• Contact us!

  • Follow us on Facebook

  • Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

    Join 1,087 other followers

  • Recent Posts

  • Recent Comments

    No Copyright Music on The Female Trailblazers : Wome…
    The Symphonist on 2020 – the year of Beetho…
    Jo on Women Composers – A Reflection…
    Bionica (@bionicaban… on Women Composers – A Reflection…
    Mary Cooke on Sol-Fa – Singing Through…
  • Archives

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. Listen to this beautiful piece at the end of the post. 

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.

Learning at Handel & Hendrix in London

On February 10th, 2016, The Handel House Trust opened a new exhibit to the public – the London flat directly next door to Handel House, where singer, songwriter and guitarist Jimi Hendrix lived for a brief time during the late 60’s. Claire Davies, Head of Learning and Participation at Handel and Hendrix in London, shares her passion for the two great musicians…

“Separated by a wall and 200 years are the homes of George Frideric Handel and Jimi Hendrix, two artists who chose London and changed music. And now these special rooms are open to the public as Handel & Hendrix in London.

We are an organisation dedicated to promoting knowledge, awareness and enjoyment of Handel, Hendrix and their music to as wide an audience as possible through music performances, educational and outreach activities and collecting, exhibiting and interpreting objects from their lives. As the Head of Learning and Participation, I get the privilege of facilitating these activities and one of my favourite parts of this job is organising school workshops.

The rich history enveloped in the walls of these two great properties is at the epicentre of all our activities and the lives of our two famous residents whilst they lived here are fascinating.

Although Handel was born in Germany in 1685, by the time he died in 1759 he was a famous Londoner. He moved into 25 Brook Street in 1723 at the age of 38 and stayed here for the rest of his life. This was Handel’s first home of his own and he wrote over 600 pieces of music here. It was a great location for Handel’s work because it was close to the theatres in Covent Garden and Soho and to the Royal Family at St. James’s Palace. Brook Street was both residential and commercial with perfumers and apothecaries, gin shops and coffee houses near-by. Handel’s neighbours included a mixture of middle-class tradesmen and titled ‘people of quality’.

Hendrix was born in America in 1942. In 1966, at the age of 23, he was scouted and brought over to London by Chas Chandler, a member of the British band, The Animals. In London Hendrix, with Chandler as his manager, set up a band called the Experience and his career took off. In 1968 he moved into the top flop flat at 23 Brook Street and lived there until March 1969 with his then girlfriend, Kathy Etchingham. After a tumultuous childhood, a stint in the army and years of touring, this year in Hendrix’s life was his first and only period of real domesticity. He referred to 23 Brook Street as ‘the first real home of my own’.

6. The main room of 23 Brook Street

Hendrix used the flat as his base, giving interviews, writing new songs, and preparing for his February concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. On learning that Handel used to live next door he went with Etchingham to the HMV on Oxford Street and bought some classical albums including Handel’s Messiah and Water Music. Brook Street was the doorstep to the London music scene of the late 1960s. His flat was a short stroll from legendary venues like the Marquee, the Speakeasy and The Scotch of St James and he would spend many evenings wandering from club to club looking for a chance to play.

Today these great homes have been faithfully restored; it’s like stepping into the private and intimate worlds of two great geniuses. Handel House opened its doors in 2001 and it wasn’t until February 2016 that the Hendrix Flat was opened to join forces with its neighbour.

In conjunction with the opening we have created lots of new learning programmes including a new series of workshops for schools. We were concerned about how to create workshops that include both the music and lives of Handel and Hendrix in one sitting without them competing against one another. Our solution was to create a musical time machine that takes the students back in time as newspaper journalists who have to experience the London lives of both Handel and Hendrix in sequence looking at the differences a similarities of two time periods that are 200 years apart. The crucial part of this is that they end up back in the present with the prompt to think about the differences and similarities between the 18th century, the 1960s and the present day. This is skilfully aided by our in-house composers who, during the time travel journey, deconstruct the music of both men to show layers of composition technique that relate to the way that music is composed today.

The session is split into two halves: a trip around the historic rooms with our history buffs and a musical workshop with our composers where all of their investigations and observations of music from the past are brought together to create a brand new composition of their own. The trip around the buildings start with a look at objects and costumes and every child is encouraged to choose a piece of costume to wear as they walk around the rooms; it’s an eclectic sight of colour and texture! There is a focus on the differences and similarities between Handel’s bedroom with Hendrix’s bedroom and the children’s bedrooms at home to really hone in on our main objective of empathy.

The programme has been adapted to all learning key stages but we tailor make the content to make it as relevant as possible to what the students are learning at school. For older year groups, such as GCSE and A Level groups, we work with the students on specific set works, whether it be a 1960s pop song or a baroque chorus to aid them in their exam preparations.

2012_12_10_Croydon School_011

With the money kindly donated to us from the Heritage Lottery Fund to open the Hendrix Flat, we were able to build a new learning space with an interactive screen and sound proofing so we can make as much noise as possible! Students also get the benefit of opening up a harpsichord to see how it works, to have a go on an electric guitar, see copies of Handel’s manuscripts and see a 1960s record player in action. With all of these fun and engaging resources both school groups and the learning team end up having lots of fun.”

To find out more about the work at Handel and Hendrix, and to see a selection of learning resources on offer, visit the website at www.handelhendrix.org/learn

 

%d bloggers like this: