Hamlet Symphony, Second Movement – Hamlet


I decided to talk about my Hamlet Symphony for the Third Monday Music post because I wanted to draw a skull.  Can you think of a better reason to choose a topic?  (Actually, I’ll be talking mostly about the second movement).

The Hamlet Symphony is by far the largest music project I have ever undertaken.  This six movement piece scored for a large orchestra lasts just under an hour.  Almost every note, be it a main theme or a background part, has some “meaning” in the larger scheme of things.

That being said, here we are mostly concerned with the second movement, Hamlet.  Without further ado, here it is:

(Please note – this is an older mix down and not the one used on the CD)

So, while you are listening I’ll give you a little information on what this is about.

In my opinion Hamlet is the greatest work of fiction ever written and the character Hamlet is perhaps the most complex character ever created.  This movement is a quick character sketch that is intended to give my interpretation in music of Hamlet the character.

I hate it when people make Hamlet out to be two dimensional.  There is quite a bit to this young man.  He’s a thinker, a dreamer and a philosopher.  In the play he talks about and thinks about the many guises of death, from armies marching to war, to his father’s death to his own death.  And yet he is also a man of action.  He jumps onto the pirate’s ship fighting with all of his might (we are told about this, it happens off stage).  He easily beats the best swordsman in the land, Laertes.

He doesn’t lose because he sits around moping and refuses to take action.

Hamlet doesn’t kill Claudius at the beginning because he has no proof.  In fact, there is a possibility the ghost was a demon there to tempt him into murder.  He can’t murder the king and think everyone will be happy about it.  Once he has the proof, though, he tries to act.  He stays his hand at first because he thinks Claudius is praying.  According to his religion, killing Claudius while he was praying would send him to Heaven but for his revenge Hamlet needs Claudius to go to Hell.  Next he strikes down poor Polonius hoping it’s Claudius behind the curtain.  In the end the people are almost revolting trying to put Laertes into the kingship so he has to win him over before he can strike down Claudius.

Now let’s move onto the music.

An atmospheric mood helps set the stage.  The first real theme (after the atmospheric part) of this highly modified sonata form movement is the philosopher theme.  Say, “to be or not to be,” over the top of the music.  I spoke the whole monologue out and worked out the rhythm of the words. It might not be perfect, but most of it’s there.  The second theme is the “heroic and romantic” Hamlet.  In the middle there is a bit of a “fugato”, which spirals off to chaos.  Don’t try to figure out this bit of chaos for there, madness lies.  In fact, a lot of the material either came up in the first movement or is foreshadowing later music.

Hope you enjoy!

Symphony Layout

A Few words about the Symphony in C – Hamlet, aka the Hamlet Symphony.  The whole thing, which lasts just under an hour is in 6 movements as follows:

Hamlet Symphony Movements:

I The Midnight Watch – Along the battlements with a ghost.
II Hamlet – that’s what this post has been about
III Mad North by Northwest – madness/insanity real and imagined
IV Remembering Ophelia – Another character sketch
V At the Gravesite – continuation of IV. With Yorick and all
VI Final Scene – swordplay, poison and death

The first, fifth and sixth movements follow the play.  Two and three are character sketches and three is, as it says, about madness as described in the play.

The whole symphony is based on three 12-tone rows.  I’d love to explain what that means, but it would take pages :) Briefly, all 12 tones in the western music scale (think a piano keyboard from c to but not including the next c up) are played in a specific order.  This is the row.  It can be manipulated in several ways.  besides the rows, there are a couple of short motifs, little snippets of melody.  These rows and motifs change, grow and develop though out the symphony.  You can’t understand what’s happening musically in the middle unless you’ve heard ho it got there.

In some small way the music is my attempt to describe the complexities of the play, the way the lives interact, in music.


(Oh, I almost forgot.  It’s been pretty close to 450 years since the bard was born, give or take a few days. )

19 thoughts on “Hamlet Symphony, Second Movement – Hamlet

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  7. thevenerable1

    I admire your being a composer tremendously, Trent ! – and it’s obvious that you know what you’re doing. It’s just that I too old to become a fan of atonal music: I was raised on Beethoven and Mozart and Chopin and Bach (et al. !); and was much later lucky enough to discover Italian opera (with a bit of French). Nothing is going to alter my mindset on this, as I’m sure you understand. Nevertheless, yours is a truly impressive oeuvre, and I congratulate you sincerely.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Thanks! It’s funny, I listen to so much 20th and 21st century music that I find this music tame! But I do know what you’re saying. I’m using a different language than you’re used to. Classical music takes effort, but you don’t realize it when you listen to something in you’re musical language, but if there is a new language…

      Liked by 1 person

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  13. erikleo

    I’m with you about Hamlet! I saw a Royal Shakespeare Production in Newcastle upon Tyne, UK last year with Jonathon Slinger in the main part. It was controversial but I enjoyed his interpretation.

    Did you celebrate World Book Night down your way? ;-)


    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Hi Erik. I just read a review of the production you’re talking about. That’s one of the great things about this character is it can be interpreted in so many ways from the ultimate introvert to the ultimate extrovert.

      They have a US team for “World Book Night” but they don’t get a lot of publicity. There are several groups that sponsor different days, like “National Reading day” in January and “Read across America” in March. Anything they can do to get more people reading.

      Thanks for stopping by and for the comments!


    1. trentpmcd Post author

      Wow, did you listen to the whole thing? Anyway, thanks for listening! I tried to make the third movement so you always think you know what’s coming but there is a little twist and it doesn’t turn out exactly how expected. I think I also juxtaposed melodic ideas with some that are a little more jarring. Thanks for the comment!



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