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Poetry and the Joy of Human Expression

World Poetry Day falls on March 21st 2020. The annual celebration, which was adopted by UNESCO in 1999, is an opportunity to revive oral traditions, promote the reading, writing and teaching of poetry, and foster the convergence between poetry and other arts, including music. Poetry can act as a uniting force, expressing common human experiences – a vital force for connection in difficult times – and so UNESCO extends the invitation to everyone to take part.

In celebrating World Poetry Day, March 21, UNESCO recognizes the unique ability of poetry to capture the creative spirit of the human mind. Poetry is the mainstay of oral tradition and, over centuries, can communicate the innermost values of diverse cultures.

UNESCO

Music and poetry are compatible – rhythmically, expressively and emotionally. Song lyrics have elements of poetry – some are even poems set to music – and many works of classical music are based on poems. There are even pieces called ‘poems’. Tone poems or symphonic poems are single-movement orchestral works, normally from the Romantic period, that illustrate or evoke the content of a poem or other non-musical source. Their descriptive power is clear from the use of tone poems like Also Sprach Zarathustra and the Sorcerer’s Apprentice in pop culture. The awe in the opening notes of Strauss’s tone poem hold a common human experience that speaks of the vast emptiness of space in Kubrick’s 2001 and the rising of the sun in its original context.

In popular music, some of the most notable songwriters have either been celebrated as poets or published books of poetry. Bob Dylan won the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.”

In his acceptance speech, Dylan explained:

If a song moves you, that’s all that’s important. I don’t have to know what a song means. I’ve written all kinds of things into my songs. And I’m not going to worry about it – what it all means.

Our songs are alive in the land of the living. But songs are unlike literature. They’re meant to be sung, not read. The words in Shakespeare’s plays were meant to be acted on the stage. Just as lyrics in songs are meant to be sung, not read on a page. And I hope some of you get the chance to listen to these lyrics the way they were intended to be heard: in concert or on record or however people are listening to songs these days. I return once again to Homer, who says, “Sing in me, oh Muse, and through me tell the story.

Bob Dylan

Leonard Cohen, a contemporary of Dylan’s was a poet first and a songwriter second. A post on BBC 6 Music’s social media asking people to list their favourite Cohen lyrics attracted hundreds of varied replies. Such was his command of language and the extraordinary feelings he could evoke with a simple twist of words. Cohen had his opinions on fellow artists. After Bob Dylan was awarded with his Nobel Prize, Cohen commented,

To me,” he said, “[the award] is like pinning a medal on Mount Everest for being the highest mountain.

Leonard Cohen

In March 2015, Cohen wrote a poem in reply to comments made by rapper Kanye West in a talk at Oxford University. In the talk, West had expressed a wish that he’d studied art, saying:

My goal, if I was going to do art, fine art, would have been to become Picasso or greater. That always sounds so funny to people, comparing yourself to someone who has done so much, and that’s a mentality that suppresses humanity.

Kanye West

In response, Cohen wrote this poem:

Kanye West is not Picasso

I am Picasso

Kanye West is not Edison

I am Edison

I am Tesla

Jay-Z is not the Dylan of Anything

I am the Dylan of anything

I am the Kanye West of Kanye West

The Kanye West

Of the great bogus shift of bull**** culture

From one boutique to another

I am Tesla

I am his coil

The coil that made electricity soft as a bed

I am the Kanye West Kanye West thinks he is

When he shoves your ass off the stage

I am the real Kanye West

I don’t get around much anymore

I never have

I only come alive after a war

And we have not had it yet

For many, poetry may seem irrelevant, romantic, difficult and inaccessible. But Dylan wrote about war, politics, ecological concerns and protest, and Cohen penned lyrics full of irony, love, joy and intense agony.

In difficult and conflicting times, perhaps it’s time to delve deeper, to explore the incredible wealth of poetry that exists within the world of musical compositions and song writing and to express our anger with poems as well as placards.

Featured Image by Trust “Tru” Katsande on Unsplash

Stravinsky & Diaghilev – Anniversary of a Collaboration

1920 was a busy year for Stravinsky and Diaghilev with the premiere of the ballet Le Chant du Roissignol on 2nd February and the premiere of Pulcinella on 15th May.

Stravinsky first worked with Diaghilev on L’Oiseau de Feu (The Firebird) in 1910. The work is of interest both as Stravinsky’s breakthrough piece and as the beginning of one of the most well known collaborations in the ballet world.

Le Chant du roissignol

Le Chant du Roissignol ballet premiered on 2nd February but had it’s origins in Stravinsky’s opera Le Rossignol (The Nightingale), based on the fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen, which he began working on in 1908. In 1917, Stravinsky adapted the music into a Symphonic Poem.

The first act of the opera was written in 1908, with acts two and three written between 1913 and 1914. Stravinsky put the work on the opera on hold while he worked with Diaghilev on L’Oiseau de Feu (The Firebird), Petrushka, and The Rite of Spring. An original costume design from The Rite of Spring is pictured above.

