I love a concert with a good theme! These program notes were for a concert titled “Once Upon a Time” where all the music was about fairy tales and other stories. The great composers loved writing music based on fairy tales so they could take advantage of the inherent drama.
Mikhal Glinka is widely regarded as the father of Russian Classical music. His second Opera, Ruslan and Ludmila, demonstrates his gift of folk melody through the lens of Italian opera. Based on a fairy tale by Pushkin, the opera did not find success until after Glinka’s death. The overture has become an orchestral standard, at turns bright, sparkling, romantic, and dark. In the opera, the princess Ludmila is spirited away from her father, the Grand Duke of Kiev, by the evil dwarf Chernomor, in the middle of her engagement party. The Grand Duke promises half his kingdom to the suitor that returns her, even though she was about to be betrothed to Ruslan. The three suitors launch into a grand journey to find Ludmila, including a meeting between the third suitor and a wicked witch, Ruslan receiving a magical sword from a giant talking head in the forest, and Ludmila falling under a sleeping spell. The evil third suitor, Farlaf, abducts Ludmila from her rescuer Ruslan, and takes her sleeping form to Kiev, to appear to be her rescuer and win half of the kingdom. No one can awaken Ludmila until Ruslan arrives with a magic ring to break her out of the spell. Exposed as evil, Farlaf is imprisoned and Ruslan and Ludmila are married in splendor. The overture opens with sweeping scales and proud chords from the marriage scene, and moves to a lush romantic theme from Ruslan’s second act love aria. The closing of the overture is permeated by a struggle between the sweeping tonic scales, embodying Ruslan, and the descending whole tone scale, used to depict the evil dwarf. The Overture closes with a lively gallop.
Aaron Copland’s Billy the Kid was commissioned in 1938 by Lincoln Kirsten for choreographer Eugene Loring and his company, Ballet Caravan, a precursor to the New York City Ballet. Kirsten enticed Copland with a book of old cowboy tunes, entrancing the composer with a scenario of one of the most ruthless, mythic figures of the old west, Billy the Kid. The ballet was so successful Copland excerpted a number of selections into Billy the Kid Suite, of which the orchestra will perform “Prairie Night” and “Celebration Dance.” After Billy’s mother is killed by a shootout, he hides alone on the prairie, evoked by the atmospheric opening of the suite. Billy is captured, leading to the raucous “Celebration Dance.” Billy manages to escape to the prairie, just to be tracked down and shot by lawman Pat Garrett. The suite and ballet both close with a return to the prairie, untouched by the passing of Billy the Kid.
A perennial favorite, Lerner’s and Loewe’s Camelot ran for 873 performances on Broadway, won four Tony awards, and spawned a movie released in 1967. It featured an all-star cast of Julie Andrews, Richard Burton, Roddy McDowall, and Robert Goulet in his first Broadway performance. Based on the retelling of the Arthurian legend found in T.H. White’s series The Once and Future King, the Broadway show focuses on the creation of the Knights of the Round Table and the illicit relationship between Queen Guenevere and Lancelot. The orchestral suite, arranged by Robert Russell Bennett, includes the songs “ I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight,” “The March to Welcome Guenevere,” “Where are the Simple Joys of Maidenhood?” “Camelot,” “If Ever I Would Leave You,” “Fie on Goodness,” “How to Handel a Woman,” “Follow Me,” “I Loved You Once in Silence,” “Entry of the Knights,” “The Lusty Month of May,” and “Guenevere.” Revered for its sweeping score and daring orchestration, Camelot paints the magical world of Knights, Kings, and Wizards that we have all enjoyed.
Due to his self confessed laziness, Anatoly Liadov is most famous for the work he didn’t write, instead of the works he finished. Liadov was commissioned by Sergi Diaghilev to write the ballet The Firebird, and was fired and replaced by Stravinsky when he did not meet a deadline. The ballet was Stravinsky’s break, catapulting him into international stardom, while Liadov quietly composed exquisite miniatures, such as his tone poem Baba Yaga. Delightful and scary in turns, the tone poem is based on the folk tale of Baba Yaga, a hideous child-eating witch that lives in a hut with chicken legs in the forest and flies around on a broomstick or motor and pestle, depending on which story is being told. The character of Baba Yaga pops up with different names through out Slavic countries with regularity, the most famous being the witch with the candy house from Hansel and Gretel. In one fairy tale, a hansom merchant’s son seeks out Baba Yaga for a map to the hidden tenth kingdom, only for the witch to try and eat him. The merchant’s son calls the Firebird to save him, and during the fight Baba Yaga steals some of the bird’s magical tail feathers. Liadov paints a terrifyingly magical forest with orchestral color, through which you can hear Baba Yaga laughing as she flies through the night sky.
