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Funeral March for the last scene of Hamlet
From Tristia, no. 3 (H 103 and 119B)

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Excerpts from Berlioz’s correspondence
Funeral March for the last scene of Hamlet

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    The Funeral March for the Last Scene of Hamlet (H 103) was first published in 1852 as the last of a group of three pieces for chorus and orchestra which had the collective title Tristia (H 119), the other two being the Religious Meditation (on a poem by Thomas Moore; H 56) and the ballad The Death of Ophelia (on a poem by Berlioz’s friend Ernest Legouvé; H 92). The 3 pieces were originally conceived and composed separately at different times, and only later brought together by Berlioz. It may be helpful to outline briefly the history of each and of the evolving collection of Tristia, with particular reference to Berlioz’s own writings, and especially his correspondence which provides the fullest evidence. Excerpts from the most important letters are cited in a separate section below if they are not already reproduced elsewhere on the site.

    (1) The Religious Meditation is the only one of the 3 pieces to be mentioned by Berlioz in his Memoirs (near the end of chapter 39, where Berlioz refers to the limited number of works he managed to compose in Rome):

To complete this very short list of my Roman compositions, [I should mention] a religious meditation for six voices with orchestral accompaniment, based on a prose translation of a poem by Thomas Moore (This whole world is nothing but a fleeting shadow). It is the first piece of my opus 18, which is called Tristia.

    The composition of the work is fixed to the year 1831 by a reference in a letter to Ferdinand Hiller dated 1st January 1832 (CG no. 256), which also shows that the original version only included wind instruments but no strings; the date of 1831 is confirmed by another letter much later, dated 4 May 1864 (CG no. 2856). The autograph of the final revised version published in 1852 (see below) bears the precise date 4 August 1831, which presumaably is that of the original composition. The work is one of several which shows Berlioz’s enduring enthusiasm for the writings of Thomas Moore.

    (2) The composition of the original version of the Ballad on the Death of Ophelia is dated to May 1842 by a letter of the 8th of that month addressed to Ernest Legouvé, the author of the poem which was adapted from Shakespeare (CG no. 769bis). The opening of the melody of the ballad carries a discreet echo of the idée fixe of the Symphonie fantastique, i.e. to Harriet Smithson, which is presumably deliberate: the work was composed at a time when Berlioz’s marriage was failing, and Ophelia is one of the two Shakespearean roles in which Harriet Smithson had made such an impression on Berlioz at the Odéon theatre in Paris on 11 and 15 September 1827. The ballad thus has a valedictory quality.

    (3) The composition of the Funeral March for the last scene of Hamlet came last, and is dated to around November 1844 by a reference in a letter of Berlioz to his sister Nancy (CG no. 924). It was originally intended for a production in French of Hamlet at the Odéon theatre which in the event did not take place. The work was subsequently revised, and the autograph score bears the date 22 September 1848. This march and the Death of Ophelia are the only music that Berlioz wrote for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In May 1834 there had been talk of getting Berlioz to write the music for a projected opera on the subject of Hamlet at the Paris Opéra, but there is no further information about this project which came to nothing (CG no. 398). It may be that Hamlet lent itself rather less readily to musical and operatic treatment than other works of Shakespeare, such as Romeo and Juliet.

    For whatever reason Berlioz waited a long time before publishing any of these 3 pieces. The first to be published was the Death of Ophelia in its original piano version, which appeared very early in 1848 in Paris, while Berlioz was in London. Coincidentally or not, Berlioz was soon working on a revised version of the song, for women’s voices and orchestral accompaniment, for use in a projected concert at Covent Garden which was to be composed of works of his inspired by Shakespeare (CG nos. 1179, 1185). The plan fell through, possibly because of Berlioz’s insistence on sufficient rehearsal time; the orchestration was nevertheless completed (the autograph score bears the date 4 July 1848 in London), but it remained unpublished for several years. As seen in the previous paragraph, Berlioz also revised the Hamlet funeral march and completed its definitive version: he was clearly anxious to complete his two compositions on the subject of Hamlet.

    In 1849 Berlioz now published together two of the three pieces: the Religious Meditation, which now appeared for the first time, together with the Death of Ophelia, under the title Tristia. This collection is in several respects somewhat puzzling. It excluded the recently completed choral and orchestral version of the Death of Ophelia, and reverted to the original version for solo voice with piano accompaniment. The Religious Meditation was an arrangement for chorus, piano, violin and cello, made by the pianist Louise Matteman (who is mentioned several times in Berlioz’s feuilletons), and not the original version with wind instruments, nor the final version with small orchestra (which may have been completed before Matteman’s arrangement, if that arrangement was based on it). The collection also excluded the Hamlet march of which the completed full score was now in existence. It is not known what was in Berlioz’s mind when he issued this reduced collection in this particular format.

