Dean: String Quartet No. 2 "And once I played Ophelia"

Program Note

Brett Dean (b.1961)
String Quartet No. 2 “And once I played Ophelia” (2013)

Matthew Jocelyn’s text utilizes not only Ophelia’s own words from Shakespeare’s Hamlet but also words directed towards, or said about her, from the confronting invective of Hamlet’s “Get thee to a nunnery” or his exalted love poem, “Doubt thou the stars are fire” through to the condescending life directives handed out by her father, Polonius (“Best safety lies in fear”; “Do not believe his vows”) and Gertrude’s lyrical description of her suicide (“There is a willow…”).

Through a suite of five short movements performed without a break, a concise portrait of Shakespeare’s troubled and elusive young character emerges. As we discussed the shape of the work, Matthew and I saw it increasingly as an examination of what remains in our memory and understanding of this secondary, yet utterly pivotal role “after all the Ophelias have played Ophelia.”

Though traditionally portrayed as a meek, even weak character, often dressed in flowing white robes and unable to defend herself before the pressures of Elsinore cause her to snap, I’ve often felt that much of what she says betrays a feistier personality than the one we often are presented (“And I that sucked from his musicked vows…”).

And perhaps, just perhaps, Ophelia drowns not from a romantically-fed whim or madness, but simply because of the pure weight of the words others say about her caught irrevocably in her pockets.

Hence I sensed the drama of a string quartet complemented by a high soprano voice, at times in combat with the forces around her, at times lulled, accompanied, even defeated by them, formed a suitable musical metaphor for this “ministering angel” and the strange, beguiling spell she casts over us.

—Brett Dean

Read Matthew Jocelyn's text

Brett Dean, composer/violist (London, England and Melbourne, Australia), combines his composing activities with a rich musical life performing internationally as viola soloist, chamber musician, and conductor with the world’s leading orchestras. He was a member of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for 15 years, before returning to Australia to concentrate on his growing compositional activities. Today his works are championed by conductors such as Sir Simon Rattle, Markus Stenz, and Daniel Harding, and he has received commissions from the Berlin Philharmonic, Concertgebouw Orchestra, and Los Angeles Philharmonic, among other leading orchestras. In 2009, he won the prestigious Grawemeyer Award for his violin concerto The Lost Art of Letter Writing. In June 2017, his second opera, Hamlet, was premiered at Glyndebourne Festival Opera to great acclaim, directed by Neil Armfield with libretto by Matthew Jocelyn and conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. His first full-length opera, Bliss, received a highly-acclaimed production by Opera Australia in Sydney, Melbourne, and at the Edinburgh Festival, and in a new production at the Hamburg Opera. His String Quintet Epitaphs has been performed at the Cheltenham Festival, Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, La Jolla SummerFest, and the Cologne Philharmonie. Brett was Creative Chair at Tonhalle-Orchester Zürich and Artist in Residence with Sydney Symphony Orchestra (2016-18), and has been in residence with the Radio Symphony Orchestra Berlin since 2017. Brett’s music has been recorded for BIS, Chandos, Warner Classics, ECM Records and ABC Classics. Brett’s Viola Concerto has also been released on BIS with the Sydney Symphony, with Brett as soloist. A DVD of Hamlet has been released by Glyndebourne. Previous Yellow Barn Composer-in-Residence (2012)