XIIth National Musicology Conference of the Musicological Association of Australia (MSA)

University of New England (UNE), Armidale 24 - 27 September 1989


Pompili, Claudio. 1989. Ophelia: Woman or Wimp? (or Daddy was a nice guy ... really). Reflections on the composition and interpretation implications of Songs for Ophelia. (Armidale: MSA XIIth National Conference).

All rights reserved. Claudio Pompili©1989


The content of this paper will be a discussion on the general background and nature of the composition, the character portrayal, a technical analysis, and the performance implications of my recently completed Songs for Ophelia from Shakespeare's play, Hamlet. The theatrical and musical presentation, including sound design, was a collaboration between Dr Geoffrey Borny (UNE Drama Department) and myself. This paper is intended as an adjunct to the performance of the Songs to be given by Felicity Horgan at the Conference's Opening Concert.

Two unified and complementary aspects of Ophelia 'the woman' will be discussed and illustrated by examples from the theatrical and concert presentations of the composition Songs for Ophelia.


Armidale, September 1989

Claudio Pompili (click to go to Claudio's Home Page)


Sound bytes: click here to go to Songs for Ophelia recording by Felicity Horgan.


Table of Contents
1. Background and Nature of Composition
1.1. Director's considerations
1.2. Composer's considerations
2. Character portrayal
3. Analysis
3.1. Pitch Organisation
3.1.1. The Mad songs (approximate-pitch)
3.1.2. The Sad songs (exact-pitch)
3.1.3. The Bawdy songs (approximate-pitch and exact-pitch)
4. Performance Implications
5. Conclusion
7. Postlude


Table of Sound Examples
Sound Example 1: Felicity singing He is dead and gone excerpt (dur c. 0:22 ) 7
Sound Example 2: Felicity singing How should I your true love know? (dur c. 0:40) 10
Sound Example 3: Felicity singing And will 'a not come again? excerpt (dur c. 1:02) 16
Sound Example 4: Felicity singing Tomorrow is St Valentine's Day (dur c. 0:20)
Sound Example 5: Felicity singing And I a maid (dur 0:45) and Before you tumbled me (dur 0:49) 21


My paper will be a discussion on the general background and nature of the composition, the character portrayal, a technical analysis, and the performance implications of my recently completed Songs for Ophelia from Shakespeare's play, Hamlet. The theatrical and musical presentation, including sound design, was a collaboration between Dr Geoffrey Borny (UNE Drama Dept) and myself.

I intend to discuss only briefly the rôle and character of Ophelia. The manner in which she has been generally represented in the theatre is, I believe, tainted with dated and inappropriate views of the rôle of women which do not stem directly from the text, in particular the song texts, as provided by Shakespeare - in other words, Ophelia as a subservient wimp. Of utmost importance to me from the outset was the portrayal of Ophelia with greater depth of character, that is, as a real woman.

Two unified and complementary aspects of Ophelia 'the woman' will be discussed and illustrated by examples from the theatrical and concert presentations of the composition Songs for Ophelia.

NB: Score examples are used to illustrate the text in this analysis. The score used is the concert version for soprano.
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1. Background and Nature of Composition

Initially, there were two aspects of the background to the compositional process to consider: the director's and the composer's requirements.

1.1.     Firstly, the Director's considerations. These break down into general and specific categories:

1.1.1. General guidelines

Geoffrey Borny asked that I observe certain criteria as general guidelines and set the playing field for the production:

  • a much bolder Ophelia than usually presented, set in an expressionistic style;
  • a feminist Ophelia;
  • a clarity of text setting;
  • musical materials or requirements not to get in the way of the acting;
  • no 'wall-paper' music; and
  • he would heed musical requirements whenever possible.
1.1.2. The specific considerations of the Ophelia settings were:
  • firstly, Geoffrey and I decided that, for our purposes, the song texts fell into three basic types which we categorised as: 'mad', 'sad', and 'bawdy';
  • secondly, the setting had to take into consideration the delivery by an actor without vocal training but some musical background (Meg Mumford) [Meg was an Bachelor of Arts Honours student at the time]. Meg's comfortable vocal range extended from A below middle C to an octave above middle C. From the outset, I felt the range to be a limitation and considered ways to extend it; and
  • thirdly, bearing in mind Meg's vocal abilities, I decided to notate some of the songs with approximate-pitch and the rest with exact-pitch as illustrated by the first two songs How should I your true love know? and He is dead and gone.

Figure 1: Songs for Ophelia - How should I your true love know? and He is dead and gone

ophelia songs fig1


Score notation performance notes:

Approximate-pitch notation: is approximate in the areas of pitch and rhythm. The pitch notation uses a five-line stave with a range of note positions from D at the bottom of the stave to G at the top of the stave. It is intended to fit the comfortable range of any female voice and is not to be interpreted literally. Durations are intended to be interpreted according to the time-proportion notation and improvised according to the text and the performer's taste.

