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HAMLET – William Walton

November 29, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments


Original Review by Craig Lysy

Producer, director, and actor Laurence Olivier had achieved critical acclaim and commercial success with his film adaptation of Shakespeare’s play Henry V in 1944. He decided to adapt another of the Bard’s plays and chose Hamlet for his second film. He would produce, direct and star in the film and secured the necessary financing from the British production company Two Cities, who provided a budget of £527,530. For the cast, joining him as Hamlet, would be Basil Sydney as Claudius, Eileen Herlie as Gertrude, Norman Wooland as Horatio, Felix Aylmer as Polonius, Terrence Morgan as Laertes, and Jean Simmons as Ophelia. Olivier also provided the voice of the ghost King.

The film is set in 15th century Denmark and offers one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. King Hamlet’s brother Claudius and Queen Gertrude conspire to kill him. They succeed in poisoning him and Claudius usurps the throne and marries Gertrude to provide a fig leaf of legitimacy, thus denying Prince Hamlet the throne. Hamlet’s father’s ghost appears to him and reveals evidence of his murder, which sends Hamlet on a quest to avenge his father’s death. Yet death, begets death and in the end, all suffer ruin. The film was profitable earning £779,700, which more than covered its production costs. Critical reception was mixed with many calling the film overly reductive for eliminating two major characters and over half of the play’s dialogue. The film however earned seven Academy Award nominations including Best Director, Best Supporting Actress and Best Score, winning four for Best Film, Best Actor, Best Art Direction, and Best Costume Design. Its legacy is notable as being the first British film to earn the Best Picture Award.

Director Laurence Olivier was effusive with his praise of William Walton upon completing his previous film Henry V in 1944, stating, that when all was said and done, that Walton’s music actually made the film. There was never any doubt in his mind that they would again collaborate on the current project. However, the film came at a very sad time in Walton’s life as his muse and lover Lady Alice Wimborne had recently died of lung cancer. He was devastated at the loss and most critics contend that we feel in Walton’s music his own pathos of grief, notably in Ophelia’s music, the funeral march, and especially in the sublime threnody. With typical English resolve Walton pushed on with a stiff upper lip and recognized that the film provided a massive tapestry for him to compose, one filled with the dark emotions of treachery, betrayal, regicide, cruelty and vengeance. He also understood that like an opera, he would have to support the eloquence and narrative pace of Shakespeare’s words.

In scoring the film Walton chose to support the film’s narrative with discreet set pieces as well as traditional leitmotifs. Two themes are provided; Hamlet’s Theme is introspective, questioning and filled with the pathos of loss. Strings tristi rendered divisi speak to us of his heartache and profound feelings of alienation. Ophelia’s Theme offers is borne by oboe delicato and kindred woodwinds, offering a gentile pastorale. Yet it also changes as she descends into madness, losing consonance and mutating into a pathetic corruption of its former self. This CD presentation does not offer tradition score cues, rather it has been adapted into a 39-minute concert piece of 14 cues for orchestra, chorus and narrator – Sir John Gielgud. It comprises most of the score and offers a truly impressive and dramatic presentation of what I believe to be Walton’s second masterpiece.

“Prelude” offers a powerful score highlight, which opens with an impassioned statement of the film’s concluding marica funebre. The music supports the roll of the opening credits set against the raging waters beneath the imposing Castle Elsinore. Regal horns dramatico resound and Walton uses woodwind figures answered by a descending string motif to simulate the restless waves. At 1:08 a surging crescendo appassionato commences as “Scene – Elsinore” displays, cresting at 1:21 as the camera moves through the grey mists ever towards the castle’s stone battlements. A string descent ushers in a diminuendo at 1:30 of the string borne marcia funebre, which supports script with narration. We see four soldiers bearing Hamlet’s funeral bier. We are bathed is auras of sadness as dense as the shifting grey mists as tolling bells sound and bring the changing of the guard, empowered by a string ascent motif as they climb the battlement stairs. Walton perfectly sets the stage for the film, drawing in the audience with portentous music that descends as a foreboding pall as we see Hamlet’s body and the four soldiers vanish.

“Hamlet’s Apparition” three-night watch guards turn and behold a ghostly apparition. Walton sows anxiety with a swirling cauldron of fear born by eerie woodwinds and strings of darkness. The men shout out to the apparition as it prepares to depart, now empowered with a rising orchestral storm, which strikes fear into their hearts. As they cry out to speak, it turns and dissipates on the winds in a diminuendo misterioso as the first light of dawn is seen. A pathos for strings and woodwinds carries the camera’s descent into the lifeless castle, yielding to a solitary oboe delicato as we pass through interior corridors. Surging strings bring us into the empty bedchamber only to dissipate as we return to the passageway and behold King Claudius drinking wine from a goblet. The music for this scene is not on the album. “Fanfare” offers some astounding fanfare, a horn lover’s dream come true. Proud horns reale resound as we behold the usurper King Claudius and new wife Gertrude sitting on their thrones and holding court. In the film the fanfare occurs at the beginning of the scene, after Claudius confirms Hamlet as heir to the throne, and when Claudius and Gertrude depart. The album fuses the three statements in to one grand statement.

