JJHanfstaengelPSCrop copy

Joseph Joachim

(b. Kittsee, 28 June 1831 — d. Berlin, 15 August 1907)

Ouvertüre zu Shakespeares “Hamlet” d-moll, op. 4

Den Mitgliedern der Weimarer Hofkapelle gewidmet

(Hannover, 1853)

Joseph Joachim

(b. Kittsee, 28 June 1831 — d. Berlin, 15 August 1907)

Ouverture to Shakespeares “Hamlet” in D minor, op. 4

Dedicated to the members of the Weimar Hofkapelle

(Hanover, 1853)


Joseph Joachim is remembered today primarily as a great violinist, and as a close friend and collaborator of Johannes Brahms. If he is less well-known as a composer, it is perhaps his own fault: with the exception of a few occasional pieces, he produced very few compositions after mid-life. The products of his early maturity are significant works, however, well-suited to the concert hall, and worthy of revival. Amongst them, Hamlet is one of the best, and has found a place in the repertoire of great orchestras. It was a work of personal significance to Joachim — a quasi-autobiographical example of what he later called “psychological music.” It was also, so to say, his musical calling card— the work with which he introduced himself as a composer to Liszt and Schumann, who praised it, and to Brahms, who admired it enough to make a four-hand piano arrangement of it.

Joachim began work on Hamlet in Weimar in the summer of 1852, near the end of his two-year sojourn there as Grand-ducal Concertmaster under Franz Liszt. Mendelssohn’s former protégé had been one of the first musicians that Liszt gathered there at mid-century, determined to re-invigorate Weimar’s reputation as the “Athens on the Ilm.” The prestigious seat of German letters, the home of Goethe, Schiller, Herder, and Wieland, may well have seemed a promising arena for an artist like Liszt, in whom “renewal of the art of music through its more intimate union with poetry” had become an article of faith, and the touchstone of all things modern. One of Liszt’s first performances there was the premiere of Wagner’s Lohengrin, a performance that Joachim attended, and that helped convince the young virtuoso and aspiring composer to accept Liszt’s offer of employment. In the ensuing years, Joachim would form cordial friendships with the musicians of the Weimar Hofkapelle, to whom Hamlet is dedicated. He would also be drawn briefly into Liszt’s intimate circle at the time when the composer was inventing the Symphonic Poem. Joachim’s Hamlet is an early and significant example of this “New German” tendency in music. It is no mere imitation of Liszt’s style, however — indeed, it precedes most of Liszts compositions in that genre. In it, we hear an authentic and original voice.

In the end, Joachim’s time in Weimar proved disappointing. Between periods of intense activity, Liszt was often away, attending to his ailing companion Princess Carolyne zu Sayn-Wittgenstein. Lonely and bored during Liszt’s absences, Joachim and Hans von Bülow filled their time with practicing, taking long walks in the Ilm Park, and teaching each other Spanish. After two years, Joachim left Weimar to become Royal Concertmaster in Hanover.

Joachim’s chronic loneliness was only made worse by his move to Hanover. As Julius Rodenberg later recalled: “He was the concert director, and, although favored by the court and admired by the public, he lived a quiet, secluded life. We regarded him with considerable awe as one who had a mission. He spoke little in those days; ‘Music is his language.’”[1]

Joachim completed his Hamlet Overture during his first months in Hanover (the score is dated “Hanover, 16 March, 1853” and initialed “f.a.e,” for “frei aber einsam,” — free but lonely), and he sent it to Liszt as “a token of my gratitude and devotion.”[2] Referring to his new position under Heinrich Marschner, he wrote: “I was very much alone. The contrast between the atmosphere that, through your activity, is ceaselessly filled with new sounds, and an air that has been made utterly tone-rigid by the rule of a phlegmatic northerner from the Restoration time is too barbaric! Wherever I looked, no one who shared my aspirations; no one except the Phalanx of like-minded friends in Weimar. […] I turned to Hamlet; the motives of an overture that I had already ‘wanted’ to write in Weimar came back to me […].”[3]

On April 7th, Joachim sent another, rough draft of Hamlet to Woldemar Bargiel, saying: “I need hardly justify myself to you over my choice of a hero for my musical essay. Hamlet is generally regarded as too introspective. But this introspection is merely a refuge from the constant tumult of his mind. The feelings which drive him to it, the strong and constant need for action, the sombre grief because this great longing for the realization of his inner life must wither impotently when opposed to external circumstances, these feelings must have tormented every human heart; they are universal, therefore they must be musical.”[4] For Joachim, this struggle to reconcile the inner life with outward circumstance would become a driving obsession. In the ensuing years, Polonius’ words to Laertes, “to thine own self be true,” and Hamlet’s words, “I know not seems… I have that within which passeth show,” would become for him a personal quest, and an unspoken artistic creed.