Exact-pitch notation: is a conventional five-line stave but approximate in the area of rhythm.

1.2.     The second aspect of the compositional process under discussion is the Composer's considerations.

I wanted to produce a set of songs that would be tailor-made for the actor, Meg Mumford, but very early in the composing phase I felt the need for them to go beyond the drama stage and be able to be performed in a concert setting. I decided to write a song cycle that I hoped would be able to fulfil both ends. The implications of this were, as outlined in the table at Figure below.

Figure 2: Comparison of concert and stage versions



1. I set all of Shakespeare's text to music

1. Too much music - some musical material would be deleted

2. I wanted a slow pacing for the sad songs

2. the slow pacing would impede the dramatic flow

3. the sad songs require a trained soprano voice of lyrical quality

3. I had to make sure that the lyrical writing would not be beyond the actor's vocal ability

4. As the composition progressed, the vocal quality I had in mind materialised in the lyric soprano voice of Felicity Horgan

4. I maintained and exploited the dramatic possibilities of the actor's voice

5. the songs of exact-pitch had to be transposed up for Felicity's higher voice

5. the songs of exact-pitch were set for the Meg's low voice

2. Character portrayal

Ophelia sings these songs in Act IV, Scene v, after the death and hurried burial of her father, Polonius. Her emotions are intended to range from wry contempt to sublime grief.

Essentially there were three types of songs that had to be set:

  • the mad songs would be largely gestural and use the voice in an unusual mode. These songs are melodically disjunct in style and express Ophelia's onset of madness. Approximate-pitch notation is used.
  • the sad songs are exact-pitched. The melodic style is lyrical/cantabile (they are to be sung in a late-Romantic German style eg Richard Strauss' Four Last Songs or Mahler). They are intended to convey a sense of other-worldliness. Ophelia sings of her dead father; she has transcended earthly aspirations; paradoxically, this is Ophelia at her most lucid.
  • the bawdy songs are to be immediately accessible. They are, Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's Day, And I a Maid, and Before you tumbled me. In the song, And I a Maid, I opted for a quasi-modal, satirical, Brechtian style.

3. Analysis

Not all of the songs in the cycle will be analysed because of time constraints. Only the songs How should I your true love know?, And will ‘a not come again? and And I a Maid will be discussed in some detail to illustrate compositional techniques.

3.1. Pitch Organisation

In the notation, you will note that there are essentially only three types of note durations: long, short and grace notes.

Figure 3: Score symbols

ophelia songs fig3

Accidentals only affect the notes they precede

NB: in my handwritten manuscript I employed the short-note symbol as in the Figure above. When I subsequently computer-typeset the music in Coda Software's Finale (computer music notation application) I utilised a diamond-shaped note-head for the short-note symbol.

3.1.1. The Mad songs

The approximate-pitched mad songs are gestural and intuitive in their structure. The setting means to convey a shocking effect. In this first song, How should I your true love know? (see Figure 1 above), there is no dramatic preparation for Ophelia's entrance and her condition is to be conveyed by the manner of her unusual voice production and comportment. Her staccato and disjunct melismas prepare for complementary lyrical melismas in the later sad songs.

I will play a video followed by an audio example of How should I your true love know?  performed by Meg and Felicity respectively.

Video Example 5: video tape of Meg performing How should I your true love know? (dur 0:40)

Sound Example 6: video tape of Felicity performing How should I your true love know? (dur 0:40)

In the following analytical discussion I will use Allan Forte's nomenclature of interval-classes, or ic's, to refer to intervallic materials.

Figure 4: Interval-classes and diatonic interval equivalents


Diatonic Interval equivalents

1 inverse-related to 11

m2 or M7

2 inverse-related to 10

M2 or m7

3 inverse-related to 9

m3 or M6

4 inverse-related to 8

M3 or m6

5 inverse-related to 7

P4 or P5

6 inverse-related to 6

aug4 or dim5

Put simply, the 12 intervals within the octave reduce down to 6 interval classes (ic's) because of the inversion relationship. Inverse-related intervals are defined as equivalent, and consequently are paired off as shown above.

3.1.2. The Sad songs

The exact-pitched sad songs are based largely on an interval-class series set (2,1,2) as contained in the tetrachords of the Dorian mode (refer to the Figure below). Another ic series set (1,2,3) was used to introduce the interval of the minor third and to interrupt periodically the stream of ic series sets (2,1,2).

