Hamlet (incidental music)

Tchaikovsky Research

Tchaikovsky's incidental music to Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet (Гамлет), Op. 67b (TH 23 ; ČW 16), was written in January 1891 for a French production of the play in Saint Petersburg. It makes use of music from earlier works, including the overture-fantasia Hamlet that Tchaikovsky had written three years earlier.


Tchaikovsky's music is scored for soprano and baritone soloists, and a theatre orchestra of 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets (in B-flat), 2 bassoons + 2 horns (in F), 2 trumpets (in B-flat), bass trombone + 3 timpani, tambourine, tam tam, bell (in C) + violins I, violins II, violas, cellos, and double basses.

There are two singing roles:

  • Ophélie (Ophelia) — soprano
  • Fossojeur (Gravedigger) — baritone.

Movements and Duration

Tchaikovsky's original score contains an overture and 17 individual numbers, of which one (No. 5a) has not been published. The titles of numbers are translated into English, with French headings and vocal incipits (in italics) taken from the published score. Where the English and French titles are the same, only the former are shown.

Overture (Ouverture)
Lento lugubre — Allegro vivacissimo (256 bars)
Act I No. 1 Melodrama (Mélodrame)
Moderato assai (23 bars)
No. 2 Fanfare
Allegro vivo (9 bars)
No. 3 Melodrama (Mélodrame)
Moderato assai (10 bars)
No. 4 Melodrama (Mélodrame)
Allegro giusto ed agitato (112 bars)
Act II No. 5 Entr'acte
Allegro semplice (138 bars)
No. 5a Fanfare (4 bars)
No. 6 Fanfare
Allegro (8 bars)
Act III No. 7 Entr'acte
Andante quasi Allegretto (28 bars)
No. 8 Melodrama (Mélodrame)
Allegro giusto ed agitato (73 bars)
Act IV No. 9 Entr'acte
Andante non troppo (103 bars)
No. 10 Ophelia's Scene (Scène d'Ophélie)
Andantino (44 bars)
Votre amoureux, á quels gages?
No. 11 (a) Ophelia's Second Scene (Deuxième scène d'Ophélie)
Moderato (15 bars)
On l'a porté convert de fleurs
(b) End of Ophelia's Second Scene (Fin de la deuxième scène d'Ophélie)
Allegro vivo (73 bars)
Non, non! Ne me dis pas!
Act V No. 12 Entr'acte
Marcia. Moderato assai (72 bars)
No. 13 Gravedigger's Song (Chant du Fossoyeur)
Andantino (14 bars)
Fou d'amour, dans mon ivresse
No. 14 Funeral March (Marche funèbre)
Marcia. Moderato assai (72 bars)
No. 15 Fanfare
Allegro giusto (8 bars)
No. 16 Final March (Marche finale)
Allegro risoluto ma non troppo (19 bars)

In the published score, No. 1 is marked to be played twice (on each appearance of the ghost). No. 8 is a shortened version of No. 4, and No. 14 is an exact repeat of No. 12.

A complete concert performance of Tchaikovsky's music to Hamlet lasts around 50 minutes.


In late January/early February 1888, Tchaikovsky received a letter from his friend the actor Lucien Guitry informing him that Grand Duchess Mariya Pavlovna (1854–1920), a sister-in-law of Tsar Alexander III, wanted to organize a gala charity production in the Mariinsky Theatre in late March/early April. Among other things, she wanted Act III from Shakespeare's tragedy Hamlet to be staged, with Guitry in the title role, and with an overture by Tchaikovsky. Guitry, however, realised that the composer might not have enough time to write a whole overture by that deadline, and he asked him instead for an entr'acte to fill the interval between the Players' Scene and the scene in the Queen's closet where Hamlet kills Polonius [1].

Three years previously, in April 1885, Tchaikovsky had been so impressed by Guitry's performance as Edmund Kean in Alexandre Dumas' play inspired by the great English actor's life: Kean, or Disorder and Genius (in which there is a scene where Kean plays Hamlet), that he wrote to Guitry urging him to perform a Shakespearian role, promising that "in the event that you should play Hamlet or Romeo, I shall write an overture and entr'actes specially tailored to the resources of the orchestra at the Mikhaylovsky Theatre. It will be a great pleasure for me, and I shall be proud to participate a little in your triumph" [2].

Now reminded of his earlier promise, Tchaikovsky agreed to write the music for Hamlet. Although Guitry subsequently wrote to Tchaikovsky to tell him that the production had been cancelled, the composer was so captivated by the idea of setting Hamlet to music — something he had already considered twelve years earlier — that in the course of the summer he proceeded to write his overture-fantasia on the subject.

Two years later, however, Tchaikovsky fulfilled his earlier promise to write proper stage music for Hamlet for the farewell performance which Guitry was due to give at the Mikhaylovsky Theatre on 9/21 February 1891, and for which the actor had chosen Shakespeare's tragedy in a French translation by Alexandre Dumas père and Paul Meurice. Together with a copy of the play, in which he had marked all the points at which he wished the music to set in, Guitry sent Tchaikovsky a letter with more detailed instructions, adding jestingly at the end that the last thing he wanted was to appear "like a second Détroyat" in the composer's eyes, and so he asked him not to trouble himself too much over this music [3].

