About this work

Shostakovich supposedly described Nikolai Akimov's 1932 production of Hamlet as "the most scandalous, they say, in the history of Shakespeare" (Testimony, The Memories of Dmitri Shostakovich, as related to and edited by Solomon Volkov, page 83), and, from all reports, he was not exaggerating. With all the characters drunk most of the time, with Polonius as the main character, with a decrepit and decadent court on the verge of terminal decay, Akimov's production was hardly appropriate for its time and place -- pre-Terror Russia under Stalin -- and it was quickly closed and banned. All that remains of the production is Shostakovich's music.

This music is best represented by the suite of 15 numbers which Shostakovich compiled from his complete incidental music. The music is in its essence satirical: popular music forms of the time are parodied in the dance numbers like "Chase" and "The Feast"; pomp and circumstance is parodied in the music for the court like the Introduction and the "March of Fortinbras"; sincere emotions are parodied in "Ophelia's Song" and the Lullaby; and even the Dies Irae chant is parodied in "Requiem." Scored for large theater orchestra, Shostakovich's music seems to catch the spirit of travesty and burlesque of Akimov's production.