Liszt was quick to recognize the Hamlet overture as a kind of self-portrait, calling it a “remarkable work, which, among other merits, has that of bearing a strong resemblance to you as I know you and love you.” “’To be or not to be; that is the question,’” he wrote. “You resolve this great question with an emphatic affirmative, by a serious and beautiful work, greatly conceived and broadly developed, which categorically proves its right to exist.”[5] Nevertheless, when Liszt read the work with the Weimar Hofkapelle in late May, it met with a cool reception. “My overture appealed to just a few people there,” Joachim wrote to Woldemar Bargiel. “They said it sounded as if I had roared a fearsome ‘stay ten paces away from me.’ I liked that!”[6]

Liszt continued to think highly of Joachim’s overture, though, calling it noble and vigorous, and he often discussed it with his composition students. Five years later, Liszt would write his own Hamlet, a symphonic poem, dedicated to Princess Carolyne.

Encouraged by Liszt’s approbation, Joachim sent the score to Robert Schumann, with an appeal for criticism. “I hesitate to send it to you,” he wrote, “as this is the first time that you see one of my works.”[7] Schumann sent a long and detailed letter in return, elaborating his impressions. “As I read it, it seemed as though the scene gradually grew before my eyes and Ophelia and Hamlet actually stood forth,” he wrote. “There are very impressive passages in it, and the whole is presented in the clear and noble form which befits such a great subject. […] Music should, in the first place, appeal to the sympathies, and when I say that your work has appealed to mine you may believe me.”[8] Schumann’s interest in the work continued, even after his institutionalization in Endenich.

Hamlet made a strong impression on other contemporaries as well. In July, Albert Dietrich wrote to Bargiel: “[Joachim’s] entire being is impressed with the stamp of supreme artistry. Nevertheless, my respect and enthusiasm for him grew immensely when I came to know the Hamlet overture; the work has moved me deeply; the entire tragedy sounds forth from it in the most striking manner. The main motive of the allegro is remarkably characteristic — so indecisive, mysterious — like Hamlet; the interval of the minor third, distinctive of the entire overture, is of marvelous effect, etc.”[9]

Berlioz, and Joachim’s new-found friend Brahms, also admired the work, and thought that it marked Joachim as a composer of great promise. Nevertheless, the first public performance, with the already mentally ill Schumann as the thoroughly inadequate conductor, was a disaster. As Joachim wrote to his brother Heinrich: “There was nothing good to report about the performance of my Hamlet overture: the orchestra was bad; moreover, Schumann is an excellent, poetic man, and a great musician, but unfortunately no equally-great conductor — the work was not criticized, because it was simply not heard.[10]

Hamlet failed in Leipzig as well, under Joachim’s own direction, but for a different reason — a “progressive work,” it failed to appeal to the Leipzigers’ conservative taste. The Süddeutsche Musik-Zeitung opined that the overture “again provided clear evidence of what eccentric creations the new school produces.”[11] The performance was hissed.

Joachim revised the overture repeatedly and extensively following its initial performances (including another reading by the Cologne orchestra under Ferdinand Hiller), mostly to make the instrumentation more transparent. “I so often allowed a host of orchestral instruments to sound along with the melody,” he wrote to Gisela von Arnim, “yes, if only they were all sensitive souls! — but the musicians blow and bow the notes so coarsely — and what in my mind was a sigh or a joyful Ach! was a crass horn tone — a screechy fiddle bow noise — why are there so many workmen, only!!”[12]

Joachim performed Hamlet sporadically during his lifetime, and within intimate circles it was heard in Brahms’s four-hand arrangement. Though the parts were published by Breitkopf & Härtel in 1854, the score did not appear until 1908 — the year after Joachim’s death. Performance standards have risen enormously in the last century and a half, and the “progressive” music of the Weimar circle no longer provokes hisses in the concert hall. In recent years, Joachim’s Hamlet has found its audience: it has been performed and recorded often, and has taken its rightful place in the orchestral repertoire.

