Published online by Cambridge University Press: 17 June 2013
Liszt composed the symphonic poem Hamlet towards the end of his tenure as Kapellmeister of the Weimar Court Theatre, a time when he regularly conducted operas, concerts, incidental music and variety performances. It was also a time when he frequently came into contact with artists, writers, musicians and actors. One actor in particular left a memorable impression: Bogumil Dawison. Dawison's style was unusual at the time; his performances were noted for their aggression, expressiveness and energy, and many praised the flexibility of his voice and face. Dawison aimed for a realistic approach in response to Goethe's Classicism, but the result was closer to the melodramatic style that was gaining in popularity at the time. His portrayal of Hamlet was particularly innovative, and it captured Liszt's imagination shortly before he composed the symphonic poem inspired by Shakespeare's tragedy.
The relationship between the world of the theatre (particularly spoken theatre) and the symphonic poems has never before been explored in Liszt scholarship, yet, as this article reveals, spoken theatre had a significant influence on Hamlet. Indeed, this article will draw new stylistic and conceptual parallels between this symphonic poem and both melodrama as a genre and its related ‘melodramatic’ style of acting. The article argues that Dawison's influence can be traced in Liszt's approach to this work and that a ‘melodramatic reading’ can enable us to interpret some of its more puzzling aspects.
This work was supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The author would like to thank Professor Kenneth Hamilton for reading an earlier version of this article. Any mistakes of fact or interpretation are mine alone.
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