“Soliloquy” offers a score highlight where Walton’s music achieves a sublime confluence with Olivier’s sterling soliloquy and Shakespeare’s verse. We open darkly with basses di dolore emerging from the depths of the now vacated hall, save Hamlet who longs for death, inconsolable from his uncle’s treachery, and mother’s incestuous betrayal. His soliloquy is legend and Walton supports his oratory with a lamentation for strings so full of sorrow.

“Laertes and Ophelia” reveals him walking to his home carried by a promenade of woodwinds gentile. Warm strings tenero join as he comes upon his sister Ophelia and kisses her goodbye and counsels her against falling in love with Hamlet. He then receives his father’s blessing and departs. Afterwards Ophelia expresses that Hamlet has shown her affection, only to be admonished by her father to stay clear of him. Aching strings and grieving woodwinds carry her disappointment as she obeys her father and turns away from Hamlet who looks from afar. The music for this scene is not on the album. “Hamlet Prepares” reveals Horatio and Marcellus informing Hamlet of the ghostly apparition of his father, counselling him to not seek and follow it. Yet Hamlet is undaunted, as life no longer has meaning for him and declares he will seek him out at nightfall. Churning grim strings support his decision as he gazes outside. A woodwind bridge ushers in ghostly violins as we see Hamlet on the battlement amidst shifting mists. As he looks below in the courtyard, we see the King and many others celebrating, which Walton supports with period piece source music.

In “The Ghost” creates a surreal soundscape of fear and unease, that commences with a solitary drum with a heartbeat cadence buttressed by wailing female voices, which carries the Ghost’s approach. Hamlet rejects Horatio and Marcellus’ counsel and choses to follow the ghost. Grim horns, swirling strings and an ascending flute motif carry him upwards to the top of the castle. Swirling strings and trilling woodwinds mirror the ever shift mists currents that sweep about him. His father asks him to avenge his foul and unnatural murder and proceeds to tell him how it was done. Woodwinds dolore rise and fall, joined with rattling xylophone to support a flashback where we see Claudius pour hemlock into the ear of his sleeping brother. He wakes, sees Claudius, but it is too late as the poison reaps his life. We close with a grim diminuendo of expiation as we see King Hamlet fall to the ground and die.

“Hamlet and Ophelia” reveals Hamlet coming to Ophelia disheveled and bearing a vacant gaze. Walton uses forlorn strings divisi emoting his theme to sow an unbearable sadness. Slowly the strings ascend in register, yet remain bleak and full of foreboding. At 1:01 a solo violin ascends from its kin as Hamlet grabs Ophelia’s hand as he places his other on his brow. He speaks not a word, moves her arm back and forth, then shakes his head, feigning madness unbeknownst to her. and departs as he came, supported by strings of aching sadness. At 2:25 flute of happiness ascends and ushers in Ophelia’s Theme, a pastorale of sublime beauty as she waits in the great hall as King Claudius and her father Polonius hide behind the curtains. At 2:51 strings gentile support Hamlet’s arrival, entwining with her theme for a stirring confluence. Yet is not for love that brings Hamlet to her, but instead his intent to spurn her, which he does with a harsh callousness, that leaves her devastated. At 3:09 a crescendo ushers in a woodwind prelude from which arises at 3:45 the score’s most lyrical passage. Aching strings romantico born from unrequited love speak to Ophelia torment as she lies shattered upon the cold steps. We close darkly at 6:19 as Ophelia’s flute borne theme returns forlorn, joined with strings tristi, which slowly fade to nothingness like rose petals shed from its rose.

“The Question” supports the aftermath of Hamlet’s rejection of Ophelia, her theme opening darkly with strings triste, tinged subtly with torment. The camera leaves her weeping on the stairs and at 0:25 sweeps ever upwards the stairs to the castle’s highest peak propelled by a raging crescendo of anger as we see Hamlet on the precipice looking down at the raging waters below. At 0:55 a fleeting Ophelia’s Theme joins on oboe, yet as the camera zooms into the back of his head and then dissolves in his head, an orchestral torrent rages, mirroring the tempest in his mind. We build on a raging crescendo tormentati, cresting at 1:42 with a string furioso descent, which follows the camera to the waters below. We close darkly on ominous horns, which flow seamlessly into “To Be or Not to Be” where we behold one of Shakespeare’s finest soliloquys as Hamlet looks down from the castle precipice into the raging waters below and speaks words now made legend. Walton supports his impassioned soliloquy with a grim melancholia for strings as he prepares to avenge his father.

