Der Rattenfaenger is a familiar figure of German folklore, better known to us through Browning’s poem as the Pied Piper of Hamelin. In Goethe’s earlier poem, the magical Ratcatcher’s magical instrument is a lute, but the character is recognisably the same, singing of his skill at charming rats, children – harmlessly enough, unless you know the story – and even, on occasion, girls’ hearts. The poem was set by the young Schubert, but, perhaps surprisingly, it is the later composer Wolf, in his 1889 Goethe settings, who brings this charismatic creature to life. The tripping melody evokes his skipping energy and allure, but its sinuous windings and subtly unexpected faintly eerie modulations – horribly difficult both to sing and play! – suggest the menacing undertones.
La Cenerentola is Rossini’s somewhat sophisticated 1817 version of the classic tale. In Ferretti’s libretto the fairy godmother figure becomes the Prince’s kindly old tutor, searching him out a suitable wife; his help may or may not be magical, depending on the production. The Prince and his valet make a nicely comic social point by switching roles. Nonetheless, the essentials are there; Cinderella’s daft old father and her overbearing sisters, ugly by nature rather than appearance, are richly funny characterisations, and Cinderella herself has wonderfully appealing music, from her plaintive opening ballad to her final radiant aria of joy and forgiveness. Other versions include Massenet’s sentimental opera Cendrillon, and popular ballets by Prokofiev and, more recently, Ernest Tomlinson.
Pictures at an Exhibition
Pictures at an Exhibition was Mussorgsky’s tribute to his architect friend Victor Hartmann, inspired by his memorial show. One picture was a design for a clock in the shape of a Hut on Chicken’s Legs; but Mussorgsky depicts not the hut but its owner, the wickedest witch in all fairy tale, Baba Yaga.
A fearful old hag, given to cruelty and cannibalism, she appears in several popular tales, especially that of Vassilissa the Beautiful, a young girl who escapes her service with the aid of a doll her mother left her, and ends up marrying a tsar. Like most Russian witches, Baba Yaga doesn’t ride a broomstick but in a giant iron grain-mortar, propelling herself along with blows of the pestle, clearly audible as thudding drumbeats and cymbal crashes in Maurice Ravel’s lively orchestration. There are also portraits of her by Dargomyshky and Lyadov, and in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Skazka.
The Sleeping Beauty
The Sleeping Beauty may be less popular than Tchaikovsky’s other ballets, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, but it is no less magical. And, unlike them, it is based on a genuine fairy tale, Perrault’s La belle au bois dormant, based on the traditional story sometimes also called Briar-Rose. Tchaikovsky, working closely with the famous choreographer Petipa, fleshed out the story with dances and entertainments, especially for the reawakened Aurora’s wedding, the entire third act.
There are few other treatments of the story – unless one counts Siegfried! – but Humperdinck’s suite of stage music is appealing.
Scheherazade is another response to the Arabian Nights, this time from Russia, whose culture bridges the European and the Oriental. Rimsky-Korsakov was always drawn to the East, and never more successfully than in this huge and colourful ‘symphonic suite’. It has no solid programme, but interweaves memories and fragments of the tales into a brilliantly evocative musical structure. The beguiling voice of Scheherazade, represented by violin solos, frames elements of famous tales, especially those of Sinbad the Sailor, reflecting ex-naval officer Rimsky’s feeling for the sea. Some motives are clear, but their significance changes; for example, the thunderous voice of the tyrannical Sultan in the opening fanfare becomes the surge of the ocean, mingled with Scheherazade’s theme, and a trombone and trumpet fanfare in the second movement, reappearing in the fourth’s shipwreck scene.