After the lukewarm reception to Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky jumped at the chance to create another ballet when commissioned in 1889 by the Director of Imperial Theatres, St. Petersburg. Based on the Brothers’ Grimm version of Perrault’s La Belle au bois dormant, the ballet focuses on Princess Aurora, cursed to fall into eternal slumber after pricking her finger on a spinning wheel on her sixteenth birthday, not awake until rescued by true love’s kiss. The Sleeping Beauty Waltz, or the Garland Waltz as it is named in the ballet, occurs directly before Aurora pricks her finger in the first Act. When Disney adapted the same source material for the 1959 animated feature, Tchaikovsky’s original score was arranged into songs and other music for the film. The Sleeping Beauty Waltz became the cornerstone of the movie score, arranged into the song “Once Upon a Dream” – heard three times in the film, including the final scene where Aurora’s dress keeps changing color as she dances with Prince Charming.
Bernard Rogers, American composer and educator, was a pupil of Nadia Boulanger and taught at the Eastman School of Music for most of his life. A large part of his compositional output focused on miniature orchestral works based on fairy tales. Once Upon a Time: Five Fairy Tales for Orchestra combines five of those miniatures into a colorful, atmospheric collection. The first movement, “The Tinder-Box Soldier,” is based on one of Hans Christina Anderson’s first published fairy tales. A soldier finds a magic tinderbox that allows him to summon three dogs to do his bidding. The marching of the soldier’s regiment can be heard in the background, while the winds and the strings imitate a dog’s playfulness. The second movement, “The Song of Rapunzel,” is based on the well-loved story by the Brothers Grimm. Soft and contemplative, the flute embodies Rapunzel’s melancholy song while the strings conjure an image of a spinning wheel at which she works. The third movement, “The Story of a Darning Needle,” is based on another Hans Christian Anderson tale. A darning needle believes that it should be an embroidery needle, and as it has adventures, it never really sees the world for what it is because it is so focused on being something it is not. The “Dance of the Twelve Princesses” is based on a Brothers Grimm fairy tale that follows the investigation of an old soldier into why the kingdom’s twelve princesses have worn out dancing slippers every morning when they awake. The soldier follows the princesses into a magical realm where they dance with twelve princes all night long. The movement begins with a depiction of the soldier’s alertness, and then moves on to a stately, languid dance as he watches the princesses in the magical realm. The last movement, “The Ride of Koschei the Deathless,” is based on a traditional Russian folktale. Koschei is frightening, immortal ghoul that terrorizes the forests and kingdoms by creating strife and mischief. He is immortal because he hides his soul in a needle, in an egg, in a duck, in a rabbit, in a chest of crystal that is buried under a giant tree on an island in the middle of the ocean. The movement depicts Koschei’s chilling ride though the forest on his magical steed given to him by Baba Yaga. The constant, thundering hoofs can be heard in the percussion, as the orchestra emulates the terrified forest creatures darting out of the way.
One of the first Ethnomusicologists to use a recording device to catalogue folk songs, Zoltán Kodály was also an esteemed composer and educator. Interested in music education for the young, he wrote extensively on the proper teaching methods, as well as composing a large volume of music for education. His long term reformation of music education in Hungarian public schools led to the formation of the Kodály method after World War II. His opera Háry János was written in 1926, using some of the folk songs that Kodály collected throughout his life. Based on the comic epic The Veteran by János Garay, the opera follows the tales told by an Austrian Hussar in the common room of a village inn. As noted in his biography, Kodály wrote in his preface to the score: “Háry is a peasant, a veteran soldier who day after day sits at the tavern spinning yarns about his heroic exploits… the stories released by his imagination are an inextricable mixture of realism and naivety, of comic humor and pathos. That his stories are not true is irrelevant, for they are the fruit of a lively imagination, seeking to create, for himself and for others, a beautiful dream world.” The Intermezzo has a bold, rich melody imbued with the character of Hungarian folk song for which Kodály is known.
The William Tell Overture is better known than the opera for which it was written. Rossini’s four hour epic about the marksman and revolutionary William Tell is rarely performed due to its size, length, and difficulty. However, the iconic ending of the Overture, originally named “The March of the Swiss Soldiers,” is one of the most frequently adapted classical pieces in the repertory. Used as the theme music for the TV show, it is readily associated with The Lone Ranger. However, it has also been used by sports teams, cartoons, movies, advertising, and pop music. While commonly used to depict the onrush of cavalry or the hero riding in on horseback, there are no horses in the original opera.