Tchaikovsky and Shakespeare
Tchaikovsky was an avid reader, in French and in Russian, and a passionate theatregoer, which is perhaps not altogether surprising, given his essentially theatrical, selfdramatizing temperament. One of the playwrights of whose work he saw a great deal was Shakespeare, who during Tchaikovsky’s lifetime had rapidly risen to the position of being among the most performed writers on the Russian stage: in 1830, the critic Pletnev had asked, in his Thoughts on Macbeth, “why read other writers when [Shakespeare] contains them all?”, and when Pushkin wrote his Little Tragedies he had openly adopted Shakespeare as his model. But it was the performance of Hamlet given by the great actor Pavel Mochalov in Moscow in 1837 which was the decisive event in establishing Shakespeare on the Russian stage. In the 19th century, until the 1840s, Russian art had been lost, aimlessly trying to base itself on French models, or on Walter Scott, but “when the true unadulterated, unmutilated Shakespeare was shown in Russia by Mochalov,” wrote the Russian-American critic Isaac Don Levine, “spiritual Russia, as if at the touch of a giant magic wand, awakened.” The critic Belinsky noted that “since Mochalov, Russians understand that there is but one dramatic poet in the world and that is Shakespeare.”
Tchaikovsky had frequent opportunities to see the plays, in Moscow and St Petersburg of course, but also on his travels in Europe and, eventually, America. He always, moreover, travelled with a set of the plays when he was away from home; in one of his letters to his brother Modest he becomes quite querulous because he has not got Volume One with him. So, when at the end of the 1860s, soon after Tchaikovsky had begun to come into his own as a composer, Balakirev, one of a number of friends whose opinions he valued highly, suggested to him the idea of writing an orchestral piece on the theme of Romeo and Juliet, he was immediately enthused.
Tchaikovsky, who could be as cussed as the next man, was surprisingly willing to be guided in detail by others when it came to writing music (a disposition which stood him in good stead when he started writing ballet music to the rigid prescriptions of choreographers). In the case of Romeo and Juliet, Balakirev provided him with an extremely specific outline for the piece, even down to suggesting a scheme of modulations and supplying a couple of sample themes; Tchaikovsky eschewed the thematic help, but followed the rest of the programme closely, which omitted both the Nurse and Mercutio. Balakirev was a shrewd judge of dramatic material; Tchaikovsky responded to it with great intensity, providing the lovers with one of the most famous tunes ever written and thrillingly evoking the clash of arms and the menace of outraged authority. Romeo and Juliet took him a long while to get right; the masterly version with which we are familiar was the third attempt, eleven years after the premiere of the first, and it is a superb distillation of the central drama of the play. His conception is intensely romantic, unified in tone in a way that the original play, with its cheeky servants, its hot-headed young aristocrats, its psychotic joker (Mercutio) and scarcely less psychotic warring parents, most decidedly is not.
In that sense, Tchaikovsky’s Shakespeare was very much a Victorian Shakespeare: it picks out the plums. All three of his Shakespearean overtures are impressionistic and selective, the opposite approach to that of what is perhaps the most successful translation of a Shakespeare play and its world into orchestral terms, Elgar’s Falstaff, a remarkably detailed realization of both parts of Henry IV, based on a close acquaintance with the text. Tchaikovsky’s purpose is different: he aims to conjure up the plays’ atmosphere, their emotional effect, and in that he is brilliantly successful.
The Tempest, from 1873 (four years after the first version of Romeo and Juliet), was also written to a programme, again very closely followed; this one was furnished by the imperious cultural critic Vladimir Stasov, whose idea it was. Tchaikovsky summons up the magic island and the marine world in ravishing orchestral colours, while the lovers’ music, tender and restrained – almost chaste – rises to heights of amorous intensity beyond anything to be found in the play itself; Caliban and Ariel make their striking appearances, and all is magisterially resolved by Prospero. The piece made an indelible impression on the young widow, Nadezhda von Meck: it was the first work of Tchaikovsky’s she had heard. “For several days I was delirious and could not get over it,” she told the composer four years later, at the beginning of their momentous relationship. The piece is a far cry from any modern conception of the play, ignoring the themes of revenge and colonial domination now thought to be central to it, but our Victorian ancestors, who saw the play as above all an opportunity for spectacle, would have felt very much at home with it.
Hamlet, fifteen years later, equally derives from 19th-century views of the play – in this case, as a cosmic statement about human nature. Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest suggested the play, but the programme was Tchaikovsky’s own, drawing from him a massively impressive portrait of a Romantic outsider, a Byron, or, indeed, a Pechorin (from Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time) or an Onegin. The character of Hamlet himself had acquired, since Mochalov’s trailblazing performance, a particular resonance for Russians: the indecisiveness, the sense of doom, the constant introspection seemed to them to express the very essence of the Russian soul. In a lecture in 1860, the novelist Ivan Turgenev had memorably seized on Hamlet and Don Quixote as epitomes of the human situation; it is hard not to feel the influence of this on Tchaikovsky’s vision of the gloomy Dane.
As in his other two Shakespeare pieces, the composer conjures up a powerful atmosphere, in this case one of dread (he wrote it, it is worth remembering, while working on the Fifth Symphony): this Denmark is very credibly a prison. Ophelia’s fragile beauty is portrayed in broken, limping measures, which work themselves up into frantic love music altogether more conventional than the tragically dysfunctional exchanges of Shakespeare’s play; her madness, heart-rending onstage, finds no place in the musical scheme. Fortinbras marches swaggeringly through, and the piece ends rather oddly on an unresolved note quite unlike the sharply businesslike utterances of Denmark’s new ruler in the play; nor do any flights of angels sing Hamlet to his rest. What we are left with is an unmitigated sense of tragedy.
Of course, no composer can be expected to express every strand of a complex play in orchestral form; a fantasy overture is a fantasy overture, not incidental music (as it happens, Tchaikovsky wrote a very serviceable score for a production of Hamlet in St Petersburg some years later). In his purely orchestral Shakespearean pieces, he responded passionately to the elements in the play that inspired him; each of the three pieces is memorable and deeply felt and adds something to our understanding of the plays. Even after Hamlet, Tchaikovsky continued to look for subjects in Shakespeare. He turned down the suggestion of making an opera out of The Merchant of Venice, though in 1876 he had briefly toyed with making one out of Othello. He struggled with the character of Iago: “Do such people exist?” he wondered. If only he’d managed to convince himself.
1. Hamlet - Overture-Fantasy after Shakespeare, Op.67
2. The Tempest, Op.18
3. Romeo and Juliet, Fantasy Overture