“Hamlet”. Music to the Play
Vakhtangov Theatre, Moscow; produced by Nikolai Akimov, conducted by M. Khvostov. Leading roles: Ruben Simonov (Claudius), Anatoly Goriunov (Hamlet), Boris Shchukin (Polonius), Vladimir Moskvin (Fortinbras), Valentina Vagrina (Ophelia).
Moscow, Sovetskii kompozitor, 1977
RSALA, rec. gr. 2048, inv. 2, f. 43; The archive of the Theatre named after Evg. Vakhtangov's Museum
‘Hamlet’. Music to the Play
Nikolay Akimov’s production of Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark with incidental music composed by Dmitri Shostakovich, opened on 19 May 1932 at the Vakhtangov Theatre in Moscow.
Akimov’s Hamlet has justly been described as one of the most notorious milestones in the history of Shakespeare theatre productions. It was not just his controversial scenic solutions but also Shostakovich’s extrovert music that contributed to this production being designated as a ‘Shakesperiment’, with the music eventually garnering more praise than the production itself and enjoying a notably more successful after-life.
Akimov’s Hamlet as a whole had a mixed reception, critics were unanimous in one respect: that Shostakovich’s incidental music was excellent. Even the satirical journal Krokodil could not help but praise it: ‘The composer Shostakovich leaves me in a very stupid situation as a critic. You see, when one writes for a satirical journal, one is supposed mainly to tell people off. But Shostakovich has composed such music that there is simply not a single fault with it. Amazing music!’. Other critics were not much different in preferring Shostakovich’s ‘magnificent’ music to Akimov’s staging.
In November 1931, Shostakovich had published an extraordinary manifesto in the journal Rabochiy i teatr, entitled ‘Declaration of a Composer’s Duties’, attacking the state of music in the theatre world, and denouncing all his own theatrical and film music. Although he promised to fulfil his contract to provide incidental music for Hamlet, he vowed to return the advances and cancel contracts for any other incidental music and to reject all future theatrical commissions for the next five years.
Shostakovich’s music to Hamlet was and remains the finest example of his theatre music and in a way the highpoint of all his incidental music of the 1920s and 1930s. However, it is often assessed in isolation from the production itself, with most analysis being based on the musical material from the orchestral suite which the composer produced from his incidental music and which has entered the concert repertoire.
- Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky. 1961 // MK D09807-10, 1962
- Louisville Orchestra, Jorge Mester. 1968 // Louisville First Edition Records LOU 683
- Leningrad Chamber Orchestra of Old and Modern Music, Eduard Serov. 1984 // Melodiya C10 22365 004, 1986
- Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, Neeme Jarvi. 1989 // Deutsche Grammophon 431 688-2GH, 1991
- City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Mark Elder. 1994 // United 88050-2. 1996