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Topic: Hamlet Symphony - 2nd Mvmnt – Hamlet – To Be or Not To Be

  1. #1
    Senior Member
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    Mar 2004
    Wilton, NH

    Hamlet Symphony - 2nd Mvmnt – Hamlet – To Be or Not To Be

    Second Movement – Hamlet – To Be or Not To Be

    Hamlet Symphony 2nd – Hamlet – To Be or Not To Be

    I think the first thing most people think of when they want to characterize Hamlet is “the brooding, melancholy Dane”. Although you may hear some “brooding” and maybe a touch of “melancholy”, that’s not what this is about.

    I think of Hamlet as a thinker and bit of a philosopher. OK, “a lot” of a philosopher.

    Throughout the whole play he is constantly thinking, and often they are deep, philosophical thoughts. Primarily, of course, are thoughts of “death” in all its guises.

    There is death of loved ones (family and friends), personal death, death of historic figures and death of whole armies marching to war. What happens to the body, mind, spirit and soul after death are all reflected on in great detail.

    Besides these more philosophical, and morbid, thoughts, he also spent much of his time planning and plotting – you can often almost see the wheels turning.

    He needed to avenge his father’s death, but first he had to be sure his father was really murdered. Imagine you are on trial and testify that you know Claudius killed the elder Hamlet because his (the elder Hamlet’s) ghost told you…..

    That is the problem – if the people of the kingdom could not be convinced that Claudius did kill the previous king, Hamlet would most likely forfeit his life in his thirst for vengeance. Likewise, if the “ghost” was really a demon, knowing Hamlet is in a vulnerable state, sent up to temp him into murder, Hamlet would forfeit his soul.

    I have read commentaries that state that Hamlet’s greatest fault was that he was unwilling or unable to act. Nonsense - as soon as he was satisfied the ghost spoke the truth, satisfied in a way he could point out to others without mentioning a ghost (“I was told by a hidden witness Claudius poured poison in my father’s ear (just ask Horatio) and have proved it by his violent reaction to the play.”) he sought to kill Claudius.

    First he stayed his hand because he didn’t want to kill Claudius at prayer (remember that his father died without being confessed and so had to work out all of his sins). Later he struck at the man behind the curtain, killing poor Polonius, because he thought it was Claudius. After coming back from his aborted trip to England (he came back with one idea in mind) he knew he had to win over Laertes (the people were rioting, demanding Leartes be crowned king) before he could go after Claudius – not an easy task since he had killed Leartes’ father (Polonius) and was indirectly responsible for his sister’s (Ophelia’s) death.

    Hamlet was a man of action. He dared question the ghost when the others held back. He jumped aboard the pirate ship, not to surrender, but to try to repel them from his ship. He was great swordsman, easily beating Laertes, who was considered the best in the land.

    He was also a lover and a bit of a Romantic (“lover” being the old fashioned term, not in a physical sense, at least not yet…). I am sure, had things worked out differently, he would have continued to woe Ophelia and most likely would have married her. His verse may not have been great, but he was moved to try to express himself in ways impossible for simple prose to convey.

    Shakespeare’s greatness comes to light when we think of all the complexities and subtleties of this character – no cardboard cutout “melancholy Dane” but a complex, noble person, increasing the tragedy of his death.

    Not being a Shakespeare, I only attempted to bring out some highlights of this character in my music.

    This movement has an introduction (contemplation theme), distant and thoughtful, which continues to come back, and two main theme groups.

    The first main theme group deals with Hamlet the thinker and philosopher. The rhythms of its primary theme follow the words from his famous “to be” soliloquy (try speaking along with the music). There is a bit of a fugato on this thematic material (note – this fugato turns a bit chaotic on purpose) during what passes for a development section.

    The second main theme group deals with Hamlet the man of action and the lover. This is the heroic Hamlet. (This theme was based on a theme written for Ophelia.)

    None of this is supposed to be programic or exact in any sense of the word. These were just some of the ideas I was trying to convey when I made the themes. For the most part, I wrote the music as music with ideas in the back of my mind, not purposefully trying to paint this picture.

    Of course, if during the little fugato you think of Hamlet contemplating life and death, well, I guess I succeeded.

    Hamlet Symphony 1st – Introduction – The Midnight Watch
    Hamlet Symphony 2nd – Hamlet – To Be or Not To Be
    Trent P. McDonald

  2. #2

    Re: Hamlet Symphony - 2nd Mvmnt – Hamlet – To Be or Not To Be

    Hi, Trent - I've been looking forward to this - came sooner than I expected!

    I want you to know I really admire this project of yours, and your seriousness of purpose. You couldn't pick a juicier peace of literature to be inspired by. "Hamlet" has all the Big Important Themes of life brought up and explored in its pages.

    Now I've heard "To Be Or Not To Be" and was transported to the cold environs of Elsinore where The Melancholy Dane contemplates his horrible situation and debates with himself the consequences of the actions he's considering.

