Music for Shakespeare's tragedy, Op. 67a (1891).
Tchaikovsky's original score contains an overture and 17 individual numbers, of which one (No. 5a) has not been published. The titles of numbers are translated into English, with French headings and vocal incipits (in italics) taken from the published score. Where the English and French titles are the same, only the former are shown.
In 1888 a charity performance was due to take place at the Mariinsky Theatre in which members of the French dramatic company from the Mikhaylovsky Theatre (in Saint Petersburg) were to participate. They were to perform Act III of Shakespeare's Hamlet, with the actor Lucien Guitry, a friend of Tchaikovsky's, in the principal role. Guitry was entrusted to ask the composer to write an overture or "if push comes to shove"  an entr'acte to be played between the Players' Scene and the scene in the Queen's bedchamber.
Tchaikovsky, who had previously considered writing music on the subject of Hamlet, gave his agreement. The production did not take place, but the composer began work, which developed into the overture-fantasia Hamlet for symphony orchestra.
In 1890, Lucien Guitry approached Tchaikovsky for a second time with a request to write music to Hamlet, for a benefit performance that would be Guitry's last appearance on the Russian stage . The composer agreed.
Around 7/19–8/20 January 1891 at Frolovskoye, Tchaikovsky began work, but wrote with little enthusiasm, as he confessed to Modest Tchaikovsky in a letter of 11/23 January: "Hamlet is coming along. But it is such unpleasant work!" . On 22 January/3 February he told Anatoly Tchaikovsky that he had finished the music to Hamlet and sent it to Guitry .
In total, the music to Hamlet comprises an overture and 16 numbers. Tchaikovsky wrote to Pyotr Jurgenson that in the full score he had "used three old works, namely: 1) the entr’acte before the second act (from the Third Symphony); 2) the entr'acte and interlude in the third act (The Snow Maiden); and 3) the entr'acte before the fourth act (the Samarin Elegy)" . From the Third Symphony he used the second movement Alla tedesca; from the music to The Snow Maiden—the Melodrama; the "Samarin Elegy" was the Elegy for String Orchestra.
Tchaikovsky's reference to the "Interlude" in Act III remains unexplained. It was not included in the score published by Pyotr Jurgenson.
The first performance took place on 9/21 February 1891 at the Mikhaylovsky Theatre. "My music to Hamlet, put on for Guitry's benefit, went down very well with everyone. Guitry was superb", the composer wrote to Anatoly Tchaikovsky on 12/24 February . In the same letter we read that his music was "unimportant" and "There’s really only one March worth printing".
In Moscow the first performance took place on 21 November/3 December 1891 at the Maly Theatre.
In 1893, the conductor Michał Hertz in Warsaw sought Tchaikovsky's permission to perform his music to Hamlet in a production by the Warsaw dramatic theatre, but the composer declined after consulting his brother [Modest], who in his view did not consider it to be a serious artistic work. "I wrote it very quickly for the benefit of one of my friends, only so that he could amuse himself in seeing my name on the concert bill. It is scored for a very small orchestra, and would not be suitable for a Grand Imperial Theatre". Instead, Tchaikovsky suggested that Hertz might wish to consider using the "wonderful music to Hamlet by George Henschel" .
In 1892 Pyotr Jurgenson published the full score and orchestral parts. The piano score was issued together with a re-issue of the full score in February 1896. The vocal numbers (Nos. 10, 11 and 13) were in the author’s arrangements for voice and piano; the remaining numbers were arranged by Eduard Langer.
Музыкальное наследие Чайковского (1958), pp. 201–202
The publication of Tchaikovsky’s first extant letter to Lucien Guitry, dated 1/13 April 1885 — letter 2677a — in "Klin, near Moscow, was the home of one of the busiest of men…" (Tchaikovsky Research Bulletin No. 1, p. 39–41) in February 2011 has shed further light on the genesis of the music to Hamlet, as well as of the earlier overture-fantasia on the same subject (1891).
This page was last updated on 12 February 2013