    It was only in 1852 that Berlioz finally issued all 3 pieces, now in their developed orchestral version, again under the title Tristia (Sorrows). The title was now explained: it was that of a collection of poems by the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC –AD 17), with whom Berlioz had no doubt become acquainted while learning Latin as a boy under his father’s guidance. Ovid wrote these poems while in exile on the Black Sea, and published them in Rome between AD 9 and 12. He died in exile without having been able to obtain from the emperor permission to return to Rome. A quotation from the first poem is added after the title Tristia, and shows how much the music meant to Berlioz (see CG no. 2856). But as Berlioz remarked sadly, he never heard any of the music performed (CG nos. 2320, 2856). The projected Shakespearean concert of 1848 in London did not take place. It is known that in 1850 the Société Philharmonique, which Berlioz had just founded in Paris, did consider including the Hamlet march in one of its concerts, as shown by the minutes of the meeting of the committee on 25 June 1850, but in the event no action was taken (this document is preserved at the Berlioz Museum in La Côte-Saint-André). Early in 1852 Berlioz toyed with the idea of performing the Death of Ophelia in an English translation at one of his concerts at Exeter Hall in London, but again the idea did not materialise (CG no. 1448). Nowadays performances of Tristia are infrequent, and it is not hard to see why: Tristia is too serious and sombre in tone, particularly the concluding March, to achieve easy popularity. Yet it contains some of Berlioz’s deepest and most moving music, and it reveals an aspect of his personality that is easily overlooked. Though composed of 3 originally separate pieces, the work forms a convincing whole which progresses naturally from one piece to the next. Tonally, the semitonal progression from G major (Meditation), to A flat major (Ophelia), to A minor (Hamlet march) is striking. Moore’s poem (This whole world is but a fleeting shadow) carries an obvious echo of Shakespeare’s Life’s but a walking shadow, which Berlioz quotes both at the start and at the end of his own Memoirs, and it thus binds the whole collection together.

Excerpts from Berlioz’s correspondence

CG = Correspondance générale

To Ferdinand Hiller (CG no. 256; 1 January 1832)

You would like to know what I have done since my arrival in Italy […] and another chorus on a few words of Moore with an accompaniment of seven wind instruments. It was composed in Rome one day when I was dying of spleen, and bears the title: « Psalmody for those who have suffered greatly and whose soul is sad to the point of death ».

To Ernest Legouvé (CG no. 769bis [vol. VIII p. 192-3]; 8 May 1842)

When you come to Paris, please let me know. I would like to let you hear what I wrote last week on your charming lines on The Death of Ophelia (which I had lost and then found again). If this music pleases you, I will orchestrate the piano accompaniment for a nice little orchestra and I might get the whole piece performed at one of my concerts.

To the publisher Gemmy Brandus (CG no. 1179; 24 February 1848, from London)

At Covent Garden they are busy preparing the Musical Shakespeare’s Night which you have mentioned in the Gazette Musicale. I will be giving there Romeo (in English), King Lear, The Tempest (in Italian), and the Ballad on the Death of Ophelia (women’s chorus with orchestra). At the moment the question is to know whether I can be granted 15 rehearsals with the chorus and 5 with the orchestra. I will not agree without this.

To Adolphe Duchêne de Vère (CG no. 1448; 10 February 1852)

For my part I have in mind to go and bother Mme Duchêne again to make changes to the English translation of my ballad on The Death of Ophelia which she was kind enough to do. There are a few places where a change in the word order would make the words correspond exactly with the music.
I believe this will be sung at one of my concerts with the orchestra and the chorus of women. Please excuse me for this indiscretion.

To Baron von Donop (CG no. 2320; 2 October 1858)

I have also written another collection called Tristia, which contains a Hymn for six voices by Moore, a ballad for a chorus of women’s voices on the death of Ophelia, and the funeral march with invisible chorus and large orchestra for the end of Hamlet; I have never heard a single bar of this; it is published in full score; but who is interested in this?

To Humbert Ferrand (CG no. 2856; 4 May 1864)

    Tell me whether I have sent you a score with the title Tristia [Sorrows], with this epigraph from Ovid [Tristia I.13-14]:

Qui viderit illas [sc. lituras]
De lacrymis factas sentiet esse meis.
[He who sees them (the blots on my text)
Will know that they were caused by my tears]

    If you do not have it I will send it to you, since you like reading things that are joyful. I have never heard this work. I think the first chorus in prose:

« This whole world is nothing but a fleeting shadow »

    is something. I wrote it in Rome in 1831.

Funeral March for the last scene of Hamlet

    The autograph score is prefaced with a quotation (in French translation) from the end of Hamlet (Act V Scene II; Fortinbras speaks):

Let four captains
Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage;
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have prov’d most royally: and for his passage
The soldier’s music, and the rites of war,
Speak loudly for him.
Take up the bodies: – such a sight as this
Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.
Go, bid the soldiers shoot.

    The March shows clearly the influence of the second movement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony, for which Berlioz had a special admiration. It is in the same key of A minor and based on the same rhythm; unlike the symphony, it does not have a contrasting section in the major, but there is frequent shifting in the March between minor and major keys. One of the most telling strokes in the score is the use of a wordless chorus, placed behind the scene: the intermittent cries of Ah! are infinitely more telling than any words could be. The idea may have been developed by Berlioz from the Beethoven symphony, and could be seen as an imaginative extension of the opening sigh of the wind and horns at the start of the movement (a chord of A minor), which then recurs at the very end to round off the movement with another sigh. In Berlioz’s score the chorus similarly starts and ends the movement, but is also heard intermittently during the march, sometimes softly, sometimes loudly like an exclamation of protest or horror. The chorus starts the movement with the tonic A, but ends it on a long held C natural, which is purposely ambiguous and seems to contradict the tonality of the final pizzicato of the strings (the fifth A and E). In his essay on the Beethoven symphony referred to above, Berlioz comments specifically on the ‘unresolved harmony’ with which that movement ends: the same applies to the March.

    Funeral March for the last scene of Hamlet (duration 6'20")
    — Score in large format
    (file created on 1.01.2000; revised 6.01.2001 and 4.01.2004)
    — Score in pdf format

© Michel Austin for all scores and text on this page.

This page revised and enlarged on 1 May 2022.

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