Fairy Tales in Music – Part III

The new world of fairy tales
Many writers have chosen to write original stories in the fairy tale style, and many – those of Hans Christian Andersen, especially – have become traditional in their turn. And, not surprisingly, these too have inspired composers. Stravinsky’s opera The Nightingale and Prokofiev’s scene for voice and piano The Ugly Duckling are based on Andersen, as is Zemlinsky’s orchestral fantasy Die Seejungfrau, on The Little Mermaid. Dvorak’s opera Rusalka, with its famous ‘Song to the Moon’, is a blend of The Little Mermaid and de la Motte Fouque’s Undine, which has itself inspired operas by Lortzing and E T A Hoffmann. One of Hoffmann’s own tales was the basis of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. Even Andersen’s tales were not really meant for children, and many others not at all. Hoffmansthal’s libretto for Richard Strauss, Die Frau ohne Schatten, uses the trappings of Arabian Nights and other Middle Eastern fairy tales to handle very adult themes of fertility, fidelity and love. Gogol’s Russian village tales inspired several of Rimsky-Korsakov’s operas.

More recently popular British writers in the fairy tale vein have inspired some worthwhile music, such as Britten’s suite from a radio dramatisation of T H White’s magical recreation of the boyhood of King Arthur, The Sword in the Stone. Harpist Marisa Robles wrote charming music to accompany Michael Hordern’s readings of C S Lewis’s children’s novels, The Narnia Suite. And there is the epic creation of one of the world’s great authorities on fairy tale, Professor J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, which, as well as the late Stephen Oliver’s attractive radio score, has inspired Dutch wind-band composer Johan de Meij’s award-winning and accessible Symphony No. 1. A major Scandinavian composer is also apparently now working on a Tolkien-based symphony.

Evidently, then, even in these starkly rational times, our taste for the fantastic is alive and strong – because of them, perhaps. The more reality closes in around us, the more we need, at times, to escape, to unlock Keats’s magic casements and let our imagination, like children, run free. To these locks music is one of our most potent keys, and these composers excellent guides. We wish you a rewarding quest!


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December 2015
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