Fairy Tales in Music – Part I

Fairy tales are the most natural and universal form of literature there is, remaining popular even in the age of electronic media – as demonstrated by Anthony Minghella’s superb TV series The Storyteller. Children love their sense of wonder, their surreal humour and clear sense of good and evil, but adults also can find in them both surface charm and profound truths. Many fairy tale treatments in music, such as Mahler’s Das Klagende Lied (from The Singing Bone, collected by the brothers Grimm) and Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, speak to a wholly adult audience, with a symbolic, even psychoanalytical approach. One can take this too far, of course, as did Bruno Bettelheim’s now discredited book The Uses of Enchantment. others have found less reductive inspirations – Romantic composers the transcendent, uplifting power of legend; Nationalists the expression of a people’s character.

Ultimately, though, fairy tales transcend nationality. The same motifs occur again and again across the world, between languages and peoples like spreading echoes of some ancient voice. Cinderella’s story has been told from the Hebrides to India, and Sleeping Beauty with her wall of thorns harks back to the Volsunga Saga, and Brynhild and her wall of fire. Music takes up the storyteller’s voice with a directness of colour and feeling that brings these ancient images alive once again, constantly fresh and new as they were in the morning of the world. One only has to listen to Rimsky-Korsakov’s flying horse, or Dukas’s hapless Apprentice with his infinite procession of brooms, to feel one’s sense of youthful wonder renewed. And for children, hearing them for the first time can open a door onto the wealth of experience great music can convey. In this still very magical season we look at just a few of the most striking musical fairy tales, with some further suggestions to launch you, as in all the best stories, on an exciting quest.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
The Sorcerer’s Apprentice is probably the most famous musical fairy tale of them all; but it didn’t start with Mickey Mouse. The story is ancient, but takes its present form from a poem by Goethe, whose deliberately quirky ‘folk’ rhythm Dukas acknowledges in his witty and spectacular score. Disney’s version is actually quite faithful to Goethe – the apprentice, tired of carrying water up to his master’s tower, who enchants a broom to do the job for him, only to find it impossible to stop, even by chopping it to splinters. The sorcerer returns in the nick of time to rescue his hapless acolyte from the resulting flood. The tale is graphically embodied in the music, with the aid of a repeated rhythmical figure which is slowed down, speeded up, picked up by instruments in turn and violently fragmented – only to shudder slowly back into life as a whole phalanx of brooms, with a terrifying orchestral climax. Dukas’s metronome markings require a literally impossible pace; when Toscanini told him this, he replied ‘As fast as possible, then!’

Aladdin is probably the most popular of the Arabian Nights tales, swiftly adopted into the European tradition after it was translated in the nineteenth century. With its jinns – genies – youthful hero and princess, and wicked sorcerer, the story’s swift shifts of fortune reflect the audience-catching techniques of the bazaar storytellers who originated these stories over a thousand years ago or more. Aladdin is dramatised in many forms, from pantomimes to Disney’s extravaganza. The Danish poet Oehlenschlager’s rather florid play is forgotten; but not the magnificent music Carl Nielsen wrote for it. The suite he extracted from it, mostly a series of dances, is the best place to start.

Eventyr is the Norwegian equivalent of ‘Once upon a time’. This vivid, evocative tone poem was Frederick Delius’s response to the folktale collection of Asbjornsen and Moe, the Norwegian Brothers Grimm. This may sound a bit abstruse, but it introduced us to such classic stories as the Billy-Goats Gruff!

Delius never specified any particular tale, so it was assumed he was only evoking the general atmosphere. However, Eventyr does sound as if it has a ‘programme’; and there is one important clue – a passage with a ‘riding’ rhythm, followed by a ‘shout’ for 20 male voices, usually provided by the orchestra! In a tale called ‘The Widow’s Son’, a boy becomes the servant of a cruel troll, but is kind to his magical horse. In return the horse teaches him to seize the troll’s magical devices, and rides away with him – and the trolls follow in great uproar. The boy uses the troll’s magic to woo and win a princess, defeat a usurping king, and restore the horse to his human shape – the previous king, under an enchantment. This all fits the score very well; but the music, brooding and vibrant by turns, stands by itself as among the most atmospheric and appealing of all his works.

The Mother Goose Suite
Ma Mère l’Oie – The Mother Goose Suite is named for the famous collection by Charles Perrault (1628-1703), which gave many famous tales their classic form. Ravel originally wrote it as a piano duet for the children of an artist friend, and it is not too hard for young pianists. Two years later, though, he arranged it for orchestra and thereafter, with interludes, for a ballet; his usual masterly orchestration extends its range and colour, without destroying its essential simplicity.

It features familiar figures such as the Sleeping Beauty and Tom Thumb, but the most French of all fairytales, Beauty and the Beast, inspired a delightful waltz, as evocative in its miniature way as Cocteau’s film or Disney’s animated spectacular.

Hansel and Gretel
Hansel and Gretel, from the brothers Grimm, is perhaps the classic children’s opera, but is often enjoyed more by adults. The hostile critic Hanslick remarked that Hansel was the most important German opera since Wagner’s death – unfortunately, Humperdinck was one of Wagner’s assistants, even contributing some extra bars to the premiere of Parsifal, and Hansel is very much in the Wagnerian mould, but with greater lightness and charm. Badly produced, it can seem glutinously sentimental, but it does not underplay the children’s poverty and hardship, and there is a core of real magic. Certainly it has attracted many of the great Wagnerian conductors, not least the late Sir Georg Solti.


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December 2015
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