“The Mousetrap: The Players” reveals Hamlet summoning the players, which Walton supports festively with a small ensemble of bassoon, English horn, oboe, two violi, cello and harpsichord.[11] The music belies the dark purpose intended by Hamlet play. In “The Mousetrap: Entry of the Court” King Claudius and Queen Gertrude enter, joined by the court, which Walton supports with a splendid processionale reale. “The Mousetrap: The Play” opens with a King and Queen alone in the garden. Walton supports with benign gentility offering a dance-like iteration, which belies its dark occult purpose yet unknown. At 1:14 the music begins to darken with a rising menace as the Queen departs, leaving the King alone sleeping in the garden. His brother enters and a xylophone twinkle at 1:38 supports the pouring of hemlock into the King’s ear, which elicits a gasp of horror from Claudius. A slow rising tension supports the camera panning the court with everyone’s stunned expressions focused on Claudius. At 2:10 an oboe gentile carries the Queen’s return to find her husband dead. Yet the music does not descend into grief despite her outward appearance, instead maintaining its blissful detachment. At 2:37 the King’s brother enters carried by a gentile nonchalance. He grieves not and instead escorts the Queen away from the corpse. At 2:50 the music again darkens with a searing commentary, swelling with outrage as the King’s brother offers courting affection to the Queen who accepts his supportive escort away. The crescendo of devastation crests at 3:26 as Claudius rises, covers his eyes and cries out “Give me some light!” A raging string furioso unleashes a violent orchestral tempest, which carries his flight away upstairs as chaos erupts and the court gasps in astonishment.

Music for the following three scenes is not found on the album. “Hamlet Confronts His Mother” reveals him confronting his mother, exposing her complicity in the murder of his father and damning her for her shameless, lascivious marriage to his uncle. His words are devastating as she admits to her dark deeds. In a rage he thrusts his sword through a shuffling curtain believing it to be Claudius, only to find to his devastation, that it is Polonius. Walton supports the aftermath with the drum heartbeat cadence and wailing voices of his father’s ghost motif now deafening and omnipresent. “Claudius and Hamlet” reveals the King ordering Hamlet to return to England forthwith given his murder of Polonius. In reality Claudius has secretly ordered his assassination once he has left Denmark to rid himself of Hamlet once and for all. Walton scores the aftermath with dire horns, which portend his doom. “Ophelia’s Madness” reveals Ophelia’s descent into madness, precipitated by Hamlet’s callous spurning and his murder of her father. We find her by a stream looking into her reflection and screaming in agony, her eyes revealing her madness. Walton offers her theme with an otherworldly iteration now adorned by celeste, which has lost consonance and mutated into a wavering distortion, forlorn, bleak, and pathetic. At 0:33 churning strings of flight joined later by distressed woodwinds carry her as she flees back to the safe refuge of her quarters.

“Hamlet’s Letters” reveals letters from Hamlet being delivered for Claudius and Gertrude. As they read them Walton sows a portentous tapestry of doom. A scene change to Ophelia’s quarters reveals her flittering about supported by her theme, distorted and corrupted by madness. A third letter is delivered to Horatio and we flashback to Hamlet’s account of a battle with pirates. Walton supports with churning strings bellicoso and horns militare as the battle unfolds on the screen with a war-like tempest. With the promise of future repayment, Hamlet is spared by the pirates after he is abandoned when his ship disengages from hand-to-hand fighting and flees. As Hamlet declares his intention to return, we close on a diminuendo of hopeful woodwinds, which supports Horatio finishing the letter. The music for this scene is not on the album. “Ophelia’s Death” opens with Ophelia’s walking through the palace incoherent and mad. Walton sows a forlorn tapestry of despair led by an oboe triste, kindred woodwinds and dire strings voicing her theme. From 0:33 – 1:41 the music was dialed out of the film and I cannot be sure to which of the subsequent scenes it was conceived. It offers an aggressive churning upsurge by a restless orchestra that builds on a crescendo. The music fails to crest, instead slowly dissipating on a diminuendo at 1:19 until narration joins at 1:42, which describes Ophelia’s death, voicing one of Shakespeare’s most beautiful poems. Walton supports the verse with a dreamy, otherworldly pastorale adorned with celeste, which achieves a perfect confluence with Shakespeare’s poetic verse and Desmond Dickinson’s artful cinematography.

