Edinburgh Festival Day 12: The playing's the thing: When it comes to scoring Hamlet, no one understands Shakespeare quite like a Russian. Stephen Johnson reports

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The debate about Shakespeare's significance in modern education has died down for the moment. When (or if) it flares up again, here is a thought for the partisans to ponder: there have been no great British musical works inspired by any of the four great tragedies. Perhaps one might strain an exception in the case of Walton's suite for the Olivier Hamlet but, impressive as that is, how many would rank it with his Richard III or Henry V scores? And what are the other landmarks in this country's Shakespeare-inspired music? Elgar's Falstaff, Vaughan Williams's Serenade to Music (text from The Merchant of Venice) and Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream - in each case the mask, at least, is comic.

For enduring works on the central Shakespearian tragedies we have to look to the Continent: to masterpieces like Verdi's Macbeth and Otello, or to lesser but still significant achievements like Berlioz's King Lear overture and Death of Ophelia, Liszt's Hamlet, Richard Strauss's astonishing Ophelia Songs - and, of course, to the Russians. Growth of interest in Shakespeare among Russian composers was comparatively late. German composers had been registering the cultural impact of the magisterial Schlegel-Tieck translation since Beethoven had suggested a 'Tempest' programme for his D minor Piano Sonata, Op 31 No 2. The shock effect of the 1827 Kemble-Smithson Hamlet on Berlioz shows in the stream of Shakespeare projects that followed, and Italian operatic composers were soon working on librettos 'after' (often a long way after) the English dramatist.

It wasn't until the late 19th century that Russian composers began to take Shakespeare seriously. Was it the writer himself that first impressed them, one wonders, or the brilliant and passionate Berlioz and Liszt works inspired by him? On paper, Balakirev's King Lear overture of 1859 looks as if it ought to be a milestone, but it wasn't performed or published until this century. The composer's attraction to Shakespeare was to be more significant in the influence it had on others - particularly Tchaikovsky, to whom the patriarchal Balakirev sent not only subjects, but also theme- and key-schemes and even suggestions on orchestral colouring. Their first Shakespeare project, the 'Fantasy overture' Romeo and Juliet, delighted Balakirev, and soon Tchaikovsky was thinking of a successor - Hamlet? At first the composer doubted his ability to do justice to so 'formidable' a theme. In the end it was - as with Berlioz - a particular performance that gave him the push he needed. Seeing the Frenchman Lucien Guitry in a scene from Hamlet, he announced that he would gladly write music to the play, if Guitry himself would perform.

There were two musical consequences: the 'Fantasy overture' Hamlet of 1888 (the year of the Fifth Symphony) and the incidental music for Guitry that he completed in 1891 - having by then, it seems, lost all enthusiasm for the idea. 'Hamlet progresses,' he wrote, 'but what uncongenial work it is.' Much of it was simply rehashed from other sources, and interest today is rightly focused on the 'Fantasy overture'. Interestingly, given the powerful Oedipal content of Shakespeare's play, it was the Hamlet overture that exposed tensions in Tchaikovsky's relationship with Balakirev. Sensing, rightly, that his Fifth Symphony might not be to Balakirev's liking, Tchaikovsky hoped that a Hamlet piece - possibly another Romeo and Juliet? - might be an effective gesture of appeasement. It wasn't. Over Tchaikovsky's 'love theme' - at best a pallid successor to the great Romeo tune - Balakirev wrote: 'Hamlet pays Ophelia compliments, and presents her with an ice-cream.'

Whatever the personal attractions of Hamlet's tragedy for Tchaikovsky, the political angle doesn't seem to have interested him. In Stalin's Russia, however, composers could hardly avoid it. Eventually both Hamlet and Macbeth simply became too sensitive - plays about usurpers and their downfall weren't encouraged by 'Socialist Realism'. The date of Shostakovich's second Hamlet project - incidental music for Grigory Kozintsev's Leningrad production - is, significantly, 1954: the year after Stalin's death.

Shostakovich's involvement with Hamlet was long - and complicated. When, in 1932, he provided music for Nikolai Akimov's hyper-iconoclastic Moscow production - in which Hamlet was fat and pleasure-seeking, the ghost was a fake and Polonius, apparently, a caricature of Stanislavsky - he seems to have participated gleefully in the dissident Prince's deconstruction, as shown by the presence in the score of such numbers as a Galop (a favourite Shostakovich vehicle for depictions of hysterical triviality) and a Can-can.

While the music for the 1954 Kozintsev Hamlet is largely reworked from a 1941 score for King Lear, what Shostakovich wrote for Kozintsev's 1964 film version is original - in both senses of the word. The music is dark and disturbing enough even without the dialogue and on-screen images it supports so effectively. The ghost is now unmistakably an object of dread; Hamlet's barbed foolery in public and impotent agony in private obviously struck a deep personal chord - as did the constant dwelling on death. A theme from the gravediggers' scene - piped with mindless liveliness as the Prince interrogates clowns and skulls - turns up again in the Ninth Quartet, a work which in its later, almost painfully sparse recitatives comes as near to implying that 'the rest is silence' as anything in Shostakovich.

Prokofiev's incidental music to Hamlet, composed for a 1938 Leningrad staging, could hardly be more different. The composer's own notes on the music suggest a determined effort to meet the demands of Socialist Realism: 'The heroes die, the villains too, but life triumphs, the life that Shakespeare loves and in which he believes.' The culminating C major March is 'triumphant'. In the face of this energetic line-toeing it's delightful to find that the piece that proved most enduring was the 'Hamlet Gavotte', the music Prokofiev provided for the dumb-show scene, in which Hamlet hopes to 'catch the conscience of the King'. Here is Russian black humour at its best.

Gennadi Rozhdestvensky conducts Hamlet scores by Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Prokofiev tonight, 8pm Usher Hall

(Photograph omitted)