OF all Shakespeare’s plays, Hamlet is the most difficult to surround with music and adapt for the lyric stage. It is more scholastic than dramatic, and for this reason composers have passed it by with the single exception of Ambroise Thomas. His accomplishment certainly deserves more commendation than was bestowed by an irate critic who said : ” There are four weary, dreary acts before you come to the music.” This assertion is correct in one way, for the opera is indeed longquite too long; but there is, nevertheless, much that is beautiful in those four acts preceding the mad scene. But even were this not the case, that last scene is so exquisite that it would atone for any amount of previous ennui.
Thomas has given his principal rôle to the baritone, which seems an innovation.
Whenever a lower voice has been honored with the leading rôle in a grand opera the reason is found in the character, as the jovial Barber of Seville, the deformed Rigoletto, the accursed Flying Dutchman ; but the tenor has always held undisputed possession of the lover’s part. It takes us some little time to become reconciled to this baritone-voiced young prince. But we finally realize that he is less a lover than a philosopher, which probably explains why Thomas turned trom the tenor.
The opera opens with a short and somber prelude that closely resembles the later introduction to the ghost-scene. It is there-fore more descriptive of the melancholy Dane than of the first act, which is brilliant throughout. The curtain rises upon a state hall in the palace, where have been celebrated the wedding and coronation of Claudius and Gertrude, brother and widow of the late king. A sturdy march that is quite Danish in character accompanies the grand entrance of the king and queen. That music can express a nationality is clearly evinced by this march, which possesses a rugged, North-sea atmosphere that differs from all others. The first aria is given by the king, who eulogizes his new-made wife, “our sometime sister, now our queen.” After this bass solo with its pleasing rhythm and satisfying cadences the queen inquires for her son Hamlet, who is not among the revelers. But her anxieties are drowned by the festive music that recommences and continues until the entire court have made their exit.
The music now changes to a meditative, minor mood, which announces the entrance of Hamlet. He shares no joy on this occasion of his mother’s wedding, and his first words are a short recitative about “frailty, thy name is woman.”
His soliloquy is followed by a phrase in the orchestraa timid, questioning sort of introduction which before the opera is over we learn to associate with the gentle Ophelia. She enters and addresses Hamlet, her betrothed, with an anxious inquiry about his intended departure from Denmark. On learning from his own lips that the report is true, she asks why he leaves, and begins to doubt his love. There is a daintiness and a delicacy to all of Ophelia’s music; and in this short melody, so admirably blended with the accompaniment, there is a wooing charm that diverts even Hamlet from his grief. He clasps her hands, and with thrilling fervor bids her —
“Doubt that the stars are fire, Doubt that the sun doth move, Doubt Truth to be a liar, But never doubt I love.”
This is the great theme of the opera, the center-stone of the musical crown that the French composer has given to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Its love-laden melody would carry conviction to a less trusting heart than Ophelia’s. She receives it like truth from heaven. Its memory lingers ever, and even in her after madness, when the words have no meaning, we hear them again “like sweet bells jangled out of tune.” There follows a duet based upon Hamlet’s vow. The soprano voice occasionally runs up in some happy little roulades which seem like the outburst of joy which can not confine itself to the prescribed theme. However long the whole opera, we certainly could not spare a note from the love-duet; it ends only too soon.
Ophelia’s brother, Laertes, comes in.
He is a soldier, and has just received a commission which requires his speedy departure ; so he sings a farewell to his sister and bids Hamlet be as a brother to her in case he never returns. This first and only cavatina of Laertes is well worth a good artist. It is melodious and pleasing, even when compared to the previous duet. As he finishes, gay music is heard from the inner hall.
Ophelia asks Hamlet to join the festivities, but he declines and retires sorrowfully as some pages and young officers enter. They sing a unique and merry chorus without accompaniment, which is interrupted by the entrance of Horatio and Marcellus, who inquire for Hamlet. They declare they have seen the ghost of the late king, and seek to apprise Hamlet of the fact. The merry-makers laugh and call it a delusion ; but the two friends continue their search for the young prince. The dance music is resumed, and so fascinating and emphatic is its rhythm that our pulses throb in tempo long after the curtain descends.