“The King’s Arrival” reveals fanfare reale resounding as King Claudius and Queen Gertrude arrival at court as Hamlet and Horatio await. A spirited processionale maestoso supports their descent down the stairs. Laertes rejects Hamlet’s apology and they both arm themselves with rapier and knife. Claudius then drinks a toast to Hamlet’s victory supported by resounding horns maestoso declarations. As they assume positions drums bellicoso sound to set the stage. Hamlet gets the first hit and Claudius awards him a pearl, and offers a toast, supported by fanfare reale. The music for this scene is not on the album.

“Retribution” reveals a stunning parade of deaths that begins with a drink laced with poison that Claudius pours for Hamlet. Fate would have it that he sets it aside, only to have the Queen drink it instead as Claudius gasps. Laertes between rounds strikes Hamlet and cuts him, a clear foul, which enrages Hamlet. In the ensuing fight Laertes loses his sword, Hamlet offers his, and takes Laertes poisoned blade. He thrusts into Laertes wrist, which dooms him as Walton’s music enters with dark cycling strings of death. Laertes mutters that he dies by his own treachery as Queen Gertrude falls dead – poisoned. A enraged Hamlet propelled by strings irato runs to the platform above the King. Tremolo violins emote his simmering rage as Laertes confesses his treachery aloud and declares that the King is to blame. The simmering violin tremolo swells with anger, fortified by a chattering xylophone of death as Hamlet declares “Venom, to thy end!” and leaps, at 1:24 carried by a harp glissando crashing down upon Claudius. He then thrusts his sword three times into Claudius, supported by orchestral strikes. We close with strings agitato ushering two abyssal orchestral strikes of doom as Claudius falls dead at the base of his throne.

In “Threnody” a dying Laertes calls to Hamlet and begs to make amends to which Hamlet graciously reciprocates. Walton supports the pathos with a classic threnody by mournful strings that finds its genesis in Ophelia’s Theme. The Court bows and Horatio offers Hamlet the Crown, yet he declines as death soon comes upon him as he bids all farewell. The music swells, so full of heartache and regret, its vitality slowly ebbing as we see life ebbing from Hamlet.

“Finale (Funeral March)” offers a magnificent score highlight and one of the finest compositions in Walton’s canon. Horatio calls for Hamlet’s body to be borne by soldiers to be buried with full military honors. As canons fire in salute, we commence an impassioned marcia funebre rendered molto tragico as we see his body in silhouette carried up the stairs to the castle’s pinnacle alight in sunset auras. The march swells with dramatic power as they ascend, their arrival crowned by elegiac horns resounding thrice in salutation. Bravo!

I would like to thank Brian Couzens and Chandos Classics for this wonderful presentation of Sir William Walton’s masterpiece, “Hamlet”. The sound quality is excellent, the performance of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields under the baton of Sir Neville Marriner, superb, and the expression of William Shakespeare’s verse by Sir John Gielgud, peerless. I do not generally favor the inclusion of dialogue in film score recordings, but the diction by Sir John Gielgud of William Shakespeare’s timeless verse proves the exception. Walton was tasked with supporting one of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, understanding that his music needed to support the film narrative without intruding into, or distracting the audience from its eloquent verse. I believe he struck the perfect balance, enhancing Olivier’s narrative and ensuring he achieved his vision. Two primary themes were created for Hamlet and Ophelia, both truly tragic characters who Walton succeeded in capturing their very souls. The Elegy, and Finale offer extraordinary set pieces of tremendous emotive power. In scene after scene Walton’s music achieved a stirring confluence with the actor’s spoken words and Desmond Dickinson’s artful cinematography. Folks, I consider this opus to be second only to Walton’s earlier masterpiece Henry V. I consider it a masterpiece of the Golden Age and music essential to lovers of the art form. I highly recommend you purchase and explore this score both as a listening experience, but also within film context where its genius is revealed.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a YouTube link to the Finale: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=el0r6ZWZkH8

Buy the Hamlet soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Prelude (3:09)
  • Fanfare (0:57)
  • Soliloquy (2:35)
  • The Ghost (3:15)
  • Hamlet and Ophelia (7:52)
  • The Question (2:20)
  • To Be or Not to Be (3:08)
  • The Mousetrap: The Players (0:46)
  • The Mousetrap: Entry of the Court (0:49)
  • The Mousetrap: The Play (3:57)
  • Ophelia’s Death (2:42)
  • Retribution (1:59)
  • Threnody (2:11)
  • Finale (Funeral March) (3:14)

Running Time: 39 minutes 10 seconds

Chandos CHAN-10436 (1948/2007)

Music composed by William Walton. Conducted by Neville Marriner. Performed by the The Orchestra of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields with John Gielgud, narrator. Original orchestrations by William Walton. Recorded and mixed by Ralph Couzens. Score produced by William Walton. Album produced by Brian Couzens.

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