Hamlet Symphony, Movement 3, Scherzo – Mad North by Northwest. Here is the video:
If you want a really indepth look at my thought process, which goes a long way into my interpretation of the play, continue reading…
Madness, in the Elizabethan sense of the word, is a major theme of this play (loss of mind, as opposed to loss of life). Hamlet was thought by many to be mad and poor Ophelia was, by Elizabethan standards, mad.
Hamlet, of course, was not mad.
He did show some strong signs of depression, particularly near the beginning of the play, but most of these were natural.
His father had died mysteriously just a short time before; his uncle (whom he hated) married his mother in a relationship which was considered incestuous and then usurped the throne while Hamlet was away studying. In Hamlet’s mind, his father’s corpse was barely cold before his mother hopped off into another’s bed, an ultimate betrayal by one he loved. To top it off, Hamlet was not allowed to go back and continue his studies (Claudius wanted to keep an eye on him), and so was constantly reminded of the above problems. A little later he was also straining under the additional weight of the ghost’s message and all that it implied.
And yet he still showed signs of great spirit, even carrying on a major flirtation with Ophelia.
His “madness” was surely a ruse to try to throw his suspicious uncle off of his trail. He said as much to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, even though he knew full well his uncle hired them to spy on him rather than the stated claim of sending for them to cheer him up.
Hamlet’s “madness” allowed two things – it allowed him to, unimpeded, investigate the ghost’s validity and, with that, the validity of his uncle’s guilt. It also allowed him to say and do things without being taken to task.
Hamlet’s “madness” actually showed off his cleverness. He was able to take people’s words and twist them to his own means, usually making a fool of the ones who spoke, using their words against them. He would usually deliberately misinterpret a word or phrase and twist it to his own use.
Ophelia, on the other hand, really did go mad.
Or, I guess I should say, had a nervous breakdown.
There was no mention of a Mrs. Polonius, so the assumption is she had lost her mother at some point. She had also lost a king she had loved. Her brother, and only confidant, left for Paris and so was taken from her. Her beloved queen must have seemed lost to her, going rapidly from widow to bride to royal puppet of Claudius. Her suitor, Hamlet, would quickly go from hot to cold with no explanation. He seemed to have gone to another land where she could not, at first, follow – a land inside his mind. The final blow, of course, was the death of her father, a death at the hands of her lover, who was then quickly banished to England.
She could not cope with the stress and escaped into her mind, presenting an innocent, almost childish, persona.
Yet she knew the truth full well and was devastatingly depressed.
Was she depressed enough to commit suicide? Possibly.
I’ve never seen this in any analysis, but I find it highly suspicious that the totally ruthless Claudius sent his minions to protect her only to have her, right in front of them, jump into the river just moments later. He was doing everything in his power to turn Laertes against Hamlet, why not add his sister’s death to the grievance of his father’s death?
Ophelia’s “madness” was a deep seated depression masked by a child-like innocence. She appeared almost oblivious to the world around her, yet, like Hamlet, took cues from that world and stood them on their head. She twisted reality to her own use.
Which brings us to this scherzo.
Deep down there is a traditional scherzo form based on the minute form. It might not always be obvious. But it is there. It can be interpreted in other ways…
I also tried to throw in a few twists here and there – enharmonically re-interpreting chords for drastic key changes, rhythmic “hiccups” (i.e., added or subtracted beats), etc. I didn’t do this as much as I had originally planned – I wanted to occasionally throw the listener off balance, which can only happen if you let them have a sense of balance to begin with.
In other words, I have written music that is far “madder” in the past, with more twists and turns, but somehow this seemed to fit the themes – it is mad north by northwest, sane enough with a southerly wind, but when the wind shifts…
You’ll notice themes from the previous two movements, in places acting like the almost missing development of the second movement. You’ll also hear the foreshadowing of themes to come, i.e., Ophelia’s themes.
This movement also uses a lot of 12-tone rows. Sometimes they are broken up a little, sometimes used in the harmony and in at least one place, used as a main theme. When first introduced, the main “trio” theme, a slightly more “Romantic” sounding theme, is actually a 12-tone row, the retrograde inverse of one already heard (third phrase of the main “to be” theme from the second movement, also heard in this movement). The second theme of the trio is also based on a 12-tone row. (The other 2 movements used 12-tone rows and based some of the themes and harmonies on them, but I brought it out a little more here.)
As with the previous movement, nothing in this is programic, it is only meant to suggest some of the ideas expressed above.