The second act represents the esplanade outside of the castle. It is a chilly moon-light nighta sharp contrast to the beam of lights from within and the blare of dance music which ever and anon reaches our ears. But the prelude which opens the act is thoroughly descriptive of the scene be-fore us. It has deep, rumbling tremolos and chilling chromatic crescendos, with here and there a moaning, wo-weighted theme that is piteous to hear. There is much singing without orchestra and much orchestra without singing in this scene of the esplanade, which accounts for the charge against it of being ” rather thin ghost mu-sic.” Horatio and Marcellus are the first to enter. They are soon joined by Hamlet, to whom they recount the strange visitation of the previous night. As they wait and watch for the specter to reappear, a gay fanfare from the palace jars upon the stillness. Strains of the wedding-march are heard, and there seems abundant reason for the dead king to rise from his grave! Hamlet utters expletives over the mockery of such gaiety within, while “here is the shadow of mourning.” His words are accompanied by an oft-repeated minor phrase of four notes which is stealthy and fearful. This ghost-theme alternates with a single monotonous tone that represents the twelve strokes of a clock. Hamlet hushes his singing ; there is a soft, eerie tremolo of the violins; the pale moonlight falls upon the castle’s turreted towers. Marcellus and Horatio speak in whispers, when suddenly the orchestra gives a great crash of brass and cymbals that makes your blood freeze.
The phantom has appeared. Now follows the incantation, so called because Hamlet conjures the spirit to speak to him. This music is based entirely upon the four-note ghost theme, which is elaborated and carried by the orchestra through many forms. At last the specter speaks, and in a deep monotone informs Hamlet how he was murdered by the present King. His own brother stole his life, his wife, and his throne. He bids Hamlet avenge this terrible crime, and then disappears. Hamlet cries out in a theme large and grand, ” Fare-well to fame, love, and happiness !” Revenge shall hereafter be the aim of his life.
The peaceful love-music greets our ears as we look upon the next scene, which reveals the gardens of the palace. The superb theme of Hamlet’s vow rings out in clear, untroubled octaves as the fair Ophelia comes forward with a book in her hand. She is trying to read, but thoughts of Hamlet constantly intrude themselves. ” He has not touched my hand for quite two days, and seems to avoid my presence.” She again turns to her book and reads aloud. Ophelia reads very beautifully. Thomas has with music conveyed the impression of enunciating words from a book. We would know she was reading even if the book were not visible nor the words audible, and yet it is not by means of a monotone that this idea is conveyed. It is a simple song melody, and the effect is probably due to the rhythm rather than the intervals. After reading one stanza, Hamlet’s vowthat theme so deep and trueis again heard, and the hero himself comes thoughtfully upon the scene. He is in the background, but Ophelia has seen him, and she quickly makes a pretense of reading. She listens for every step as he draws nearer, and believes he will speak. He sees her and at first comes forward, but then remembers that he has foresworn love ; and thinking she has not seen him, he quietly retires. Poor Ophelia throws down her book in wildest grief, and a song of despair springs from her heart. ” Vows have wings and they fly with the dawn; the day which gives them birth also sees them die.” Every note is like a tear, and the ‘harmonies are plaintive and pitiful.
The queen presently enters and is grieved to find Ophelia weeping. The latter ex-plains that Hamlet no longer loves her, and she begs permission to leave the court; but the queen puts other ideas in her head. She says that Hamlet has also acted strangely toward her, and she believes his mind is affected. For this reason she asks Ophelia to remain, and hopes her presence may re-store him. This first song of the queen, who must have a mezzo-soprano voice of dramatic quality, combines dignity and pathos. Its mood does not contrast, but harmonizes with the previous aria. Ophelia accepts the queen’s advice, and then goes off as the king enters. He confers with his wife about Hamlet’s alarming behavior, but their conversation is interrupted by the prince himself, who greets them moodily and assumes more vagaries than he feels.
He is constantly seeking to entrap the king into some sign or remark which will verify the ghost’s charge of murder. He has therefore planned to have a play enacted which shall depict the king’s crime. His invitation to this theatrical entertainment is welcomed by the unsuspecting king and queen, who are delighted that he thus seeks diversion. As they go off, Hamlet exclaims tragically, ” Patience, my father, patience ! ” and the orchestra reveals to us thoughts of revenge, for we hear again that ponderous and melancholy theme which ended the ghost scene.
Hamlet is now joined by the actors whom he has engaged for the play. They sing a characteristic chorus about their several talents, and then Hamlet explains to them the plot they are to enacthow a king whom he calls Gonzago shall be poisoned by his brother, who afterward places the crown on his own head and marries the widow. After this preliminary, Hamlet calls for wine and bids the players make merry. He sings to them a drinking-song of dazzling exuberance.
