Since today is a special day, I had to post another movement of my Hamlet Symphony. This is the Fourth Movement – Remembering Ophelia.
This movement is in some ways the most beautiful, the most sad, the most delicate, the most simple, the most complicated the… well, you get the idea, there are a lot of contradictions. It is by far my favorite. It doesn’t end here, but goes right into the fifth movement, so the ending is abrupt. Anyway, here is what I wrote about it as I was actually composing the music (I worte most of the below before i wrote the music and then corrected i to fit the music after I was done) ::
When I first started this project I had some very clear notions about Ophelia. When it came time to actually write the music, however, those notions evaporated. I actually took a break in writing to reread the play, but to no avail – she remains a mystery.
Ophelia is both the most disposable of the main characters and yet the one who plays the pivotal role – Hamlet would have had his revenge on Claudius if Leartes hadn’t been called back for Ophelia’s funeral. Her tragedy directly caused, through her brother’s sense of vengeance, the ultimate tragedy and final scene full of corpses.
The biggest problem in defining her character is that everyone used poor Ophelia, including Shakespeare. She is a pawn, a beautiful and intelligent pawn, that is true, who is used and abused until she breaks.
Hamlet undoubtedly loved her.
And yet, besides saving most of his on-stage madness for her, Hamlet also took out his anger and frustration at his mother’s apparent betrayal on poor Ophelia.
Shakespeare, ironically, had Ophelia betraying Hamlet at the very time he was chastising her, and all women, for their betrayal: she was knowingly being used as bait so the king and Polonius could spy on Hamlet.
The king only cared for himself and suspected the real cause of Hamlet’s so-called madness, but for Polonius to use his daughter so (much of the language in this scene suggested he was pimping a prostitute) seems outrageous.
Polonius was, of course, a pompous fool who did not realize the harm his actions caused his family. Look how much trust and respect he showed Leartes: I can’t imagine anyone asking somebody to badmouth his son to see what reactions he would get – he really seemed to want to have Leartes fail! In this light it is not surprising that he would use his daughter, “pimping” her innocence to trap Hamlet. It fits his character.
Unfortunately this tells us a lot more about Polonius than about Ophelia, except that she was a dutiful daughter who obeyed her father and her king.
Ophelia’s madness and death seemed to be Shakespeare using her for revulsion and pity. The annihilation of this beautiful, innocent young lady was used to widen the path of destruction wrought by Claudius and deepen the tragedy.
Poor Ophelia was misused by everyone, including her creator who made her the most shallow character in the play. Shakespeare redeemed himself by her Christian burial (she was as innocent in death as in life) and by the great outpouring of love and grief shown by Hamlet and Leartes.
As the above discussion suggest, Ophelia was also important in helping to define all of the other main characters. She was central in the main themes of the play – madness (loss of mind) and death (loss of life), bringing a clearer, more concrete, picture of these two ideas.
Ophelia was never sharply defined on her own, and yet she defined others. She also brought the symbolism of death and madness into reality (i.e., Hamlet feigned madness and thought about death, Ophelia really went mad and died).
And so I treat her music.
Note the title: Originally it was just “Ophelia”, but I changed it to “Remembering Ophelia”, a change reflected in the opening of the movement. This small change goes back to the way the ending of the last movement is interpreted – the joke becomes tragic.
This movement is basically in an ABA form.
The “A” section is in a way a strange set of variations. There is no main theme to vary – we already heard it before – and there is no set pattern to ground the variations, just 3 partial themes in a given order.
The first “themelet” is taken from the “innocent Ophelia” theme of the scherzo. Next is the “Oh Beautiful Ophelia” theme (I wrote the theme using words from Hamlet’s poem (slightly changed) to Ophelia) which was also used as Hamlet’s action/romantic theme. The last scrap of theme is the “Romantic Ophelia” theme heard in the trio of the scherzo.
These three “themelets” combine to create a theme which is treated in a different way on each repetition. So, not really a typical theme and variation, but I don’t have anything better to call it.
The “B” section might seem very simple, but is, in a way, a little more complicated. In one way it can almost be thought of as very simple, highly modified sonata form. The first theme is taken from the “contemplation” theme of the introduction of Hamlet’s movement (2nd movement).
The second theme is hinted at in the second movement, but never fully heard until here. This is a very simple country dance. A dark version breaks up the quiet mood. The country dance comes back, this time with a few dissonances, but modulating to an even brighter area, lifting, momentarily, the mood.
The dark version of the country dance is the beginning of the downfall – in general the music becomes more chromatic and darker after this intrusion of darkness. One more note about the “dark country dance”: if this “B” section is in sonata form, it is the dark version of the theme that returns in the recapitulation.
Throughout the movement scraps of other themes make themselves known. It may be in background as accompaniment, a counter theme or just a quick declamation of another theme. This happens in other movements, of course, but it is a little more prevalent than in any of the previous movements.
This is the most diatonic movement with the “B” section occasionally just alternating between tonic and dominate for long stretches.
As noted above, a little over half way through it begins to become more and more chromatic as the end approaches. The large areas of solid tonality become a little shaky and a darker feeling comes through, tainting everything.
So this most simple of movements is also, in its quiet way, the most complicated, just like Ophelia herself.
The very end is one of my few attempts on injecting a scene straight from the play into the music. The music is supposed to take on the attributes of a flowing river. Over this “river motif” Ophelia’s theme comes in, slow and sad, in the bassoon. This ends abruptly with a big crash (splash?) leaving only the river murmuring with the theme usually reserved for the dead or dying hanging over the top. This movement and the next run non-stop.