Overture-fantasia after Shakespeare, Op. 67 (1888).
As far back as July 1876, Modest Tchaikovsky in one of his letters suggested to the composer some subjects for symphonic poems, including Hamlet. Modest wrote: "Wouldn't you like to do Hamlet? I think it could be organised straightforwardly into three sections:
In his letter of reply of 7/19 July 1876, Tchaikovsky thanked his brother for the programmes and wrote: "Out of them all Hamlet is very much to my taste, but it’s devilishly difficult" .
Despite his interest in the subject, Tchaikovsky did not start composition until 1888, but his thoughts repeatedly returned to the project during the intervening period.
In 1885 he noted down a short musical sketch, with a quotation from Hamlet:
In his diary entry for 9/21 September 1887, Tchaikovsky recorded: "Unsuccessful 2nd theme for Hamlet" . Presumably this note referred to musical sketches in his Notebook No. 4, which is dated on the first page "12 Sept" [O.S.]. Over one of these sketches (pages 42–43) is written "Hamlet"; however, this sketch was not used in the overture. Another sketch on page 3 certainly appears to be a preliminary variant of the first theme of the overture's second subject.
A suggestion from the French actor Lucien Guitry served as the catalyst for the composition of the overture-fantasia Hamlet. Grand Duchess Mariya Pavlovna (1854–1920) was planning to organize a gala charity production at the Saint Petersburg Mariinsky Theatre in late March/early April 1888, and she wanted this to include a staging of Act III from Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet, with Guitry in the title role and with an overture by Tchaikovsky . On 25 January/6 February 1888, Guitry wrote to the composer, who was then on a concert tour abroad: "I have taken upon myself the task of acting as the Grand Duchess's spokesman and to ask you whether you might not be able, if push comes to shove, to pull off not an overture, but an entr'acte for Hamlet's pantomime scene—in short, an entr'acte between the Theatre Scene (the allegorical murder) and the great portrait scene in the Queen's bedchamber, where Hamlet kills Polonius and the Ghost appears? I am writing all this to you against my better instincts, as I am aware of the magnitude of what I am asking. To write and to compose while hopping from one train to another is extremely difficult. However, as I said: I am acting here merely as a spokesman. It would have to be performed in a gala production at the Mariinsky Theatre, conducted by Nápravník, in the third week of Lent, i.e. in two months’ time" .
In a subsequent (undated) letter from the same year, Lucien Guitry told Tchaikovsky that the production had been cancelled . However, Tchaikovsky was now absorbed in the subject, and had even begun to make preliminary sketches during the course of his foreign tour during the first three months of 1888. Further sketches in his Notebook No. 4 seem to show that the overture as conceived as a work for full symphony orchestra, rather than for the smaller forces of a theatre orchestra.
The Overture does not have a literary programme, but the draft sketches contain some notes on its construction. For example, on the first page of sketches is the note: "Do something at the start which won’t sound like the start of Manfred". Besides this note is another relating to the finale of the overture: "... then very harsh 6[th] chords in E♭ major and pedal for Fortinbras", and below:
Ped[al] on G, terrible crescendo and a crash to follow after Hamlet’s death".
The sketches (rough draft) were written between 17/29 June and 22 June/4 July 1888, at Frolovskoye, immediately after composing the rough sketches for the Fifth Symphony . The composer mentioned this in a letter to Nadezhda von Meck of 22 June/4 July: "All this time I have been working well; I have already prepared in rough a symphony and an overture on the tragedy Hamlet, for which I’ve been collecting materials for some time. Over the coming weeks I will be busy with the instrumentation of both works" .
In letters to his brothers Modest of 26 June/8 July 1888  and Anatoly of 1/13 July 1888 , Tchaikovsky also refers to the completion of the Fifth Symphony and the Hamlet overture, and his intention to orchestrate them. The scoring of the overture was begun around 9/21–10/22 September, after completing work on the Overture-Fantasia by Herman Laroche . The instrumentation was completed on 7/19 October 1888 (according to the date on the manuscript).
In a letter of 27 October/8 November 1888 to Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky reported: "I have finished the instrumentation of my overture to Hamlet, and made numerous corrections to the proofs of my symphony, and I am now busy with preparations for conducting them both at my concerts... I will be performing Hamlet at a musical society concert" .
The Overture was performed for the first time in Saint Petersburg at the third symphony concert of the Russian Musical Society on 12/24 November 1888, conducted by the author. In Moscow the overture was performed on 14/26 February 1893, also conducted by the author, in a special concert of the Russian Musical Society.
The full score of Hamlet appeared in print in July 1890, and the orchestral parts in October the same year . An arrangement of the overture for piano duet was made by Henryk Pachulski, and published by Pyotr Jurgenson in November 1890.
Музыкальное наследие Чайковского (1958), pp. 301–305
The publication of Tchaikovsky’s first extant letter to Lucien Guitry, dated 1/13 April 1885 — letter 2677a — in "Klin, near Moscow, was the home of one of the busiest of men…" (Tchaikovsky Research Bulletin No. 1, p. 39–41) in February 2011 has shed further light on the genesis of the overture-fantasia Hamlet, as well as of the later incidental music to the play (1891).
This page was last updated on 12 February 2013