It is strange how universally successful operatic composers are in the matter of drinking-songs. You can name off-hand more popular chansons Bacchic than any other one style of aria. There are various well-known serenades and prayers and spinning-songs, but of drinking-songs there are any number. ” Lucrezia Borgia,” Rigoletto, ” ” Traviata, ” ” Huguenots, ” ” Cavalleria Rusticana, “their drinking-songs are heard every day on the hand-organs in the street. And so in ” Hamlet ” its drinking-song is one of the most celebrated numbers of the opera. Its bubbling rhythm and hilarious melody are continued even after the song is ended and the curtain descends. It lingers like the effect of wine.
Act III. is the play scene. There is a small stage erected at one side of the spacious palace hall, and opposite this is a throne for the king and queen. The orchestra carries everything before it with the rousing Danish march which accompanies the ceremonious entrance of the entire court. This composition ranks with the drinking-song in popularity. When all are assembled, Hamlet places himself in a position to watch the king, and as the mimic play proceeds he explains the action, which is all in panto-mime. The orchestral descriptive music of this play within a play is beautiful and interesting. As in Ophelia’s reading, the simple melody and hesitating rhythm Again convey the impression of something inserted, something apart from the real action of the play. Hamlet becomes more and more excited as the play goes on, for he sees unmistakable signs of uneasiness in the king’s expression ; and when at last the mimic murderer pours poison into the ear of his sleeping victim, the king rises in anger and orders the players away. Ham-let in a delirium of vengeful joy cries out the king’s guilt. He pushes his way through the surrounding courtiers, and with unbridled fury accuses the murderer. He is sustained by a perfect tidal wave of chords from the orchestra, which dash and beat and break, but only harm the good ship they bear instead of the rock they attack. The people regard Hamlet’s charge as an outburst of madness, and he presently lends credence to this belief by singing with wild hilarity the drinking-song of the previous act. The following strong and seething chorus of dismay is again interrupted at the very end by Hamlet’s mad song —
“Life is short and death is near ; We’ll sing and drink while yet we may.”
With a wild mocking laugh he falls into Horatio’s arms as the king and court with-draw.
The great feature of the fourth act is the scene between Hamlet and his mother, but there is much besides. The scene represents the queen’s apartment in the palace, and the first number is Hamlet’s soliloquy. He blames himself and deems it cowardice that he did not strike the king dead when he had the opportunity. Then follows the musical arrangement of ” To be or not to be,” a speech so unsuited to music that Thomas has cut it down to a few lines. Hamlet presently sees the king approaching, and he conceals himself behind a curtain with the intention of attacking him. But the king thinks himself alone, and in agony of mind he kneels on the prie-dieu and prays. It is an impressive composition, this prayer with its cathedral harmonies and blending accompaniment. Hamlet glides softly toward the door, for he can not kill even his father’s murderer at prayer. The king, who has heard the footsteps, cries out in terror, for he fancies it was the ghost of his brother. Polonius, the father of Ophelia, quickly enters and reassures the king. They walk out arm in arm, and from their few words it is gleaned that Polonius was an accomplice to the crime. Hamlet hears them, and is horrified to learn this fact about Ophelia’s father. At this moment the queen and Ophelia enter, and the former announces to Hamlet that it is her wish as well as the king’s that his marriage shall take place at once. The prince blankly refuses to obey in spite of the queen’s urging; but his heart endures a struggle when the poor Ophelia sings of her grief and re-turns to him his ring. The sweet minor strain in her song implies a sad resignation that is more touching than intense lamentatian. She goes out weeping. The queen then turns to Hamlet and upbraids him for his faithlessness. She presently recurs to the terrible scene at the play, and utters the famous words, ” Thou hast thy father much offended.”
The scene which follows demands great dramatic ability of the queen, as well as vocal strength. After a sharp and active recitative dialog, in which Hamlet announces himself as her judge and no longer her son, she sings a fine entreaty that the tenderness of the son may mitigate the severity of the judge. It is a strong and powerful theme, but Hamlet is obdurate. He contrasts the late king with the present one in words and tones that make his mother cower. She again pleads for mercy and forgiveness, and finally falls in a swoon as the stage is darkened and the ghost appears. Hamlet trembles before this admonisher. The music of the incantation is again heard, and the phantom bids Hamlet spare his mother, but “fail not to avenge.” As the ghost disappears the instruments are weighted with that great and gloomy theme of revenge which seems to descend and enwrap the whole scene like a dark, heavy mist. The queen awakens ; but there is little more seen or heard before the curtain falls.