    Your misgivings over whether I'd be enjoying your work should be put away. When we work with material which has its stalwart fans, we're up against an impossible task if we think it'll be possible to please those "experts." Sure, "Hamlet" is a personal favorite play of mine and naturally I have my own preferences of how it "should" be approached, but that has nothing to do with what Your take on the play is and what you're doing with your symphony inspired by it.

    When I adapted "The Picture of Dorian Gray," I was up against the same sort of thing - the hardcore Wilde fans who feel protective of the novel can't possibly be pleased with Anyone's adaptation. I can only shrug. And that's what you need to do with "Hamlet" fans - Shrug off any "slings and arrows" such fans may aim at you.

    I have Never attempted something of this scope and gravity. I don't know how I'd even go about it. So just on that basic level I'm in awe of what you've undertaken.

    Brooding - Ooh my yes I heard the brooding. You said "this isn't about that"--well, but it is, and can't Help but be about that. Because yes, Hamlet is philosophical, and he Broods in the contemplation of his philosophy.

    I feel the only element I didn't get a strong impression of was the intense drama this man is living through as he's contemplating suicide. The play on stage can be done so that Hamlet is seen coming close to ending his life. He stops and thinks it through. It's the biggest personal crisis a person can live through, and I felt there could be a more pronounced and dramatic musicalization of that element.

    But your piece is ever changing, complex, and capturing the essence of what you are talking about in your accompanying post. It really is impressive, Trent.

    In your first post of your symphony, the 1st movement on the battlements of Elsinore, I commented about the drama of the ghost's appearance, and you replied:

    "...When I was talking not scary, I was comparing it to today’s scary movies. I guess what I was trying to say is that I was attempting to portray a cold, gloomy, otherworldly scene here, not a cheap slasher-film scene. I purposely avoided a Hollywood sound and didn’t want too many special effects..."

    And I appreciate your concern for not wanting to come across as a melodramatic hack in your "Hamlet" inspired music. But I do want to point out that the the play Is high, intense drama - which is the original meaning of "melodramatic." We think of that as corny stuff now, over-the-top junk entertainment ala Hollywood horror films. But that isn't it's original and true meaning. "Hamlet" is supreme melodrama. The challenge in interpreting anew either on stage, or in a symphony as you've done here, is to not neglect the highly dramatic elements Shakespeare put in his play - to not downplay them.

    The challenge is to meet the text's demands for horrific moments, scary shocks et al Without being a hack about it. It's easier to ignore or downplay those elements than to be honest with them - to realize that "Hamlet" Does have elements which we see in modern junky horror films. It would be wrong to score those elements in a heartless, slick, Hollywood way - they have to be carefully considered and artfully undertaken.

    So in the 1st movement, as you know, I feel that the missing element is what Shakespeare's original intent was--and that was to jump out at the audience and scare them. Just because he's Shakespeare doesn't mean he didn't want to manipulate his audience - that's exactly what he Does want to do, and what he succeeds at--he just does it--brilliantly. Nothing was too "low brow" for him to use and make fresh. And so you can do the same when reinterpreting his work.

    It's an error to think that because the opening scene isn't scary by today's standards, it isn't potentially scary. - As I said on the other thread, you're not seeing it context of when it was written. It was intended to be scary stuff, so the assignment is to re-create that original intent in an appropriate way - not to downplay it.

    And so it is with Hamlet's soliloquy - the high drama of his contemplation can be more clear in this music. There's plenty of brooding, plenty of eerie atmosphere - but I feel there isn't the terrifying angst Hamlet suffers as he asks himself if he should live or die.

    Those are the reactions of a "Hamlet" fan--as per my intro in this reply.

    Fun talking with you about it. Please remember the most important parts of this rambling reply - I find the work Impressive, and I admire the scope and seriousness of your work. Thank you.


  3. #3
    Senior Member
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    Mar 2004
    Wilton, NH

    Re: Hamlet Symphony - 2nd Mvmnt – Hamlet – To Be or Not To Be

    Hi Randy! I figured this would interest you!

    Anyway, there are times I think I should follow Ron’s advice and not talk too much about my intentions, but it wouldn’t be as much fun, would it?

    Quick mention back to first movement:

    It was originally conceived of just the beginning of a much larger movement. When I broke it off I left it more as an introduction than an Overture or even a prelude. It is definitely not supposed by like background music, nor is it a story in music. The idea was more to set the stage for what is to come and , perhaps, throwing in some sonic ideas from the scenes on the battlements.

    Now to this; Again, it’s not supposed to be literal, it is more of a character sketch.

    One thing you might find interesting: starting at this point all of these “movement synopsis” were written before the music. When the music was finished I’d go back and make slight changes to make the synopsis match the music, but most of the text was done first.

    I also purposefully chose some non-traditional ideas.

    A few years back I read a very interesting essay on the “to be” soliloquy. The author had a very different interpretation – instead of suicide he had Hamlet thinking about his present course of inaction vs. a course of action, which would lead to his death. He went into a lot of detail about the late renaissance and Elizabethan ideas of nobility and heroism and took a lot of examples from other literature of the time.

