Thursday, August 15, 2013

Liszt's "Hamlet"

Continuing my series of program notes

Franz Liszt (1811-1886)
Hamlet, S104/R421

After travelling the world for 25 years as a piano virtuoso, the Hungarian pianist Franz Liszt settled in Weimar in 1848 and became Weimar's ‘kapellmeister-in-extraordinairy’. Conducting was among his duties, but there, as a composer, he established the ‘symphonic poem’, his unique contribution to musical form.
By ‘symphonic poem’, Liszt meant ‘a preface added to a piece of instrumental music, by means of which the composer intends to guard the listener against a wrong poetical interpretation, and to direct his attention to the poetical idea of the whole or to a particular part of it’. Liszt used the ‘poetical idea’ as a means to generate new musical form. Most definitions of ‘symphonic poem’ describe it as a single-movement sonata form which contains within itself the structural demarcations of a whole symphony. But some symphonic poems are less like four-movement digests than others. Of Liszt’s13 symphonic poems, Hamlet most resists classification.
Hamlet, composed in 1858, was originally intended to be an overture to the play. The work begins with a very long introduction, which some have associated with the appearance of Hamlet’s father’s Ghost above the fog-bound battlements of Elsinore Castle at the beginning of the drama. More than mere prelude however, it contains themes which will be developed later: a short motif that follows the shape, if not the chromaticism, of Wagner’s ‘Tristan’ motif and a rising theme which is dotted with reminders to play ‘very gloomily’. Even though thematic presentation has been pre-empted by this introduction, what sounds like an exposition-proper begins at a section headed Allegro appassionato ed agitato assai. This also contains what little contrasting second subject there is in this highly unusually work, a passage Liszt specifically identifies with Ophelia; he actually calls it ‘an insertion...’ (it was added later). There is drama in the development section which could arguably be viewed as the duel between Laertes and Hamlet. The recapitulation is very short and truncated, and leads into a funeral march which functions as coda.
Steven Vande Moortele regards Liszt’s Hamlet as a ‘sonata deformation’. But others have seen it as not a sonata at all. It might be an arch perhaps, with the Ophelia music dividing two broadly appassionato sections. While it may be misguided to read the work as exclusively programmatic – it certainly doesn’t follow the play step by step - it may be possible to see the work as a digest of the play in the manner of Liszt’s piano réminiscences.
This would accord with the recollections of Edward Geibel, a playwright, who found that in discussing Shakespeare with Liszt, Liszt would concentrate on key scenes of a play and then improvised a complete poem around them at the keyboard. It would also appear, from the testimony of Lina Ramann, Liszt’s biographer, that Liszt had very specific moments in mind. At the beginning of a performance of the two-piano version of this work in 1884, Liszt whispered in her ear, ‘To be or not to be’, and later, in the body of the work, at the onset of a series of ‘stabbing chords’: ‘Polonius – die Ratte’. In light of this, Joanne Deere has theorised that Hamlet is based on key scenes in the play - Act I scene v (so, hearing the ghost at the beginning is justified); Act III scene i (where Hamlet rejects Ophelia); and Act III sc iv (where Polonius is stabbed behind the curtain). That turbulent music is not the duel between Laertes and Hamlet. There is however, the funeral march at the end.
Much of Liszt’s Hamlet may be explained by the fact that it is Liszt’s interpretation of Hamlet, the character. It is all seen from Hamlet’s perspective, even Ophelia. Liszt was heavily influenced in his view of the character from his friendship with the actor Bogumil Dawison, who portrayed Hamlet, unusually for the time, as a man of action. Though Liszt may have later acknowledged that side of Hamlet which is ‘pale, fevered...the prisoner of his doubt and irresolution’, it is really the other side of the coin which attracted him: ‘a prince with his battle-plan awaiting his moment to exact revenge’. All that turbulence in the music is Hamlet’s inner turmoil, not externals of the plot.

Friedrich von Amerling's portrait of Dawison as Richard III
What is also significant in all this, is that Liszt’s Hamlet may also be the portrait of Dawison’s ‘interpretation’. Liszt recognised in Dawison a fellow virtuoso. It is interesting to reflect that, though Liszt may have achieved long-term goals as a conductor and composer in Weimar, he was still within those roles, a soliloquist, a recitalist - a pianist at heart.

Gordon Kalton Williams, © 2011

This note first appeared in program booklets of orchestras associated with Symphony Services International ( Please contact me if you would like to reprint this note in a program booklet. If you would like to read more of my notes on this blog please see:

Edward Elgar's Froissart, published 2 July 2013
Aaron Copland's A Lincoln Portrait, published 3 July 2013
Franz Waxman's Carmen-fantaisie, published 6 July 2013
Jan Sibelius's Oceanides, published 8 July 2013
Richard Wagner's Tristan and Isolde: Prelude and Liebestod, published 12 July 2013 
Aaron Copland's Eight Poems of Emily Dickinson, published 18 July 2013
John Williams' Escapades, published 22 July 2013 
Thomas Adès's Violin Concerto Concentric Paths, published 26 July 2013 
J.S. Bach's Cantata: "Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott", BWV.80, published 28 July 2013  
Beethoven's 5th and 6th Symphonies, published 29 July 2013 
Wagner's  Götterdämmerung (Immolation Scene), published 31 July 2013
Liszt's Tasso, published 2 August 2013
Stravinsky's Les Noces orchestrated by Steven Stucky, published 8 August 2013

No comments:

Post a Comment