Shakespeare400: Hamlet on Film

Our pre-concert event on Wednesday 27 January will feature our Principal Conductor Vladimir Jurowski conducting the LPO’s Foyle Future Firsts in a selection from Shostakovich’s darkly satirical score to Grigori Kosintsev’s 1964 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In preparation, we had a look at Shostakovich’s score, as well as two other film adaptations of Hamlet to explore three differing musical takes on Shakespeare’s tragic work.

Shostakovich, like many Russians, had an obsession with the character of Hamlet, and his treatment of Shakespeare’s tragic protagonist in fact took form more than three decades before Kosintsev’s film – as incidental music for Nikolai Akimov’s scandalous stage production in 1932.  Like the stage version, Kosintsev’s film adaption is treated satirically – and this remains notable in Shostakovich’s film suite (of which Kosintsev made sure to re-use), treating the play as something of a farcical comedy rather than a tragedy, and often focused upon light-hearted, quasi-period motifs. Have a listen to the music Shostakovich uses to accompany the opening ball at the palace:

Shostakovich: Hamlet Suite - The Ball at the Palace

Shostakovich: Hamlet Suite, Op. 116 - The Ball At The Palace

Theodore Kuchar
Ukraine National Symphony Orchestra

Yet despite the comedic approach to Shakespeare’s work, Shostakovich was also able to conjure moments of darkness in the play – using a mysterious brass chorale to characterize the ghost of Hamlet’s father, alongside Kosintsev’s ghostly imagery:

Hamlet (1964) - Directed by Grigori Kozintsev - Meeting with Hamlet's Father's ghost

Hamlet (1964) - Directed by Grigori Kozintsev.

British composer William Walton was also notable for his musical treatment of Shakespeare’s works; his score for Olivier’s 1944 Henry V bringing him significant recognition. Walton’s score for the 1948 version of Hamlet is particularly atmospheric – perfectly matching the dark imagery of spiralled staircases and claustrophobic corridors. With its clashing chords, and tense low strings, Walton’s score turns Shakespeare’s play into a contemporary thriller, as Hamlet (played by Laurence Olivier) sets out to expose the crimes of his uncle.

olivier a1s5 ghost's story

Hamlet (1948) Hamlet meets his Father's ghost.

Franco Zeffereli’s 1990 film takes a somewhat different approach, treating the sequences and its soundtrack as a typical action film – and with the film’s composer, Ennio Morricone, notable for his musical scores for Hollywood Westerns, this was surely a perfect fit for Zeffereli’s overall vision. Starring a young Mel Gibson as the heart-throb Danish prince, Morricone’s themes draw out the poignancy of Shakespeare’s plot: using melancholic strings to truly symbolize the ultimate tragedy of the play.

ENNIO MORRICONE - 01 - Hamlet(Version 1) 1990

Hamlet (1990) Hamlet's theme.

All three of these film scores offer alternative approaches to Shakespeare’s Hamlet: the parody, the thriller, the tragedy. Yet it is clear that each treatment symbolizes a product of its time, reflecting the changes in popular film and music culture, and proving that Shakespeare can be ever-changing and undoubtedly current.


Don’t miss our free pre-concert performance of Shostakovich’s Hamlet Suite on Wednesday 27 January at 6.00pm, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski followed by a performance of Shostakovich’s Cello Concerto No. 2 and Bruckner’s Third Symphony.