Act V. is known as the Mad Scene, one of the most beautiful, most ideal, and most difficult creations ever put upon the lyric stage. It is seldom performed, merely be-cause there are few artists who can adequately render its astonishing music. There are other mad scenes in existence. The one from ” Lucia di Lammermoor ” is very celebrated, but its music no more expresses the vagaries of madness than does any other florid aria. Of course, lavish colorature seems appropriate and is considered imperative ; but Donizetti’s florid fancies are mere plumes and flounces draped upon a melody, whereas with Thomas these form the texture of the theme. The French composer well knows the worth of his mad music, and he has taken pains to present it most advantageously. You are not ushered at once from the grim and gruesome harmonies of the last act to this wealth of inspiration, but are first entertained by a ballet of shepherds and shepherdesses. During this dance we become accustomed to the beautiful rural landscape, the gentle stream at the back and the drooping willows. We are also brought under the spell of a different kind of music; these pastoral ballet motifs are very charming. They are light and fantastic, but at the same time suggest a midsummer peace and tranquillity.
At last the dainty dance is ended, and then the rustic group perceive a strange figure approachinga beautiful maid, with her flowing hair adorned with bits of straw and wild flowers. Her white dress is torn, and her bare arms carry a straggling bunch of flowers which she plays with and caresses. That exquisite inquiring little introduction which we heard in the first act again announces the entrance of Ophelia. She glances a moment at the pretty peasants, and then, with intuitive politeness, asks per-mission to join in their sport. There is a subtle pathos about this first little phrase, which is sung without accompaniment, and is simple as a child’s question. She goes on to tell them how she left the palace at dawn and no one has followed. ” The tears of night were still on the ground and the lark poured forth its morning song.” A perfect bird-throat warble of trills and fluttering staccatos follows this memory of the lark. But her thoughts are varied, and she suddenly turns and asks : ” Why do you whisper to each other? Don’t you know me? Hamlet is my betrothed, and I–I am Ophelia.” Then she tells them, in tones that rest upon the accompaniment like lilies on a lake, how Hamlet vowed always to love her and that she has given him her heart in exchange. ” If any one should tell you that he will leave and forget me, do not believe it. Believe nothing they tell you, for Hamlet is my betrothed, and II am Ophelia.” But in spite of this assertion of Hamlet’s faith, there is throughout all the music a ring of perpetual pain. She clasps her hand to her head with terror, and exclaims: ” If he were false I think I should lose my reason ! ”
The flowers again hold her attention, and she plays with them as the orchestra commences a ravishing waltz theme. She at first pays little heed to the music, but its gay melody at last drifts to her soul and finds immediate expression. The difficult phrases fall from her lips like petals from a flower. Gleeful chromatics and happy trills are also thrown in, and we would soon forget it was the sad Ophelia did she not suddenly tire of this extravagant virtuosity. She turns to the shepherds and bids them harken to the song she will sing. Then follows a ballad whose moaning, minor harmonies sound like a sighing breeze. It is about the sirens beneath the water who lure men to its glassy depths. The wearied, worried mind of the mad girl now revels in a wild, merry laugh, which is as quickly followed by passionate sobs; but she finally remembers to finish her song about the siren. This strange, sad melody possesses a weird charm that is irresistible. Again she breaks into hilarious laughter and uncontrolled weeping. Grief without hope and joy without memory alternate in rapid succession. The music of this portion defies description. It is a perfect conflagration of impossible staccatos and scales. With one last sweeping chromatic run, that rushes like the whistling wind from low D to high E, Ophelia kneels down with her flowers and thinks only of them. The peasants retire from the scene, and the orchestra take up fragments of the waltz.
They play for some moments, while Ophelia contentedly rearranges her bouquet. But presently a wonderful change comes over the music. We hear only the string instruments and flute, and soon these, too, are hushed, while out of the air a magical song arises. It is the siren’s ballad, faint as a vision but with full harmonies. Thomas has produced this effect of dream-music by having the chorus sing behind the scenes with closed mouth. This soft humming of a hidden chorus well resembles the buried voices of water-nymphs. Ophelia at once recognizes the song, and she is drawn by the music toward the stream, where she hopes to see the sirens. All unconscious, she pushes her way through the rushes and reeds on the bank. The chorus has ceased, and only the tender, liquid tones of the harp now fill the air. Ophelia steps too far and soon falls into the ” weeping brook.” Her dress bears her up for a time, and we hear her sweetly singing as she floats down the stream. It is no longer the ballad or the gay waltz, but quite another theme to which her memory now clings. It is Hamlet’s glorious vow —
“Doubt that the sun doth move, Doubt truth to be a liar, But never doubt I love.”
Ophelia ends her song with a lingering high note of such silvery beauty that it seems like a far-away star in the dark night of death.