The music

Discover the music of Brett Dean's Hamlet

Brett Dean’s score for Hamlet is strikingly rich and multi-layered, making use of huge orchestral forces as well as a large cast and chorus. The percussion section, in particular, is unusually large, including objects like plastic bottles, foil, sandpaper and even a frying pan alongside more conventional instruments. The effect is to blur the divide between sound and music, between the everyday and the supernatural or the imagined.

In addition to the main orchestra, Hamlet also has two additional “satellite” bands (each comprising a trumpet, clarinet and percussion) positioned on either side of the top gallery of the theatre, and a semichorus of eight singers in the orchestra pit. The effect is of immersive, surround-sound – the whole auditorium becomes the stage, with the audience at the centre, invited musically into Hamlet’s mind.

One of the most unusual aspects of the score is the use of electronics. Dean recorded acoustic sounds, then sampled and distorted them to help create the supernatural soundworld of Hamlet’s dead father. These electronics provide an instrumental voice without a body – a musical metaphor for the Ghost.

Music is very much a mirror to character in Hamlet. We know from his first fussy, prolonged phrase that Polonius is a windbag, just as the giddy chatter of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern gives away their superficiality. Lovers Hamlet and Ophelia sometimes share a musical style, revealing their emotional connection, while Claudius, the usurper-king, sings with the exaggerated correctness and formality of an actor speaking a part.

What Hamlet the opera does that Hamlet the play cannot is offer us two simultaneous worlds: the spoken world of interaction, reflected in the singers’ music, and the inner world of thought and emotion reflected in the orchestra. Sometimes the one echoes the other, but more often it contradicts or subverts speech, giving us a window into the contradictions of the court of Elsinore.

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