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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.

The Threat to EUYO – A European Tragedy

The musical community reacted with dismay and disbelief last month at the news that the European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO) was to close in September 2016 following a loss of funding from the EU.

Immediately, huge numbers of supporters from across the globe joined the campaign to #SaveEUYO.

Deborah Annetts, Chief Executive of the Incorporated Society of Musicians expressed the feelings of music lovers and musicians, saying,

This news is devastating and we urge the Commissioner to reverse this decision and find ways to continue to support this ensemble. The European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO) is a unique ensemble, bringing together the promising young musicians from 28 countries; it has produced some of the most celebrated top musicians of our generation. The fact that this ensemble cannot be recognised as the asset that it is, is nothing short of a tragedy.

The EUYO, originally called the European Community Youth Orchestra, has existed since 1976. Founded by Lionel and Joy Bryer, respectively the Chairman and Secretary General of the International Youth Foundation of Great Britain, the plan was to create an orchestra that would represent the European ideal of a community working together to achieve peace and social understanding.

After nearly 40 years successfully fulfilling this role, the announcement came that the orchestra was to close because of a policy change. The news was not the result of a targeted funding cut, but the result of a decision that there should be no cultural funding for individual organisations. The idea behind this policy, which actually involves a 7% increase in overall funding, was to encourage national organisations to become more ‘European’ and, in a move described by arts writers and musicians as “ignorant,” overlooked the pan-European nature of the EUYO.

[Image: Peter Adamik]

[Image: Peter Adamik]

As arts journalist and former arts correspondant for the Times, Simon Tait, explained in his column, Taitmail,

It is not because of some artistic judgement by the funding authorities; it isn’t that the orchestra has had a dip in form, or that audiences have stopped coming to hear it; there is no funding crisis that makes the EUYO an intolerable luxury. It is being killed because it doesn’t fit a new policy: it isn’t a national body seeking to become more European by forging partnerships with other national bodies in other European countries in the current imperative; it is an existing pan-European organisation, and they are no longer to be funded. The EUYO was the result of a European Parliament resolution of 1976 and until 2013 was supported as a cultural ambassador for the EU. It has players from all 28 member states and its quality is such that it has been conducted by Bernstein, Karajan, Barenboim and Rostropovich, and its music directors have even the likes of Abbado, Ashkenazy, Haitink and currently Petrenko. It has performed in all the great concert halls of the world in four continents, 43 countries and 177 cities, and its 3,000 alumni now populate the orchestras of the world.

In a time when politics is raw with arguments over Brexit and peace is regularly shattered by news of conflict, terrorist attacks, immigration and division amongst communities, the EUYO is a strong symbol of unity and the power of music. Bernard Haitink Conductor Laureate European Union Youth Orchestra says,

For 40 years the European Union Youth Orchestra has been the very definition of excellence and commitment, consistently proving the value of bringing together young people from diverse European cultures. At a moment of such challenge for Europe, it is simply unthinkable that this beacon could be destroyed by lack of support and nurturing from the EU. Simply unthinkable.

[Image: Peter Adamik]

[Image: Peter Adamik]

The orchestra also provides an essential professional development experience for young orchestral musicians. Direction from experienced, acclaimed conductors, who over the years have included Claudio Abado, Sir Colin Davis, Leonard Bernstein, Daniel Barenboim, Herbert von Karajan and Vladimir Ashkenazy, allows players to develop their knowledge of key repertoire, experience the joys and challenges of touring and develop a network of peers across the EU. Working with top musicians on a range of repertoire in top concert halls across the world is an important experience for those about to start their professional performing careers. As a result of this work, the World’s orchestras are full of EUYO alumni.

In order to provide this resource, the EUYO requires funding from a range of sources. The orchestra is active in raising funds through corporate partners, charitable trusts and foundations and individuals, but funding from the EU is vital to its future.

As of 31st May 2016, an official EU Commission press briefing included the announcement that President Juncker, EU Commission President, had ordered a group of three Commissioners to find funding for the EUYO. This led to an announcement on June 1st of proposals to enable the European Union to return to core funding the EUYO.

However, the future of the orchestra is still not assured until the precise details of these proposals are confirmed; a matter that requires urgency and speed if the EUYO is to be able to plan future concert tours. The musical community continues to call for the issue to be resolved and for the future of the EUYO to be secured.

We call upon the many professional orchestras, festivals and concert halls that have, for decades, been profiting from and enriched by the continuous work of youth orchestras like the EUYO to show their strongest support in this difficult situation. Cutting off the financial support for young musicians and those few truly non-profit organisations which strive to give them better chances in their future professional lives is a fatal signal and should not be taken as just another cultural policy decision. It means cutting of the very foundation of our cultural education and endangers the European cultural heritage we pretend to be so proud of – Alexander Meraviglia-Crivelli, Secretary General, Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra

To join the campaign to #SaveEUYO, visit http://www.euyo.eu/about/saveeuyo/

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