Fairy Tales Set To Music
In the summer of 1795, while on holiday with his friend Schiller, Goethe decided to try his hand at something entirely new and challenging. Having mastered epic poetry and lyric verse, novels and plays, essays and even watercolors-not to mention new theories on botany and optics-he was going to tackle a real challenge: a fairy tale.
The entire corpus of Germanic tale-telling heritage lay heavy upon his shoulders, and he knew it. The Fairy Tale of the Green Snake and the Beautiful Lily has the virtue of being short, if dense and laden with meaning. Goethe said "it will remind you of nothing and of everything";
not a bad aphorism for any good fairy story.
Received with typical over-reaction (Goethe's patron Duke Karl August saw the work as "a continuation of the revelation of St. John," and Thomas Carlyle, who brought it to an English audience in 1832, called it "one of the notabelist [!] performances produced in the last 1,000 years"), the Fairy Tale did have one lasting effect on a young scholar who allowed the seed of this story to germinate in his mind. While Rudolf Steiner had read the Fairy Tale as a young man in Vienna, by the time the 150th anniversary celebrations of Goethe's birth came in 1899, he had concluded that the work perfectly addressed "the question about the relationship of the physical world to an experience of the supersensory realm, free of the physical senses, with its consequences for the human community."
Steiner called the Fairy Tale the "archetypal seed" of Anthroposophy, his philosophy that unites consciousness and spirit. Out of this he established the Waldorf system of education, still thriving at millennium's end, and still using fairy tales as a primary tool of enlightenment.
On the other hand, as we watch children listen with wonder to Cinderella or Sleeping Beauty, or even Babar the Elephant, we can see in them the palpable link between their immediate world and that "supersensory realm," and intuit with our innermost hearts that this is transforming for
the future human community.
Some of the earliest secular music we have tells us tales of the supernatural world, and composers today still thrive on coloring in sound what is often difficult to put into words maybe music is the closest we can get to the vivid pictures of our childhood imaginations!). It was bold of Soulima Stravinsky to tackle stories we all know, some of which had already been treated in celebrated works by Russian orchestral masters.
A certain boldness was required of this composer whose composer-father often created music bridging the physical world and the supersensory land of dreams and stories. Born in Lausanne in 1910 (115 years to the day after Goethe completed the Fairy Tale), Soulima watched his father work from an early age: "My father always composed at the piano," he told an interviewer shortly before his death in 1994; "He never had students and never gave me a lesson, but I heard him play constantly."
Lessons instead were left to Isidor Philipp and Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and if we remember Soulima now it is for the duo performance with his father in the two-piano concerto, or as the soloist in the Capriccio and Concerto for Piano and Wind Ensemble conducted by the elder Stravinsky. While Soulima was also a critic and educator, the sweet and small evocation of Three Fairy Tales may come as a surprise. Filled with the puckish wit his father often expressed, it ranges from complex coloristic touches (the rapid minor seconds in “Cinderella's Flight") to exquisite folk song-like tunes in "Jack and the Beanstalk." The choice of inserting a narrator to establish each picture in the listener's mind before we hear the music takes us quite consciously away from the concert hall and back to the time we all sat and listened to a good story with wide eyes and open heart.
Henry Barraud was born in Bordeaux in 1900, and, as you might guess by the name of his home town, came from a family of vintners. His desire to study music led to a short stint at the Paris Conservatoire with Louis Aubert in 1926-he was thrown out a year later for failing to follow the strict party line in composition. Further studies with Dukas and Caussade led to his appointment as the director of music for the International Exposition in Paris in 1937.
Paris in the late '30s was already under the shadow of the great sorrow to come; from the invasion to the liberation, Barraud served in the French army, and he wrote Offrande à une ombre in memory of his friend and fellow composer Maurice Jaubert, who was killed in action in 1940. When Barraud's brother Jean was shot by the Nazis in 1944, he amended the original dedication to include Jean as well (the work was premiered in St. Louis in November of 1946 just 18 months after V-E day).
Barraud became the music director for French Radio (Radiodiffusion Française) in that same fateful year of 1944. It was a post he held for 20 years. He continued actively composing and writing books on modern music, opera, and a well-regarded treatment of his countryman Hector Berlioz. He received the Grand Prix National de la Musique in 1969, the same year he completed A Season in Hell, the symphonic suite dedicated to the memory of poet Arthur Rimbaud.
