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Shakespeare's Symphonies: Basics and "Hamlet"

December, 2002

Let us first consider the sonata form, he said, jumping right into one end of the pool. We have a theme in some key. Think of the opening notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony for example. It is played at first with great force, four beats to the measure. Then it is played quite rapidly with alterations and is heard again. That is the statement of Theme A. Suddenly we hear the same sequence of notes; it is Theme A being repeated. Then we hear interesting variations on Theme A.

We catch a fast breath and Theme B is introduced in a contrasting key and mood. It is also heard twice and then with variations. Sooner or later, Theme A is heard again in somewhat altered garb, there is some mix and match and the movement is over. ABA, the sonata skeleton. By the time you reach the final notes of the last movement, you have a feeling you have really come home after a long journey, not only because of the return to the "tonic" but because some familiar friends have come back to accompany us home.

Now take Wagner's Ring operas. In "Das Rheingold," the first of the tetrology, he introduces almost all of the themes (or Leitmotifs) that will comprise the orchestral part of the 20 hours (more or less) that it takes to hear all four works. When first we hear them, they are in their "primitive form," which is to say clearly stated like the thud of the Giants as they approach, the noble Valhalla music, the pounding of the anvils, the Curse on the ring, the Dragon, and so on. And you still recognize them when they show up again and again in more complex forms in very much the same way that simple Chinese ideographs can be combined to represent more complex concepts.

For example, the simple ideogram for a tree combines with the simple ideogram of the sun to represent the concept of "west." In an analogous way, by the time we get to "Gotterdammerung," Wagner is weaving many of his original primitive themes into fabulous tissues of themes which contain not only the original meanings but now represent far more complex ideas. This is all done in a way that recalls the tricks James Joyce plays with words in "Finnegan's Wake" where a pun is used in the very much the same way as Wagner's combination of themes

Now all of this should lay the groundwork for my main point in this first of two essays. I maintain that Shakespeare does (by analogy) practically the same thing in many of his plays that Mozart and Beethoven do in their symphonies. Theme A, variations, Theme B, variations, Theme C, and so on until the resolution at the end of the play in which the full logic of the thematic sequence is made evident.

Here I want to use "Hamlet" as an example. Many have noted that the major image in this play is one of a degenerative disease that springs from one person, infects all those in contact, and finally destroys the very social structure of the state. You certainly know how the play starts. Some soldiers have seen a ghost. We guess that "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark," and that famous phrase is uttered a few scenes later. In other words, the theme of disease is planted very early in the dialogue.

In the second scene, Hamlet wishes his "too too solid flesh would melt" (or "sullied flesh" as some editors would have it) and makes reference to unweeded gardens with "things rank and gross." When Laertes gives his sister Ophelia good advice, he mentions a "canker" (or "cancer" as it is said today) that can destroy her; while in the next scene Hamlet talks about "some vicious mole of nature" in all of us that turns us from the right path.

And all through the play, we get phrases like "to the quick of the ulcer" and scenes like that in the graveyard (sort of a scherzo, if you think about it), not to mention all the madness, feigned and real, that runs through the action. Therefore in the final movement (as it were), it is no surprise that Horatio says "Now cracks a noble heart" as the dead body of his friend lies in his arms. The disease has run its course. We have returned to the home key, so to speak, and Fortinbras is there (at least he should be) to give us the coda.

To be continued next issue.

(Note: It might be pointed out that the development of dramatic themes was invented far before that of musical themes. I merely wish here to point out the similarities, not to consider which influenced which.) F.B.

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