The murder of Gonzago

for wind quintet
20 mins.

1. Overture
2. Prologue
3. Gonzagao and Baptista
4. Luciano
5. Gonzagao’s Death
6. Baptista’s Lament
7. Luciano’s Lament
8. Gonzago’s Dead March
9. Luciano & Baptista
10. The Triumph of Evil

Programme notes

The murder of Gonzago was commissioned by the Marais Ensemble, and first performed by them in a concert for the Cheltenham Music Society at the Pittville Pump Room on 7th October 2001.

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 written by him. The performance of this play – a spoof of Tudor drama at its most hammy – is interrupted after two scenes by Claudius’ guilty rage. But Shakespeare kindly provided a synopsis of the whole drama in the form of a dumb-show; and it is this that I have taken as the basis for my piece, which is a musical reconstruction of the “play-within-the-play” – the wind quintet representing both the theatre band and the drama itself:

“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 unwilling 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 Italianised as Luciano.

The murder of Gonzago is in ten short movements. First comes the Overture, which encapsulates the drama and is dominated by a brash, brutal motive which represents the power of evil. Next is the Prologue, in which one of the actors craves the 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 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 stop. At the beginning of the sixth, Baptista’s Lament, Baptista comes fussing in on her stiletto heels, having heard a cry or groan. Finding Gonzago dead, she launches into an operatic grief-scene – her concern being exclusively for her own predicament. The first part of this movement is for solo flute, and ends in a dramatic semi-swoon. She 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: her hair might even turn gold from grief. At the end of the movement, after a final grief-laden wail, she “swoons” completely.

Enter Luciano, 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 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, and is called The Triumph of Evil.

Giles Swayne 2001