© 2015 Robert Whitehouse Eshbach

[1] “Er war Concertdirector und lebte, wiewohl vom Hofe bevorzugt und vom Publicum bewundert, ein stilles, zurückgezogenes Leben. Wir betrachteten ihn mit einiger Scheu, wie Einen, der eine Mission hat. Er sprach nicht viel damals; ‘Musik ist seine Sprache.’”

[2] “ein Zeichen meiner Dankbarkeit und Ergebenheit.”

[3] “[…] ich war sehr allein. Der Kontrast, aus der Atmosphäre hinaus, die durch Ihr Wirken rastlos mit neuen Klängen erfüllt wird, in eine Luft, die ganz tonstarr geworden ist von dem Walten eines nordischen Phlegmatikers aus der Restaurations-Zeit, ist zu barbarisch! Wohin ich auch blickte, keiner, der dasselbe anstrebte wie ich; keiner statt der Phalanx gleichgesinnter Freunde in Weimar. […] Ich griff da zum Hamlet; die Motive zu einer Ouverture, die ich schon in Weimar hatte schreiben ‘wollen’, fielen mir wieder bei […].”

[4] “Über die Wahl des Helden zu meinem musikalischen Versuch brauche ich mich wohl kaum bei Ihnen zu rechtfertigen. Hamlet wird gewöhnlich ein unmusikalischer Stoff genannt; die Leute halten sich daran, daß Hamlet viel reflektirt. Dies Reflektiren ist ja aber nur die nothwendige Flucht vor der Unruhe, die sein Inneres beständig durchwühlt. Was ihn da hintreibt, der ewige mächtige Thatendrang, die tiefe Trauer darüber, daß diese herrliche Sehnsucht nach Verwirklichung des innersten Lebens an äußeren Verhältnissen, an geistig Nichtigem machtlos verbluten muß, hat wohl jedes Menschen Brust durchzogen, ist allgemein menschliches Gefühl, also auch musikalisch.”

[5] “’To be or not to be; that is thé question’ […] Vous résolves cette grande question d’une manière très affirmative, par une œuvre sérieuse et belle, grandement conçue et largement développée, et qui prouve catégoriquement son droit d’être.”

[6] “Meine Ouvertüre hat dort nur wenigen Leuten zugesagt. […] Man meinte, sie klänge, als ob ich den Leuten ein fürchterliches: “Bleibt mir 10 Schritt vom Leib” zubrüllte. Das war mir lieb! — ”

[7] “…ich zage bei der Übersendung, denn es ist das erstemal, dass Sie von mir ein Werk zu Gesicht bekommen.”

[8] “Es war mir beim Lesen, als erhellte sich von Seite zu Seite die Scene, und Ophelia und Hamlet träten in leibhaftiger Gestalt hervor. Es sind ganz ergreifende Stellen darin, und das Ganze in so klarer und großartiger Form hingestellt, wie es einer so hohen Aufgabe gemäß ist. […] Sympathisch vor Allem muß die Musik wirken, und wenn ich das von Ihrer auf mich die sagen kann, so mögen Sie das glauben.”

[9] “[…] seiner ganzen Erscheinung ist der Stempel höchster Künstlerschaft aufgeprägt. Meine Verehrung u. Begeisterung für ihn steigerte sich aber noch gewaltig, als ich die Hamletouverture [op. 4] kennen gelernt; das Werk hat mich tief ergriffen; das ganze Trauerspiel klingt auf das Frappanteste daraus hervor. Merkwürdig characteristisch ist das Hauptmotiv des Allegro — so unentschieden, mysteriös — wie Hamlet; von wunderbarer Wirkung das der ganzen Ouverture eigene Intervall der verminderten Terz etc.”

[10] “Von der Aufführung meiner Hamlet-Ouvertüre war nichts Gutes zu berichten: das Orchester war schlecht, zudem ist Schumann ein ausgezeichneter, dichterischer Mann, und großer Musiker, aber leider kein ebenso guter Dirigent — das Werk wurde nicht beurtheilt, weil eben nicht gehört.”

[11] “ […] wieder einen recht deutlichen Beweis lieferte, welch verschrobene Schöpungen die neue Schule zu Tage fördert […].”

[12] “Ich ließ so oft neben der Melodie eine Menge Instrumente des Orchesters mitschwingen — ja wären das lauter fein empfindende Seelen! — aber so blasen und streichen die Musici roh die Noten — und was in mir ein Seufzer oder ein freudig Ach! war, wird ein plumper Hornton — ein kreischender Fiedelbogenlaut — Warum giebts nur so viele Handwerker!!”