In 1890, Lucien Guitry approached Tchaikovsky once more with a request for music to Hamlet, for a benefit performance that would be Guitry's last appearance on the Russian stage [4]. The composer agreed, and began work around 7/19 January 1891 at Frolovskoye, but with little enthusiasm, as he confessed to Modest Tchaikovsky in a letter of 11/23 January: "Hamlet is coming along. But it is such unpleasant work!" [5]. On 22 January/3 February, he told Anatoly Tchaikovsky that he had finished the music to Hamlet and sent it to Guitry [6].

It appears that the Fanfare (Act II, No. 5a) was written during rehearsals for the stage production. The manuscript score is dated 8/20 February 1891.


The three vocal numbers (Nos. 10, 11 and 13) were also arranged by the composer for voices with piano in January 1891. All the remaining numbers were arranged for solo piano by Eduard Langer.


The play The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark was written between 1599 and 1601 by the English dramatist William Shakespeare (1564–1616). The French translation of the play made by Alexandre Dumas (1802-1870) and Paul Meurice (1818-1905) was first performed in Paris in 1847.


The performance of Hamlet with Guitry in the title-role took place as scheduled at the Mikhailovsky Theatre in Saint Petersburg on 9/21 February 1891 with Tchaikovsky's incidental music. The parts of Ophelia and the Gravedigger were performed by A. Laine and H. Lorther respectively.

Writing to his brother Anatoly, the composer reported: "My music to Hamlet, put on for Guitry's benefit, went down very well with everyone. Guitry was superb" [7]. The first performance in Moscow took place on 21 November/3 December 1891 at the Maly Theatre.

In 1893, the conductor Michał Hertz in Warsaw sought Tchaikovsky's permission to perform his music to Hamlet in a production by the Warsaw dramatic theatre, but the composer declined after consulting his brother Modest, who in his view did not consider it to be a serious artistic work. "I wrote it very quickly for the benefit of one of my friends, only so that he could amuse himself in seeing my name on the concert bill. It is scored for a very small orchestra, and would not be suitable for a Grand Imperial Theatre". Instead, Tchaikovsky suggested that Hertz might wish to consider using the "wonderful music to Hamlet by George Henschel" [8].

Guitry, however, was delighted with the music Tchaikovsky had provided. After he had returned to France for good he sent Tchaikovsky, as a token of his gratitude, a bronze cockerel by the French sculptor Auguste Cain (1822–1894). This present can still be seen today in the composer's living-room at the Klin House-Museum.


In June 1892 Pyotr Jurgenson published the full score and orchestral parts. The vocal-piano reduction — with the vocal numbers (Nos. 10, 11 and 13) arranged by the composer, and the remaining numbers by Eduard Langer — was issued together with a re-issue of the full score in February 1896.

The full score of Tchaikovsky's incidental music was published in volume 14 of Tchaikovsky's Complete Collected Works, edited by Irina Iordan (1962). The vocal-piano reduction was not published as part of the collected works.


Tchaikovsky's autograph score has been lost, but his manuscript of the additional fanfare (Act II, No. 5a) is now preserved in the National Library of Russia in Saint Petersburg (ф. 384, No. 54) [view].


See: Discography

Related Works

The Overture is an abridged and re-scored version of the overture-fantasia Hamlet, and themes from the latter are used in two of the Melodramas (Act I, Nos. 1 and 3), and the concluding march (Act V, No. 16).

Tchaikovsky also re-used music from three other earlier works:

  • The Entr'acte (Act II, No. 5) is an abridged version of the Alla tedesca movement from his Third Symphony (1875)
  • The Entr'acte (Act III, No. 7) is based on the Melodrama (Act II, No. 10) from the incidental music to The Snow Maiden (1873)
  • The Entr'acte (Act IV, No. 9) is a reworking of the Elegy for string orchestra (1884).

External Links

Notes and References

  1. Letter from Lucien Guitry to Tchaikovsky, 25 January/6 February 1888 — Klin House-Museum Archive. This letter has been published in Чайковский и зарубежные музыканты (1970), p. 209–210, p. 108–110 (Russian translation).
  2. Letter 2677a to Lucien Guitry, 1/13 April 1885.
  3. Letter from Lucien Guitry to Tchaikovsky, 4/16 October 1890. See Чайковский и зарубежные музыканты (1970), p. 212 (original French text), p. 111–112 (Russian translation).
  4. Letter from Lucien Guitry to Tchaikovsky, 5/17 September 1890 — Klin House-Museum Archive. This letter has been published in Чайковский и зарубежные музыканты (1970), p. 211, p. 111 (Russian translation).
  5. Letter 4300 to Modest Tchaikovsky, 11/23 January 1891.
  6. Letter 4312 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 22 January/3 February 1891.
  7. Letter 4329 to Anatoly Tchaikovsky, 12/24 February 1891.
  8. Letter 5020 to Michał Hertz, 23 August/4 September 1893.