public.  Shostakovich’s music, although it has a touch of the spirit of anarchy that motivates New Babylon — perhaps only by association in my mind with Akimov’s fiasco — is of a piece with the slightly acidic sets of dance and march numbers he provided for other plays while he worked on Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.  While it has more gravity than the likes of his Rule, Britannia! score it doesn’t push far enough into the realm of either tragedy or satire to stand up entirely on its own.

Rule, Britannia! in fact contributes its infantry march, in a more misterioso guise, to this score, and Shostakovich commits other acts of musical recycling with typical alacrity.  He reuses of the sunnier bits of The Golden Age‘s formidable can-can; the still-in-progress Lady Macbeth echoes more consistently throughout, in some shaded mood-setting music as well as in some strident outbursts reminiscent of the opera’s amatory scene.  In fact one of its suggestive upward trombone slides punctuates the “Hamlet and the small boys walking past” cue, whatever manner of scene that was, although one hopes it wasn’t related to the spirit of the original.

One moment that borrows from Lady Macbeth‘s final act also looks forward, if I recall correctly, to Shostakovich’s music for Grigori Kozintsev’s thoroughly unrelated 1964 film version of Hamlet.  The scores are wholly separate works as well, although the woodwind tremors used in the Prelude to the play-within-the-play of the 1932 score is applied to the appearance of the ghost in the later film soundtrack:

Shostakovich, never shy about looking beyond the confines of his own head for material, borrows from another composer as well in at least one instance, as his early Funeral March winks in the direction of Chopin’s famous one:

 

As in the above examples, Hamlet‘s collection of very short selections (none as long as four minutes) mixes in some dramatically hefty stuff with the light-music escapades.  One of the better examples of the latter side of the score is Shostakovich’s setting of Ophelia’s fourth-act ditty, a lyrical number that throws a couple of musical elbows.  It’s sung here by mezzo-soprano Louise Winter; I think I’ve excerpted the right words for the music:

Then up he rose, and donned his clothes,
And dupped the chamber door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.

 

In contrast, one of the score’s comparatively fewer contemplative passages is a Lullaby for a few string instruments, which looks forward to Shostakovich’s serious forays into chamber music later in the decade.  (Derek Hulme notes that the Lullaby recycles material from the Alone score, op. 26, though I missed that connection.)

 

In the context of listening through all these works chronologically, the Hamlet score mainly illustrates for me a shift in Shostakovich’s style over the short span from the late 1920s to the early 1930s, in which the controlled chaos of the earlier works is squared off and sanded down.  This must be due to a combination, though I don’t know in what proportions, of increasingly heavy-handed official criticism; changing personal tastes; and the fact that he focused most of his creative energy and innovation on Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

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