Stravinsky’s commented on his decision to adapt the work into a Symphonic Poem:

I reached the conclusion—very regretfully, since I was the author of many works for the theatre—that a perfect rendering can be achieved only in the concert hall, because the stage presents a combination of several elements upon which the music has often to depend, so that it cannot rely upon the exclusive consideration which it receives at a concert.

The Symphonic Poem was premiered in 1919 in Geneva and greeted with criticism due to the non-traditional use of dissonance and instruments. This may have influenced Stravinsky’s decision to adapt the piece once again, this time into a ballet for Diaghilev.

The ballet was choreographed by Léonide Massine with décor by Henri Matisse and danced by Tamara Karsavina, Lydia Sokolova and Stanislas Idzikowski. The ballet is also divided into three parts. The ballet begins with the Nightingale delighting the Emperor of China. In the second scene, the Emperor receives a mechanical nightingale which fascinates the court, leading to the Nightingale flying away. In the final scene, the Emperor becomes ill and meets Death. The Nightingale appears outside the Emperor’s window, and persuades Death to let the Emperor recover. The Nightingale leaves, returning to nature.

After the initial run in 1920, the ballet was revived in 1925 with new choreography by George Balanchine, at the time one of Diaghilev’s students. This was the beginning of another great collaboration for Stravinsky. Balanchine and Stravinsky shared a similar taste in music, art and movement and both had a passion for creation. Stravinsky commented:

I do not see how one can be a choreographer unless, like Balanchine, one is a musician first.

Balanchine was immediately willing to take the challenge of choreographing the ballet, saying:

I learned the music well, and so … when Diaghilev asked me to stage Stravinsky’s ballet Le Chant du Rossignol, I was able to do it quickly.

Pulcinella

Pulcinella was based on an 18th Century play Quatre Polichinelles Semblables (“Four identical Pulcinellas”). The character of Pulcinella orginated in the 17th Century Italian commedia dell’arte.

The work was commissioned by Diaghilev who wanted a new ballet based on a piece which at the time was believed to have been composed by Pergolesi. This idea was inspired by Vincenzo Tommassini’s The Good-Humoured Ladies written in 1917, which adapted sontatas by Domenico Scarlatti. Conductor Ernest Ansermet approached Stravinsky about adapting the music, but this did not initially appeal to the composer. After Stravinsky spent time studying the scores Diaghilev had discovered in Naples and London, he changed his mind and re-wrote the music, taking themes and textures and adding modern rhythms, cadences and harmonies.

This work marked the beginning of Stravinsky’s second period as a composer, his “neo-classical” period which included works such as his octet for winds, the “Dumbarton Oaks” Concerto, the Concerto in D for string orchestra, the Symphony of PsalmsSymphony in C, and Symphony in Three Movements, the opera-oratorio Oedipus Rex and the ballets Apollo and Orpheus. Stravinsky stated that:

Pulcinella was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look, of course—the first of many love affairs in that direction—but it was a look in the mirror, too.

The ballet’s creative team again featured Léonide Massine who wrote the libretto, created the choreography and danced the title role alongside Tamara Karsavina, Vera Mentchinova, Lubov Tchernicheva, Enrico Cecchetti, Stanislas Idzikowski, Sigmund Novak and Nicholas Zverev. The costumes and sets were designed by Pablo Picasso. The premiere was conducted by Ernest Ansermet.

Stravinsky

The orchestration, as is often the case with Stravinsky’s work is not a standard ensemble. Pulcinella calls for Solo Soprano, Solo Tenor, Solo Bass voices, plus 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 bassoons, 2 horns in F, 1 trumpet in C, 1 trombone plus strings which, inspired by Baroque ensembles, are grouped into Concertino – string quartet (2 violins, viola, cello) plus double bass and Ripieno of 8 violins, 4 violas, 3 celli and 3 double basses.

The ballet is in one act and features the title character of Pulcinella along with his girlfriend Pimpinella and their friends. The story starts with Florindo and Cloviello serenading Prudenza and Rosetta. The women are unimpressed and shower the suitors with water before Prudenza’s father, a doctor, chases them away.

The next section begins with Rosetta and her father. Rosetta dances for Pulcinella leading to a kiss which is interrupted by Pimpinella, Pulcinella’s girlfriend. Florindo and Cloviello arrive and being jealous of Pulcinella, beat him up. It seems that Pulcinella has been stabbed, but this is ruse to get Pimpinella to forgive him. Furbo, arrives dressed as magician and brings Pulcinella back to life. Pimpinella forgives Pulcinella, Florindo and Cloviello successfully woo Prudenza and Rosetta and the ballet ends with the marriage of the three couples.

Stravinsky’s Pulcinella’s notebook is part of the British’s Library’s collection and can be viewed at https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/stravinsky-pulcinella

Image source, Rite of Spring Costume: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lélue_(Sacre_du_printemps,ballets_russes)(4557057918).jpg

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.

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