Liszt, ambiguous Hamlet, and Tristan


A piano reduction of the opening of Liszt’s Hamlet.

I was looking at Liszt’s Symphonic Poem Hamlet. Not one of his most popular.

It occupies much scholarly debate as to how much of it is directly programmatic, how much is intended to be programmatic, how much is vaguely programmatic, and how much is accidentally programmatic.

And Liszt, throwing his lance into the future, mischievously produced a revision to the piece by inserting a middle part “as if a silhouette of Ophelia.” Leaving open the question: So is it Ophelia or isn’t it?

Liszt was impressed with the actor Bogumil Dawison’s dramatic interpretation of the role of Hamlet. Dawison presented a more strategized portrayal of Hamlet. A man with a little more intellect and emotion, rather than the fortune-swept character trying to effect immediate change.

Musicologists armed with this fact, derived from a letter to Agnes Street-Klindworth have used it in many papers to make more programmatic sense of the symphonic poem.

Yet I claim the work continues to evade clear programmaticism of obvious storyline events. Despite Dawison’s interpretation of the Hamlet role, Liszt still seems to have favoured a blurring of clear interpretation. It is something which many composers have found opens up their music to more listeners, interpreters and performances. Consider how Mahler removed titles from his symphonic movements and how most nicknames of compositions are not the invention of the composer.

As Paul Merrick pointed out in his Revolution and Religion in the Music of Liszt, Liszt says that Hamlet in his poem “remains just as he is, pale, fevered, suspended between heaven and earth, prisoner of his doubt and lack of resolve.”

Liszt does a masterful job of realising just this in his Hamlet.

The key signature of 2 sharps is greeted by the horn playing an E flat. Interesting for the musicians expecting D major or b minor. In fact those two keys are never really encountered in the opening section, despite it being the advertised tonal basis.

Doesn’t that remind you of the Tristan prelude?

Liszt was supposedly working on this work at the same time – composed in 1858 (Tristan und Isolde 1857-59). It suggests to me that Liszt and Wagner had a chat or two about harmonic ambiguity.

As in the Tristan prelude, Liszt also starts with a build-up to a curious  chord (C# diminished with a minor 7th), but rather than the interesting Wagnerian resolution onto a 7th chord, Liszt resolves it onto a diminished 7th chord. The musical, certainly harmonic, definition of ambiguity.

Bar 6 contains the Tristan chord itself, which I have not yet seen referred to in the 1st-with-the-Tristan debate. (Although this may well be an earlier example than Wagner’s, there is an even earlier one in Liszt’s 2nd Polonaise (b.100) from 1853).

The interval of the augmented 4th, the crucial harmonic building block of the Tristan chord, is referred to time and again as a melodic interval. When compared with other symphonic poems, his trademark practice of Thematic Transformation is present here but with no triumphal close. In other words, as Merrick points out, there is transformation, but no redemption. Hamlet.

Not to get bogged down in lengthy harmonic analysis, and to conclude: Liszt’s Hamlet is an ingenious piece of writing. In all aspects of the music it paints the Hamlet personality and story – dark, ambiguous, undecided and troubled; at the same time it provides events from the Shakespeare story, as the countless other studies for this seem to determine.

Whilst on yet another level it also makes a Hamlet out of the listener, the performing musician and the harmonic analyst.


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