Figure 5: Dorian mode and ic series sets (2,1,2) and (1,2,3)

ophelia songs fig5

As a rule, in And will ’a not come again?, the ic series set (2,1,2) was used twice, followed by ic series set (1,2,3); then two more appearances of set (2,1,2). Each subsequent appearance of sets (2,1,2) and (1,2,3) was cyclically permutated.

Figure 6: And will ’a not come again? score

ophelia songs fig6

If we look briefly at this song, we can see how the ic sets are employed. Section (a) - containing the music between the left and right square brackets, from the beginning to the middle of the second stave - is a literal repeat of the pitch and durations of the earlier song, White His Shroud. Sections (b) and (c) are literal repeats of the song, He is dead and gone, except for the point between the end of section (b) and the beginning of section (c) where the ic (1,2,3) is omitted in this instance.

Specifically, at the second half of the second stave at the "Poco più mosso" marking, and beginning on the words "No, No", the process described previously, continues with two appearances of ic series set (2,1,2), followed by ic series set (1,2,3); then two more appearances of set (2,1,2) and so on.

The next sound example is of Felicity Horgan singing And will ’a not come again?

Sound Example 10: Felicity singing And will ’a not come again? (dur 2:36)

3.1.3. The Bawdy songs

There are three bawdy songs, Tomorrow is Saint Valentine's Day, And I a Maid, and Before you tumbled me. The pitch notation for And I a Maid is exact, for the other two it is approximate.

The song And I a maid uses a different pitch structure from any of the other songs. I wanted to establish a quasi-modal sound based on the pitch centre D to suggest Ophelia's mental state. I made a point of using the G#/Ab in exposed positions to give a feeling of Lydian mode (see Figure 5 above). This song uses the ic set (3,4,5,6) in a free manner. The song is composed of two complementary sections, parts (b) and (c), which interlink over the textual scheme of the verses. The song is highly derisory in nature, hence the heading at the first stave, "à la Brecht".

Figure 7: And I a Maid score

ophelia songs fig7

Ophelia's madness - actually at its most rational and damning, commenting on the bitter cruelty of female/male relationships - on stage becomes unrestrained lewdness in the presence of the King: she lifts her skirts to bare herself and to mock his Majesty at the end of this song on the words By cock they are to blame.

Before you tumbled me is set in a style similar to the first song in the cycle, How should I your true love know?  After Ophelia speaks the part "Quoth she," she launches into the song in a high register (suggesting childishness and immaturity). When she responds, mimicking a man, she does so in a lower register with cutting irony.

Figure 8: Before you tumbled me score

ophelia songs fig8

The greatest variation between the stage and concert versions of the Songs occurs at this point. We shall see Meg Mumford perform the last two of these songs on video and I will contrast this with Felicity Horgan's concert version.

Video Example 12: video tape of Meg performing and an excerpt from And I a Maid and Before you tumbled me (dur 1:35)

Sound Example 13: Felicity singing And I a maid (dur 0:45) and Before you tumbled me (dur 0:49)

4. Performance Implications

As we have seen and heard, two very different yet valid interpretations can emerge. This was achieved through various means which have implications in performance: firstly, the total presentation of the performer and secondly, the basic musical materials (intervallic and rhythmic).

Regarding the first case, in performances of either stage or concert versions, there are two essential differences: the use of body movement and the manner of voice delivery. I indicated two ways of delivering the songs.

The first type of delivery, intended for the concert stage, should differentiate between the sad and the mad/bawdy songs. The sad songs should employ a lyrical and yet dark voice that emanates from the vocal apparatus. The body movements are to be natural. The mad/bawdy songs should use little body movement and all expression should come from the voice and facial animation, akin to a dumb show.

The second type of delivery is most suited to a staged version. The sad songs should still project the qualities already mentioned, that is, lucidity, calmness, etc; but the performer's body should be quite still and all expression should be conveyed mainly by the voice and some facial movements. The mad songs should employ the voice, face and body movements in highly-animated ways to create the appropriate disorientating effect.

Regarding the second case, control over the basic musical materials, I used a limited range of intervals in the exact-pitched songs in order that, if the actor were unintentionally not to place a pitch correctly, she would have a chance of at least re-establishing the line by gauging interval distances (albeit transposed at a new pitch level). Whilst errors of this kind obviously corrupt the organised interval succession, the shape or line will, on the whole, be maintained and thus allow the gist of the music to come through.

I utilised approximate rhythmic notation so that the actor would be able to find the most appropriate rhythm and tempo depending on the meaning of the words and the dramatic situation without being hindered by the tyranny of the written score.

