Joachim’s Hamlet Overture
Notes by TŌN horn player Ethan Brozka
Joseph Joachim is known by many people solely because of his career as a performer. He was a violin virtuoso in the most outsized 19th-century way. His reputation was, and remains still, larger than life. But besides being Brahms’ favorite violinist, a pedagogical authority, and a sought-after performer all across Europe, Joachim was also a hard-working and well-studied, if relatively unprolific, composer. He lived in the era in which Romanticism was nearing its peak and the link between poetry and music was becoming more functional and symbiotic, in the style of Liszt.
Hamlet is the subject of our first piece, and since the narrative of this play is considered far ahead of its time, one could easily argue that the content of the play is downright Romantic. There’s an introspective hero, copious amounts of dramatic irony, unrequited love, a usurped throne, and plenty of other poignant material around which to craft a dramatic musical narrative. The play’s eponymous hero is perhaps the most Romantic element of all. Hamlet is told from the first scene to avenge his father’s untimely death, and despite this very clear instruction, he spends the duration of the play in emotional and moral turmoil, struggling with how to do the deed. This in itself is a vivid portrayal of the archetypal Romantic hero. You’ll hear this turmoil reflected in the music—indecisive and mysterious—as well as hints of Brahms and Berlioz.
This overture may be new to many listeners, and it did meet with limited success when it was first premiered in several places throughout Europe. The composer worked diligently and tirelessly on this piece for many years, sending drafts to his mentors and revising furiously, never quite satisfied with the results. Joachim believed in one case that the orchestra was at fault, writing in a letter, “Yes, if only they were all sensitive souls! — but the musicians blow and bow the notes so coarsely — and what in my mind was a sigh or a joyful Ach! was a crass horn tone — a screechy fiddle bow noise — why are there so many workmen, only!!” The work has been more present in orchestral programming in the past half-century, however, and Joachim is posthumously widening his reputation beyond being solely a violinist.