William Sterling

Music and Art Inspired by Shakespeare 4


No. 4: The Scandinavian Connection

To celebrate being in Scandinavian waters the art and music inspired by Hamlet will be examined. Finland’s greatest composer, Sibelius, was also inspired by Shakespeare’s plays.

 Music – Sibelius’s “Storm” from Incidental Music for The Tempest.

 We have already heard some Sibelius this week in other lectures, especially “Finlandia” and the Fifth Symphony, but this music is among his most atonal sounding and one of the most evocative musical renderings of a storm, a favourite musical device found in Vivaldi, Rossini, Beethoven, Verdi and others. Sibelius first had the idea of writing incidental music for The Tempest in 1901 but did not get around to it till 1925. It originally consisted of 24 movements lasting over an hour and was first performed with the play in Copenhagen in 1926. One critic wrote “Shakespeare and Sibelius, these two geniuses, have finally found one another”. Sibelius did not hear it until it was performed in 1927 in Helsinki and immediately added a 35th movement. He published the overture and 2 suites of 19 movements.

Hamlet is often considered to be Shakespeare’s greatest play and is unlike any other of his plays. He based it on the tale of Amleth in Saxo Grammaticus’s “Gesta Danorum” written in the 13th century but probably based on an earlier saga now lost, possibly set in the 10th century. Shakespeare’s version combines elements from his other works such as a doomed love story, mistaken identities, suicide and murder, the supernatural and deep philosophical musings. Hamlet is the son of recently dead King Hamlet but instead of succeeding his father it was his father’s brother, Claudius who became king. Claudius has also married Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and Hamlet has a deep attachment to his mother and resents that she married so soon after his father’s death. A ghost has been seen on the battlements and Hamlet decides to try and speak to it.   It turns out to be his father’s ghost and he tells Hamlet that he was murdered in his sleep by Claudius pouring poison into his ear. He begs Hamlet to avenge his death. Hamlet is torn between duty to his father and committing murder but also wonders whether the ghost is not a malicious apparition trying to condemn his soul. The love interest is provided by Ophelia, daughter of Polonius, the king’s chief adviser, and sister of Laertes. She and Hamlet are engaged but his trauma over what to do about his father’s death leads him to become estranged from her eventually turning her mad. Hamlet prepares a trap for Claudius by arranging with a group of travelling players to put on a play called the Mousetrap (the most famous of all the plays within a play) and alter the method of murder in it to poisoning in the ear of the sleeping victim so he can observe Claudius’s reaction which is extreme. Hamlet is now convinced Claudius is guilty and whilst arguing with his mother hears someone behind the arras and kills him thinking it is the king. In fact it is Polonius. Hamlet’s rejection of her and her father’s death send Ophelia mad. Claudius decides to send Hamlet to England with secret instructions carried by Rosencranz and Guildenstern for Hamlet to be executed. Whilst he is away Laertes returns from a visit to France to find his father dead and sister mad and Claudius convinces him of Hamlet’s guilt and they arrange a fencing match in which Laertes’s blade will be poisoned and in case he does not get a hit Claudius poisons the wine he has set aside for Hamlet to drink when he gets a hit. Hamlet has turned the tables on his would be assassins and returns to Denmark. He comes across a grave being dug and learns the skull being removed was that of his father’s old jester Yorick and muses on death. He hides when the funeral arrives but when he learns the grave is for Ophelia his springs forward in grief and is attacked by Laertes. In the final scene the fencing match takes place but in the confusion both Hamlet and Laertes are wounded by the poisoned blade and Gertrude drinks the poisoned wine. Before he dies Hamlet kills Claudius. Meanwhile Prince Fortinbras of Norway is invading and Hamlet tells his friend Horatio to offer him the crown once his story has been told. Hamlet’s final words are “The Rest is Silence.”

Many artists have been inspired by this play, not least the great French Romantic Eugène Delacroix. Between 1834 and 1844 Delacroix made a series of 16 etchings illustrating Hamlet, many of these he worked up into full scale oil paintings. The graveyard scene particularly attracted him as he made versions in 1835 and 1839. As early as 1821 Delacroix had painted himself as Hamlet so he associated himself with the troubled hero. The oil paintings also include Hamlet’s first encounter with his father’s ghost, with his mother in her closet about to kill Polonius, with Polonius’s body and the death of Ophelia. Freud was struck by his engraving of Hamlet hesitating over killing Claudius suggesting a link to his Oedipus complex. One of the most dramatic of these pictures is the fight between Hamlet and Laertes in Ophelia’s grave. Another French painter inspired by Hamlet was one of the leading Impressionists, Édouard Manet, who painted two leading actors of the 1860s and 1870s in the role. The relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia inspired painters like George Clint and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, whilst Queen Gertrude and her troubled relationship with her son inspired Edwin Abbey Austin, Richard Dadd, Frenchman Jeham Georges Vibert and John Coke Smyth. The crucial scene of the play within the play inspired Daniel Maclise, Charles Hunt (in a whimsical children’s version), Polish artist Władysław Czachórski and Abbey Austin.

Musically, Hamlet has inspired many composers but the seriousness of the story has not made the work as popular as Romeo and Juliet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Tchaikovsky wrote a fantasy overture like his more famous one for Romeo and Juliet but also a full set of incidental music.

Music – Excerpt from Tchaikovsky’s “Hamlet” Overture.