    It was a fascinating read and actually made a lot of sense, much more than I’m making now.

    When I started this project I hadn’t read the play in about 5 years. When I did sit down to read it I thought of that article when I read the soliloquy. By doing that I saw the whole play in a different light.

    Coming up with ideas for this music I used a little bit of both the more traditional interpretation and the one I was talking about above.

    The “to Be” theme is actually cut up into a few parts, or phrases. The first is the most obvious – “To be, or not to be: that is the question”. The next part, first heard in the woodwinds, to a certain extent follows the rhythms of “Whether ‘tis nobler…etc., etc.” This phrase doesn’t fit perfectly and doesn’t always have the end phrase of that first thought, in particular the last 2 words are missing. Then there are the duel hammer blows of the end 2 words – “end them”.

    I point this out because of fugato in the development.

    After hearing the more quiet, contemplation theme a single voice comes out of the silence – “to be, or not to be!” This cry echoes through the horns and is heard almost continually for a while. The other parts come in, some of these in slightly fugal fashion with “end them!” echoing through the whole range of instruments. It then kind of winds its way down.

    I write all of this to tell you what I was thinking when I wrote that section which I consider to be the “to be” soliloquy. Later, at the recapitulation, the theme jumps out of the quiet, angrily shouting to the gods. Or so I meant it.

    As I said a few times, after a long introduction this was going to be the first movement. I still think of it as kind of the first movement. I also think it just gets better from here – I hope everyone agrees.

    All 6 movements are done and rendered so I am just waiting on each of them until the last has gone without reply for long enough. I’d like to wait until they drop off of the front page, but that seems to be over a week since the last response these days.

    Anyway, thanks for listening and taking the time to respond – quite a long response: I think between my to posts and yours this must be one of the wordiest threads around….

    Thanks again for all the comments.
    Trent P. McDonald

  4. #4

    Re: Hamlet Symphony - 2nd Mvmnt – Hamlet – To Be or Not To Be

    Hi Trent,

    The first two movements work well for me - and my congratulations to you for this excellent contribution.

    The somewhat trance-like and repetitive nature of the first is atmospheric and there is some distinct writing and a unique voice in places which is particularly refreshing.

    The introduction of more lyrical writing in the second movement periodically gives way to a style more akin to the first which provides continuity and helps it to 'connect'. I might perhaps have pushed the marimbas(?) back a bit to give a more distant and haunting quality - but that may not be what you intended. Loved the flutes towards the end!

    Looking forward to hearing the rest.



  5. #5
    Senior Member
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    Mar 2004
    Wilton, NH

    Re: Hamlet Symphony - 2nd Mvmnt – Hamlet – To Be or Not To Be

    Hi Graham,

    Thanks for listening to the first two movements.

    These two movements actually share a lot of material, though it is not always obvious. As the symphony progresses the shared material becomes more and more obvious. Since most people on this forum will be listening to them days, or even weeks, apart, they may not always notice so I am happy that you listened to the first two close enough together to hear some continuity.

    Were you thinking pull back the marimbas in general or at some particular spot, such as the log solo (actually doubled by harp) at the beginning? This rendering is by no means the final product (hopefully someday live players can provide that) so there is always room to experiment with different ideas.

    Anyway, thanks a lot for your comments. I hope you enjoy the rest of this. I believe the best is to come….
    Trent P. McDonald

  6. #6

    Re: Hamlet Symphony - 2nd Mvmnt – Hamlet – To Be or Not To Be


    Everytime I hear 2 b or not 2 b, I always want to scream out not 2 b!

    b gets squared and then is lessened by 4 a c and then the square root of that is needed to be added or subtracted from -b at which time the result is divided by 2 a. Question solved and of course there will usually be 2 answers and they are rarely Real. They are imaginary for those that were wondering.

    But then (and don't laugh), I liked Mel Gibson as Hamlet.

    I was also surprised at how fast this 2nd movement was posted. I guess you are further along in this than I thought. Still a large undertaking.

    I look forward to the other movements.

    "Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one." Albert Einstein


  7. #7
    Senior Member
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    Mar 2004
    Wilton, NH

    Re: Hamlet Symphony - 2nd Mvmnt – Hamlet – To Be or Not To Be

    Hi Ron,

    I must have always been doing it wrong. I always got (2**n) - 1 with 2**n being the power of 2 that comes next above 2b.

    Here is how I figure - You take 2b and convert to binary. Then you NOT 2b, which of course gives you a number that is pretty much the inverse of 2b: anyplace 2b has a 0, NOT 2b has a 1 and vise-versa. When you then OR these two binary numbers you get a string of 1's that has the same number of digits as 2b. So 2b OR NOT 2b = 1, 3, 7, 15, 31 etc.

    I am actually finished with all six movements. They are written, rendered and ready to go. I'm hoping I can keep patient enough to spread this out a little and not spam the board with The Hamlet Symphony.

    Thanks for listening and posting.
    Trent P. McDonald

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