• Giles Swayne
  • The Murder of Gonzago (2001)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)
  • 1111/1000
  • 20 min

Programme Note

In the second act of Hamlet, a company of strolling players arrives at Elsinore, and Hamlet asks them to put on a play called "The Murder of Gonzago” and to insert into it a speech "of some dozen or sixteen lines” written by him. The performance of this play- a wonderful spoof of early Tudor drama at its most hammy- is interrupted after only two scenes by Claudius’ guilty rage. But Shakespeare considerately provided a synopsis of the entire drama in the form of a musical dumb-show, and it is this that I have taken as the basis for my piece, which is the musical reconstruction of the "play-within-the-play” (as it is generally called), the wind quintet representing both the theatre band and the drama itself.

Here is Shakespeare’s dumb-show:

"Enter a King and Queen very lovingly; the Queen embracing him, and he her. She kneels, and makes a show of protestation unto him. He takes her up and declines his head upon her neck; lays him down on a bank of flowers; she, seeing him asleep, leaves him. Anon comes in a fellow, takes off his crown, kisses it, and pours poison in the king’s ear, and exit. The Queen returns, finds the King dead, and makes passionate action. The Poisoner, with some two or three Mutes, comes in again, seeming to lament with her. The dead body is carried away. The Poisoner woos the Queen with gifts; she seems loth and unwillingly awhile, but in the end accepts his love."

There are three characters; the King, Gonzago; the Queen, Baptista; and the villain, whom Shakespeare called Lucianus but whom I have Italiansed as Luciano.

My piece is in ten short movements. First comes the Overture, which encapsulates the drama and is dominated by a brash, rather brutal motive, which represents the power of evil. Next is the Prologue, in which one of the actors comes in and craves the patience and attention of the noble spectators. He is characterised by the bassoon. The third movement, "Gonzago and Baptista", is the first scene of the play. Baptista vows undying fidelity to her lord after his death:

"A second time I kill my husband dead
When second husband kisses me in bed.”

Gonzago is somewhat cynical about her protestations and falls asleep. We hear his breathing slow down until he is snoring; at which point Baptista tiptoes out.

The fourth movement, "Luciano", introduces the villain of the piece in the form of a malevolent bass clarinet. Gonzago sleeps throughout, represented by long quiet notes on the horn. Luciano trickles poison into Gonzago’s ear and sneaks out. The fifth movement, "Gonzago’s Death", shows the action of the poison and Gonzago’s agonised writhings and cries. At the end we hear his pulse slow down and cease, as in those inevitable hospital scenes in American thrillers. At the beginning of the sixth movement, "Baptista’s Lament", Baptista comes fussing in on her stiletto heels, having heard a cry or groan. Finding Gonzago dead, she launches into a splendidly operatic grief-scene, her concern being almost exclusively for her own predicament. The first part of this movement is for solo flute, and ends in a dramatic semi-swoon ("Ah me! My smelling salts!”) She then pulls herself together and begins to grieve more publicly, but a jaunty little syncopated figure in the accompaniment indicates a certain secret relish of her new freedom. At the end of the movement she collects herself and after a final grief-laden wail, "swoons” completely.

Enter Luciano the baddie, who, in the seventh movement, "Luciano’s Lament", puts on a horribly convincing display of grief and sympathy. Marked ‘hideously caring’ and accompanied by crocodile sobbing, the bass clarinet oils its way into Baptista’s feelings in the most sinister way. The eighth movement is "Gonzago’s Dead March". The ninth is "Luciano and Baptista", in which Baptista (cor anglais) protests her undying love fidelity to her dead Lord. Luciano makes his first move; Baptista furiously rejects him. He tries again more insistently; she hesitates, and they trill together suggestively. Then they launch into a grotesque waltz, and dance away together. The last movement is a reprise of all the nastiest elements of the Overture called "The Triumph of Evil".