One of the most frequently played works based on Hamlet is the Symphonic Poem by Franz Liszt. It was choreographed as a ballet by the late great Sir Frederick Ashton in 1977. Liszt invented the Symphonic Poem but it has influenced many other composers including the little known Belgian composer Guillaume Lekeu who died the day after his 24th birthday in 1894. He composed two Etudes Symphoniques as he called what are essentially Symphonic Poems, called “Hamlet” and “Ophélie” when he was just 19.

Music – Excerpt from Lekeu’s “Hamlet.”

Probably the most influential part of Hamlet is the madness of Ophelia, firstly, going mad singing numerous songs and then dying, drowned whilst picking flowers on a riverbank. Among those so inspired are American born Benjamin West (one of the founding Royal Academicians in 1768), Rossetti, Henrietta Rae (clearer in the engraving made from her original), Richard Westall, Irish born Francis Danby (ARA 1825, in a work called “Disappointed Love”), Joseph Severn, Richard Redgrave, Sir John Everett Millais (in possibly the most famous painting inspired by Shakespeare – his model was a favourite of the Pre-Raphaelites, Lizzy Siddal, who later married Dante Gabriel Rossetti – she had to pose in a bath for Millais for so long that the lamps under it to keep the water hot went out and she caught pneumonia for which Millais was obliged to pay the doctor’s bills, although, contrary to popular belief, she did not die from it), Arthur Hughes (two versions 12 years apart), Paul Falconer Poole (RA 1861), George Frederic Watts (RA 1897), Thomas Dicksee (two versions 9 years apart), Henry Nelson O’Neil (ARA 1860), James Sant, Marcus Stone, William Waterhouse (four versions from 1889 to 1910, one called “Gather Ye Rosebuds”) and two women artists from the Glasgow school, sisters Frances MacDonald and Margaret MacDonald Mackintosh, wife of Charles Rennie Mackintosh. The French were almost as obsessed as their British counterparts: Jean Baptiste Bertrand, Jules Bastien-Lepage, Alexandre Cabanel, Georges Jules Victor Clairin, Jules Joseph Lefebvre, Antoine August Ernest Hébert, Henri Gervex (depicting famous Australian soprano, Nellie Melba, in the role in Ambroise Thomas’s opera based on the play) and Odilon Redon (four versions from 1905 to about 1915, one of which, now in the National Gallery in London, started as a vase of flowers and was then turned through 90º and Ophelia added).

Music – Anonymous 16th century settings of “And Will He Not Come Again” and “Tomorrow is St Valentine’s Day,” two of Ophelia’s mad songs.

The Gravediggers inspired Henry Liverseege and Frenchman Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret as well as William Blake’s follower, John Linnell (in an untitled work and a departure from his usual rural scenes) as well as Philip Hermogenes Calderon in a reference to Hamlet’s memory of playing with Yorick as a child:

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio. A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a thousand times.

The gravediggers and their repartee with Hamlet provide the best humour in the play and the song of the departing second gravedigger is a real moment of light relief.

Music – Anonymous 16th century setting of “In Youth When I Did Love” sung by the gravediggers.

Among Scandinavian artists I could find only two who seem to have been influenced by Shakespeare. 18th century Danish painter Nicolai Abraham Abildgaard painted the scene where Hamlet tries to show his mother the ghost of his father to no avail. He was also inspired by Richard III with depictions of his nightmare and awakening from it before the fateful Battle of Bosworth. Swedish sculptor Carl Andersson was one of many artists to be inspired by the mischievous character of Puck from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Among Scandinavian composers who have been influenced by Shakespeare the most famous is Sibelius whose Overture to The Tempest I played earlier. He also set two songs from Twelfth Night.

Another famous Scandinavian composer, the Norwegian Edvard Grieg (1843-1907) wrote 66 short piano works he called lyric pieces arranged into suites. Book 1 includes his version of “the Watchman’s song” from Macbeth and Book 10 includes a piece named after Puck. His fellow Norwegian Johan Svendsen (1840-1911) also wrote a Romeo And Juliet Fantasia in 1876 which is not dissimilar to Tchaikovsky’s.

Music – Grieg’s “Puck” played by Stephen Hough.

The Swedish composer Lars-Erik Larsson (1908-1986) wrote a suite called “En Vintersaga” (A Winter’s Tale) in 1937-8. Another Swede Dag Wiren (1905-1986) wrote incidental music for The Merchant of Venice (1943), Romeo and Juliet (1953), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1955), Hamlet (1960) and King John (1961).

Music – Excerpt from Larsson’s “Pastorale” from “En Vintersaga.”

Another Finnish composer Einojuhani Rautavaara (1928-) has set three of Shakespeare’s sonnets as songs in 1951. His fellow Finn Aulis Sallinen (1935-) wrote an opera on King Lear in 1999.

Music – Rautavaara’s setting of “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day.”

 I think summer days in Finland are somewhat different from what Shakespeare was thinking of.

The next talk was to be on Shakespeare’s interpretation of the sea, especially storms at sea and weather generally but this has had to be cancelled so the next talk will be my last one where I sum up what I have looked at so far and see how Shakespeare has influenced artists and composers in more recent times, especially the 20th century with new media such as musicals and films.

Below is a printable PDF version of the slides

Lecture 4 slides to print

These episodes from Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time might be of interest

Shakespeare’s Work

Shakespeare’s Life

The Tempest