The ‘Hamlet’ Chord: A Composer’s Music of Indecision

One of the boldest things about Brett Dean and Matthew Jocelyn’s “Hamlet,” which runs at the Metropolitan Opera through June 9, is the way that it treats some of the most famous lines in English.

Moments into the piece, we meet Hamlet (the tenor Allan Clayton at the Met), muttering a bare fragment of his monologue, “… or not to be. /… Or not to be. /… Or not to be. ” When the time comes for the great soliloquy, though, it takes a strange form. Jocelyn, the librettist, uses text from the untraditional first quarto version of the play, and rather than “To be, or not to be,” Hamlet sings: “… or not to be. /… Or not to be. /… Or not to be. To be. Ay, there’s the point. ”

If the libretto mutes some of the prince of Denmark’s turbulent vacillation, the music restores it. High from the balcony boxes whisper tuned gongs, a pair of percussionists playing pianissimo and extremely delicately, one alternating from a B to an F and back, the other from an F sharp to a C sharp.

Write the notes out as a single chord, and you draw a tower of fifths wavering over a tritone in the bass. It’s an awkward, dissonant and dark set of intervals that feels like it needs to move, like it must make a choice – though not necessarily urgently, and not in any certain direction.

Meet the Hamlet chord, a musical embodiment of the title character’s dilemma. In an interview, Dean explained the dramatic function it plays and discussed his score more broadly. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.

There have been many settings of “Hamlet,” from full operas, to overtures, to incidental music. What did you think was most important to bring into your opera from the play?

Of course this was all in collaboration with Matthew Jocelyn, who had the first and arguably the hardest job. Matthew said that the thing to remember is that there is no such thing as “Hamlet.” Any “Hamlet” you see has had a lot of decision-making that’s gone into working out the Hamlet story that it wishes to tell, from the three different versions that were published in his lifetime, one of which is very contentious, the first, “Bad” room.

So Matthew got us both to write down the six most important things that we thought had to be part of our Hamlet, and then a second set of six, and then we compared. One thing that was clear from the very start was that it was to be, or not to be – sorry – a domestic story, a family drama, not busying ourselves with geopolitical worlds.

The score seems to be very explicitly atmospheric; it’s sometimes as if you can almost taste the weather around the castle.

One thing that was very important to me was definitely a sense of atmosphere, but in creating an atmosphere it was important that the whole space of the theater resound – that it should feel like being inside Hamlet’s head.

I managed that in a couple of ways. One was to have two groups of instruments up in the gods, a mirrored trio on either side of clarinet, trumpet and percussion, and the other was to have a group of singers, which I refer to as the semichorus, with the orchestra, creating a link between the sung world of the stage and the instrumental world of the pit. The musicians who are upstairs make all sorts of sounds with all sorts of things, including stones that are cracked together. There’s an earthiness about a lot of the sounds they make. There’s a primal aspect to the sound that takes you out of just being in an opera house.

This sense of theater was important. Neil Armfield, the director, said that you have to take into account that in this piece where so much happens, where there’s so much intrigue and so much philosophy, it’s only when the players arrive that there’s truth – and, for Hamlet, genuine love – in the air. It’s only in theater that we come to the real McCoy, as it were.

Within the orchestra, a lot is made of this one chord. Could you describe it to me?

It’s only four notes, but you can do a lot with four notes. Wagner’s “Tristan” chord is only four notes as well, although it resolves to another chord of four notes. Although it wasn’t conscious, I swear to God, there are similarities between my so-called “Hamlet” chord and the “Tristan” chord, in that they both have the same augmented fourth – a tritone – at the base of it, F and B.

My chord is based on a pair of open, perfect fifths going upward: B, F sharp, C sharp, which is this very open sound, not unknown in American music – it’s that vista music, Copland and so on. But as soon as you color it, destabilize it with the F and the tritone at the bottom, it becomes very different.

Where did that idea come from?

It was a passing moment in an earlier piece of mine called “Dispersal.” I heard a performance of it just prior to starting work on “Hamlet.” There was this moment with a big buildup that landed on that chord, set in brass, as a kind of fanfare, and it captivated me as a moment of highest tension.

The thing about this chord is that it has that sense of needing to move somewhere else. I started playing around with it, and, indeed, the piece starts just with an open fifth, the B and the F sharp. B also is a prominent note in the score. It’s bang in the middle of Allan’s register; it’s bang in the middle of the treble stave; it’s called H in German.

We last spoke for a story about the influence of Berg’s “Wozzeck” and, like that opera, your “Hamlet” has a big crescendo on a B as well.

Yeah, there were these things emerging. So it starts with the first open fifth, which has this kind of Wagnerian, “Rheingold” feeling to it, setting up an open expanse, then, not long into it, the low F natural comes in against the F sharp above, which really disturbs it. The chorus sing “Dust, quintessence of dust” on that chord, even before Hamlet has sung his first opening lines.

That’s how it started, and then I worked on ways it wants to expand. Wagner mapped out all his progressions almost to the word of where his motives went. For me, it was a lot more instinctive; there’s a lot of my process that is, well, “We’ll see where this goes.” It was, though, a place to return to.

There’s another example where I add a low C natural and turn it into this breathless and restless ostinato: In Scene 6, after the performance of the play, when Claudius storms out and Hamlet realizes he’s caught his man, he sings, “Now could I drink hot blood. ” Then it returns in the point in the final scene, where he sings “the point envenomed, too” and has decided that Claudius is going to meet his maker. There’s this push that spurs him on.

Could you sum up its dramatic function as a whole?

The thing about the chord is that because of its need to move – not necessarily to resolve in the “Tristan” chord way – it seemed to encapsulate that the situation demands action. But Hamlet is undecided what that action should be, which is somehow his tragedy.

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