Dmitry Shostakovich (1906-1975)
Complete published film score (incorporating the Suite,Op.116a, arranged by Lev Atovmian)
In eighteenth-century Russia Slavophiles and Westernisersdebated whether the way forward for the country lay in following its owntraditions or those of the West. The latter saw Shakespeare as an artist toemulate and his plays were analysed, used as reference points and models forRussian works from then on. Unsurprisingly, Shostakovich, a brilliant dramaticcomposer, fell under his spell, but though he set Sonnet66 and consideredseveral other projects, the only two plays for which he wrote music were Hamletand King Lear. Hamlet was the focus of a particular cult, probably because ofhis similarity to the indolent hero of Goncharov's novel Oblomov. \Hamletism"became the description of indecisiveness and both Shostakovich and his FifthSymphony attracted the description, but before that, in 1932, he had writtenmusic for Nikolay Akimov's notorious production of the play, which presented itas 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 beforestate-encouraged Socialist Realism clamped down on such deviations.
The director Grigori Kozintsev had been fascinated by Hamletsince the early 1920s. In 1928 he and his co-director Leonid Trauberg metShostakovich and they formed a film-making team though after the war thedirectors split under a political cloud and both struggled to rebuild theircareers. Shostakovich andKozintsev continued to work together, staging Hamlet in 1954 but reusing themusic from their 1941 King Lear. After two heavily criticized biopics (Pirogov,1947 and Belinsky, made in 1950 but released only in 1953) Kozintsev'sre-emergence began with Don Quixote (1957), his only film not scored byShostakovich (Kara Karaev filled the breach). They then resumed theircollaboration with two acclaimed Shakespeare adaptations, Hamlet (1964) andKing Lear (1970).
Both plays deal with leadership, conscience, honour andsocial responsibility, themes which increasingly absorbed both Kozintsev andShostakovich, who discuss them in their writings. Along with Don Quixote they also feature characters who insome way or another are or seem to be mad. Moreover, the Shakespeare films bothend with funerals, leaving the state leaderless and at risk of attack.Ostensibly reminders that the Soviet Union needed to be strong and united, theycould equally be seen as criticisms of a state under the control of anincorrigibly corrupt regime, an interpretation that must have occurred to somewatching Akimov's 1932 production. Kozintsev stressed the film'scontemporaneity: "We are not in a museum but facing the conflicts of modernman", but the way that some of his comments relate the film to revolutionarytheory is half-hearted at best. This was a potentially dangerous strategy, butthe 'classic adaptation', especially of Shakespeare, helped clothe them inacceptability. In any case he had been planning the film for several years sowe cannot map it too closely to the events of the 1960s and the ousting ofKhrushchev in late 1964.
Musically the film is largely a three-way drama: the mainthemes are given to the three characters around whom are woven the mainpolitical and personal events. Shostakovich develops them in an almostsymphonic way, combining and varying them as appropriate throughout the film.Some of the snapping rhythms that accompany Hamlet himself had also appeared inthe Thirteenth Symphony (1962), another work about civic responsibility, andwould 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 asHamlet gallops home and the drawbridge is raised, isolating Elsinore from therest of the world. The ghost's theme is a brass and percussion chorale, bothwhen he appears himself and when he invades Hamlet's thoughts: about to takehis revenge on his mother, he draws back, remembering his father's injunctionto leave her for him to deal with. Contrasting with these muscular male themes(ironic for the ineffectual son) Ophelia is accompanied by more fluid, oftendance-like music and the fragile sound of the harpsichord.
Some music also occurs within the context of the story andis more telling than ordinary fanfares and the like. The Military Music,mindlessly alternating two notes, embodies crushing conformity while thebanally pompous Royal Fanfare shows the emptiness of the new regime. During thelively Ball at the Palace the court dances but much of it underscores Hamlet's"How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable", an internal monologue underlininghis sense of isolation.
The Story of Horatio and the Ghost is under-pinned by anunearthly and lugubrious version of the ghost's music while the fireplacesetting prefigures his descriptions of the tortures of hell. This contrastswith the exuberant Ball and in this recording we hear more music than is in thefilm where it fades down to prepare for Hamlet's encounter with The Ghost. Inthis extended scene blasting brass and percussion accompanies the ghost,black-caped, moving in slow motion over the battlements, and follows the moodof the text through anger, pain, regret and anxiety. Hamlet's Parting fromOphelia starts as a gentle contredanse but darkens with the arrival of theprince. His next soliloquy ("What a piece of work is man") is accompanied byoleaginous music before, in the distance, we hear The Arrival of the Players.Fanfares frame the play, which takes place In the Garden and features thecreeping threat of the Poisoning Scene. Hamlet pointedly explains the play toClaudius but for the film audience the ghost's theme leaves no doubt what it isabout. The king storms out with the court scurrying behind. Hamlet, feigning adesire to bring calm, orders music. The Flutes Play a thin and brainless pieceleading to Hamlet's famous comment that he will not be played like a musicalinstrument, a scene that was particularly important to both director andcomposer.
As Ophelia descends into insanity, consoling stringsalternate with a brittle harpsichord (a last mannequin-ish echo of her dancinglesson), and a chorale is interrupted by tapping strings, as in his 1974 settingof Marina Tsvetaeva's poem Hamlet's Dialogue with His Soul. Suchcall-and-response gestures would recur in several late works including Nightfrom the Michelangelo suite and his last two symphonies. The extended Death ofOphelia (in the suite renamed simply Ophelia) sees Hamlet watching a wind-blowngull (symbolising her soul) fly over the bay before the scene moves to thecemetery for her interment. But after the long duel scene, the film ends as itbegan, with rocks and the sea and Hamlet's music reminding us that his failurehas put the country's future at risk.
Shostakovich was particularly happy with this score though aplanned symphonic poem on the same theme came to nothing and he turned insteadto his Ninth String Quartet. The film won prizes at various film festivalswhile the score was acclaimed and used for several Hamlet ballets. In 1964Shostakovich's friend Lev Atovmian arranged a suite and its eight movementshave been integrated into this recording of the published score.