5. Conclusion

I hope that my description of the compositional decisions and performance implications has shown how, essentially, the same music can function in varying contexts and create different but complementary perceptions of Ophelia the woman, not the wimp. She is forthright and mocking of both Hamlet and Claudius. Here, she is not the 'damsel in distress' as portrayed in earlier productions, for example, Columbia Pictures 1969 Hamlet featuring Marianne Faithfull as Ophelia, accompanied by a quasi-Elizabethan music intent on setting the period and reinforcing the image of the weaker sex.

However, Ophelia does have her weaknesses. Her blind spot is her father, and Shakespeare's text conveys the full gamut of emotions expressed by a loving and dutiful daughter. I set Ophelia's texts concerning her father as sad songs and the music is intended to convey the gravity of the situation, not only of his passing, but also of her profound emotions and grief. In her lament, she paints a far nobler picture of her father than the characterisation in the play would suggest; Polonius was a lackey for Claudius and, as such, at best a mere spineless accomplice but at worst a wholly odious and contemptible character.

Mine and Geoffrey's reading of Shakespeare's text support this feminist Ophelia. In my opinion, the flaw in this re-constructed Ophelia is her suicide in the play. This act implies that ultimately, she was still a mere puppet to the larger events and characters of the play, primarily, Hamlet and Claudius. It can be conjectured that Shakespeare dispensed of the Ophelia character adopting the conventions of his day, namely, suicide as the only viable option for a woman scorned and/or love unrequited coupled with the fact that her love, Hamlet, had been the assassin of her father, although unbeknownst to Hamlet at the time of the killing.

In conclusion, during this discussion, I have attempted to show how the analytical, self-reflective, critical faculty was an intrinsic part of my compositional process, not an afterthought. It was brought to bear not only on purely musical matters but also on considerations of media (ie dramatic or concert context), performance space, movement, and lighting.

I will leave you with a few niggling but relevant questions. They relate to the theme of this Conference, in particular, the politics of composition and analysis with reference to both the musical and university fraternity, and the community at large. They are:

  • firstly, how, and in what manner, does the compositional process and perception of a composition change when the analytical exposition of it goes beyond immediate and localised informative/educative purposes and becomes a marketing tool of the composer to gain wider recognition and power or influence? (eg my giving this paper at this Conference: the chain of events might be summed up by: creation - publishing of analysis - recognition - promotion - power);
  • secondly, a recent UNE publication states unequivocally that: "Publication and prestige go hand-in-hand in the university world". This is otherwise known as the 'publish or perish' syndrome. (Faculty.of Arts Newsletter, No.19, August 1989, University of New England, p.1) Are my compositions to be regarded by my university peers as 'creative' and, pejoratively, 'imaginative' but lacking in 'scientific rigour' unless I publish analytical papers?
  • thirdly, is a composition best served by an analytical paper written and disseminated by the author or a third party who is preferably a respected scholar?;
  • and lastly, to what degree does the musical establishment take into account and/or actively support the political filters that operate at every level of the wider compositional process which is diagrammatically illustrated in the following Figure.

Figure 9: Illustration of the 'Politics of Composition'

ophelia songs fig9


I hope that these questions will provoke further thought and provide topics for discussion in the plenary session.

Thank you.


6. Postlude

The play was premièred on June 5th, 1989, with Meg Mumford in the rôle of Ophelia. A Producer's Video was made at the end of the season; the final product will include a study guide, with a view to marketing it nationally and internationally.

A workshop performance of the stage version was given by Meg Mumford at the Music Department, UNE, on July 20th, 1989, for a Post-Graduate School. At the workshop, an un-edited video excerpt (taken from the Producer's Video) was shown. The preceding were contrasted with a performance of the concert version sung by Felicity Horgan. It was the discussion that ensued at the School that prompted me to write my performance indications and intentions at the front of the score.

Further, it is interesting to note that after the composition of the Songs for Ophelia and Geoffrey Borny's production of Hamlet in 1989, the renown Italian director, Franco Zeffirelli, released his Hamlet for film in 1990. He takes a similar approach to the character of Ophelia, acted by Helena Bonham Carter, as we had done in our production.


Sound/Video Examples and Transparencies

Video Example 5: video tape of Meg performing How should I your true love know? (dur 0:40)

Sound Example 6: Felicity performing How should I your true love know? (dur 0:40)

Sound Example 10: Felicity performing And will ’a not come again? (dur 2:36)

Video Example 12: video tape of Meg performing And I a Maid and Before you tumbled me (dur 1:00)

Sound Example 13: Felicity performing And I a maid (dur 0:45) and Before you tumbled me (dur 0:49)


Forte, Allan. The Structure of Atonal Music. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973).

Richardson, Tony (director). Hamlet. (Hollywood: Columbia Pictures, 1969 ).

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. (eds. Edward Hubler and Sylvan Barnet) (New York: Signet Classics, 1963).

Zeffirelli, Franco (director). Hamlet. (1990 ).

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