Myths, Fairytales and Musical Inspiration

The fairytale, a story featuring fantasy creatures such as goblins, mermaids and witches, often with an element of magical enchantment, derives from different stories passed down through the oral tradition in European cultures. As a literary genre, it was first identified by Renaissance writers such as Giambattista Basile, who collected and studied tales ‘from court to forest,’ published posthumously as Il Pentamerone, heavily baroque and metaphorical, and collector and writer of short stories, Giovanni Francesco Straparola. This idea of anthologies of stories followed in later collections such as the Brothers Grimm and One Thousand and One Nights.

Fantasy stories became increasingly popular during the 19th century, with authors such as George MacDonald writing tales of goblins and princesses for children, whose literature had previously featured heavily moralistic, didactic information.

Slightly earlier than MacDonald, one of the most famous fairytale writers was the Danish author, Hans Christian Andersen. Born on April 2nd 1805, Andersen’s stories include The Emperor’s New Clothes, The Little Mermaid, The Nightingale, The Snow Queen, The Ugly Duckling, Thumbelina, and many more. His stories foreshadowed other children’s classics including The Wind in the Willows and Winnie-the-Pooh, and Lewis Carroll and Beatrix Potter later used the technique of making inanimate objects come to life.

Fairytales often have a dark, gory side, with emotions and morals identifiable for adults as well as children. It is over 200 since Andersen’s birth, but his stories, along with other tales of fantasy and witchcraft, continue to inspire writers, artists, film makers and composers.

Many pieces of music have been based on myth, folklore and fairytales.

Here are just a few examples of music that began life as a story…

Alexander Zemlinsky: The Little Mermaid – 1902-03

Zemlinsky was a prize-winning opera composer and a star pupil of Arnold Schoenberg. He was forced into exile by the rise of the Nazis. The Little Mermaid was the first in a series of attempts by the composer to grapple with his demons. He wrote the work as part of a personal process of recovery from a failed love affair – the woman he had pursued for nearly two years rejected him in favour of Gustav Mahler.

In Andersen’s story, a mermaid saves a prince from drowning and falls in love with him in the process. She goes to the Mer-witch, who, in exchange for her voice makes her human. But the mermaid is tricked into making a perilous bargain: If she fails to win the prince, she will die. The original tale does not have the same happy ending as the Disney film. The prince marries another. This story resonated with Zemlinsky and in setting it to music he was able to express his pain.

The Little Mermaid opens with a musical depiction of the first lines of Andersen’s tale:

Far out in the ocean, where the water is as blue as the prettiest cornflower, and as clear as crystal, it is very, very deep; so deep, indeed, that no cable could fathom it. Many church steeples, piled one upon another, would not reach from the ground beneath to the surface of the water above. There dwell the Mer-king and his subjects.

The Mermaid’s theme is introduced by solo violin while the middle of the first movement portrays the turbulent storm during which the prince falls overboard.

Engelbert Humperdinck: Hansel and Gretel

An 1893 opera based on the story of Hansel and Gretel from the Brothers Grimm collection.

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition, Baba Yaga’s Hut

One of the most distinctive figures in Slavic folklore, Baba Yaga is a supernatural being who appears as an evil witch and lives in a hut with chicken’s legs.

 Leonard Bernstein: Candide – 1956

Candide, ou l’optimisme (1758) by Voltaire, contains numerous references to the story of Sinbad the Sailor from One Thousand and One Nights, notably the underground river in Eldorado, where the book’s heroes are picked up by a machine. In his introduction to his work Zadig Voltaire wrote, “The story was first written in Chaldean, which neither you nor I understand. Later it was translated into Arabic to amuse the famous Sultan Ouloug Beg, at the same time that the Arabs and Persians were beginning to write the Thousand-and-one-Nights, the Thousand-and-one-Days etc. Ouloug Beg preferred Zadig, but the Sultanas liked the Thousand-and-One more. ‘How is it possible,’ said the wise Ouloug, ‘that you prefer tales which have neither sense nor reason?’ ‘That is just why we like them so much, ‘replied the Sultanas.”

Bernstein wrote his comic operetta based on Voltaire’s satirical novel with the libretto worked by writers including Dorothy Parker, John Latouche and Richard Wilbur.

Rimsky Korsakov: Scheherazade – 1887

Scheherazade is the storyteller in One Thousand and One Nights. The tale goes that the Sultan, having found that his wife was unfaithful to him, resolved to marry a new wife every day, and behead her the next. He had killed 1000 women by the time he was introduced to Scheherazade.

In the tale, Scheherazade volunteers to spend one night with the king. Once in the king’s chambers, Scheherazade asked if she might bid one last farewell to her beloved sister, who had secretly been prepared to ask Scheherazade to tell a story. The Sultan lay awake, listening with awe as Scheherazade told her first story. The night passed by, and Scheherazade stopped in the middle of the story. The king asked her to finish, but dawn was breaking, so the king spared her life for one day to finish the story the next night.

This went on day by day for 1001 nights and 1000 stories, during which the Sultan fell in love with Scheherazade and thus spared her life, making her his Queen.

Rimsky Korsakov based his famous symphonic suite on the story, presenting the ideas and characters as a kaleidoscope of fairy tale images and Oriental themes. As in Zemlinsky’s work about the tragic mermaid, the character of Scheherazade is represented by a solo violin, introduced and developed throughout the work.

Panic! at the Disco: The Emperor’s New Clothes

Reference to fairytale and fantasy is frequent in pop culture too, in computer games, TV series and even music video. This song by American rock band, Panic! at the Disco is named after a story by Andersen, though the lyrics and video don’t really relate to the original tale:

Do you have a favourite fairytale you could use as inspiration for a composition workshop? We’d love to hear how your favourite storybook characters and their adventures spark your imagination.

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