Nothing quite so sulfurous was on Barraud's mind in 1930 when he wrote his take on obscure tales. The very titles are laced with a faint orientalism, and reveal the architectural mastery of form most identified with Barraud's work, as if we can feel the very balcony on which the Princess stands. The individual stories in Histoires pour les enfants may not seem familiar, but the scent of Satie is in the air, and this world premiere performance may bring greater visibility to both this music and this now-neglected composer.
There is more than a faint wind of Satie in the works of the American composer Richard Wilson as well. Titles of his works are very in keeping with that beautiful eccentric: Deux pas de trois: Pavane and tango; Sour Flowers: 8 Piano Pieces in the Form of an Herbal. But Wilson's pedigree is certainly red, white, and blue: born in Cleveland in 1941, he went off to Harvard in 1959 where he counted Randall Thompson among his teachers. Piano teachers included Leonard Shure in new York and Friedrich Wüehrer in Munich. After receiving his M.A. at Rutgers, Wilson went to his teaching home of Vassar, where he has thrived for 30 years and is now the Mary Conover Mellon rofessor of Music.
A Child's London is a modern fairy tale, where the biggest of big cities stands in for the limitless forest or desert of other stories: but the adventures are just as improbable, and just as real. Wilson writes of this piece that "it was composed in London in 1984 for my daughter Katherine, then age 8, who was having piano lessons with our neighbor Ricci Horenstein. It was at Ms. Horenstein's suggestion that I wrote a suite of pieces suitable for Katherine's use."
There are a few pieces that wed narration and text which have become classics; many of those are of a historical or theatrical bent. For children, we have Carnival of the Animals, particularly when the Ogden Nash text is wedded to Saint-Saëns' wonderful music. There are a few classic personal interpretations: Leonard Bernstein with Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra. In the '40s and '50s we had the Tubby the Tuba and Ferdinand the Bull approaches; more recently we have heard biographies of composers using their own music, including the series Beethoven Lives Upstairs, for example.
But for stories, real stories with music, the field is very narrow: Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, and an even more unlikely bit of business involving a baby elephant whose momma is killed by hunters.
Everything about this work is felicitous, coming as it does from the darkest of times. We are back in Paris, in the era between the wars. Painter Jean de Brunhoff was besieged by his children one day to paint the story their mother told them of the orphan elephant who goes to the big city and then is brought home to the jungle to be King. Before his death by consumption at the tragically early age of 38, de Brunhoff had completed six Babar stories; one of the children, Laurent, kept up the series for decades.
The Story of Babar the Elephant, was an instant classic. Whether the story is true that the niece of a friend placed the original book with Cecile de Brunhoff's story and Jean's perfectly-rendered illustrations on the piano and asked "Uncle Francis" to play it, or whether it is just another layer of fairy tale, is unimportant. It is a story in keeping with Poulenc's temperament.
Entirely supportive of the modern wave, he championed music by the more avant-garde of his friends (his first piece was dedicated to Satie, and he personally recorded and promoted Satie's music). When the citizens around his country home in Touraine wanted to elect him mayor, he said that he "only wanted a solitude broken by the visits of friends." Poulenc's circle always protected and supported him, and he was deeply affected by deaths of friends (the car accident that killed Pierre-Octave Ferraud led to his rededication to Roman Catholicism and a body of religious works unparalleled in the 20th century).
His resistance during the Nazi occupation took the form of music: the Violin Sonata dedicated to Garcia Lorca, and, curiously and appropriately, Babar the Elephant. Scored for piano and narrator (the later orchestration was by Jean Françaix), it has tragedy, confusion in trying to adapt to new circumstances, triumph, and even an elegiac spirituality at the end. It evokes no emotion not immediately identifiable to a citizen in Paris from 1940-45, and, of course, no emotion not readily felt by any child.
As we have gazed at the faces of children who see these pictures as they hear this music, we have been stirred to believe that what might be universal is something witty and wise, simple and direct: in a tale of a baby elephant who loses its mother and becomes a good king, we see a way of goodness for that "future human community."
Program notes by
Robert Aubrey Davis