Hamlet

Musical highlights

Explore the musical moments to look out for in Hamlet

'To be or not to be…'

Shakespeare’s soliloquies trace the passage of thoughts through Hamlet’s mind, and Dean’s music here captures that spirit of spontaneity and fluidity. The vocal line – initially fragmented into tiny, disconnected utterances – gradually blooms into longer and more developed musical thoughts.

The orchestral sounds that are wrapped around Hamlet’s soliloquy invite us into his head. The textures are deliberately disorienting – dynamics are extremely quiet, textures blurred, and there are lots of unfamiliar colours from tuned percussion. This blurring between reality and illusion provides a musical mirror to Hamlet’s state of mind.

Hamlet: ‘To be or not to be’ Part 1 – Glyndebourne

The contrast between Hamlet’s music and Ophelia’s when she enters later in the scene is marked. Hamlet’s is erratic, but has a clear sense of progression and agency. Ophelia’s gets stuck in looping repetitions of a single musical thought, as though she cannot bear to let go of the idea of his love.

Hamlet: ‘Get thee to a nunnery’ – Glyndebourne

The first appearance of the Ghost

What does a ghost sound like? That’s the question composer Brett Dean both asks and answers in this atmospheric episode. The composer deliberately destabilises his listeners. The everyday world of Hamlet, Horatio and Marcellus retreats musically into the background – fixed pitches become approximate, sung lines dissolve into single notes – pushed aside by the growing power of the orchestra and the semichorus.

With the arrival of the ghost, a dark musical world is suddenly illuminated. Tuned percussion glitters and glints – a blinding flash of orchestral light that erupts out of the seething weirdness of the semichorus’s wordless ticks and whispers. Brass arrives to add depth and menace, and the high-lying writing for the semichorus (sounding closer to screams or wails than conventional singing) brings a new level of hysteria and intensity to the scene.

Finally, Dean adds humming, pulsing tremolo chords. This faltering, flickering texture captures both the otherworldly quality of the ghost and the racing pulse and nervous energy of Hamlet himself.

‘Angels and ministers of grace, defend us’

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