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Fairytales have often inspired classical composers and this collection brings together many of the most famous of those works alongside some delightful and memorable rarities.
Once Upon a Time
A world of enchantment and magic
The frog prince is the perfect image for this collection of musical fairytales: this story, by the famous Grimm brothers, incorporates three of the most
important elements of a fairy tale: magic spells, the triumph of good over evil and a happy ending!
In the 19th century, composers broke free of many of the constraints that had defined the music of previous generations and began to find inspiration in
fairytales and other fantasy subjects. Not surprisingly, much of this inspiration found an outlet in opera and ballet. Ravel’s Mother Goose ballet uses the story of The Sleeping Beauty as a framework within which various dances appear as dreams. The ballet concludes when the Princess is awakened by Prince Charming’s kiss and she finds herself in a magic garden. Charles Perrault penned the original tale in 1697 and it also provided Tchaikovsky with the inspiration for his famous ballet from 1890. We hear five of the most famous excerpts including the very popular Waltz from Act 1. Perrault also wrote the original Cinderella tale entitled “The Glass Slipper”. Prokofiev’s Cinderella was composed for the Bolshoi ballet in 1945 and we hear its most popular dance, Cinderella’s Waltz.
Dvořák’s The Golden Spinning Wheel is also based on the Cinderella story but with substantially more gruesome undertones. Written by Czech poet Karel Jaromir Erben, the story tells of a King who meets and falls in love with Dornicka, a peasant girl. While she is on the way to the palace, she is killed and mutilated by her stepmother and stepsister. The unsuspecting King then marries the wrong woman. A wizard finds Dornicka’s mutilated body and
sends a golden spinning wheel to the queen in exchange for Dornicka’s eyes, arms and legs. Dornicka returns to life and the golden spinning wheel reveals the crime to the King, who rides into the woods to bring Dornicka home.
Liadov once wrote “give me fairies and dragons, mermaids and goblins and I’m thoroughly happy”. True to his word he composed a number of pieces inspired by Russian folklore. The Enchanted Lake, although not purely descriptive, is a picturesque and sensuous work that the composer described as
a “fairytale picture”. Liadov’s other fairytale works can be heard on Macabre Masterpieces (Naxos 8.557930–31) Fairytales also preoccupied Rimsky-Korsakov: Most of his operatic and orchestral output
was inspired by fantasy subjects or tales from Russian history. His Sheherazade was first performed in 1888 and is based on various stories from The Book of the Thousand and One Nights. Featuring 264 tales from Persia, India and Arabia, this collection first appeared in Europe in the early 18th century in a French translation. Sheherazade features four movements and it was Liadov who suggested the four imaginative titles that we have come to know today. The composer wanted a more general impression though, writing that “all I desired was that the hearer, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt an Oriental narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders”. We hear The Prince and Princess, a sensuous piece, that is clearly something of a love story. Aladdin, another story from The Book of the Thousand and One Nights, was adapted as a play and performed in Copenhagen in 1919. Nielsen wrote the music and later extracted the best bits for his Aladdin Suite in 1940. We hear two extrovert and dynamic selections; the Festival
March and Negro Dance. Rimsky-Korsakov is also represented on this collection by orchestral interludes from three of his operas, all inspired by Russian fairytales. Although they are not often seen today, these operas feature some of the composer’s most colourful orchestral writing. Dance of the Clowns and Cortège are reasonably well known and do a good job of showing off the orchestra. Flight of the Bumble Bee from Tsar Saltan is the most famous excerpt of all and concerns Prince Guidon, the hero, who is transformed into a bee so that he might sting his wicked aunts and an old witch. True fairy tale stuff indeed! Liadov was originally commissioned to compose a ballet based on the magical Russian tale of The Firebird but the job eventually fell to Stravinsky who started the score in 1909 and completed it one year later. Michel Fokine had developed a scenario and Diaghilev was to choreograph the work. Dance of the Princesses concerns the thirteen princesses who are being held captive by the evil ogre Kastchei. The hero, Prince Ivan, has fallen in love with Tsarevna the most beautiful of the thirteen and vows to storm the ogre’s castle and free them all. Grieg frequently delved into Norwegian folklore to find inspiration. Puck and Elves’
Dance are two pieces that describe creatures that often appear in Norwegian fairytales. Both are from Grieg’s collection of piano miniatures entitled Lyric Pieces as is Once Upon a time which sets the scene for this collection. Grieg’s fellow Norwegian Halvorsen also explored Norwegian folklore in his music.
His robust and exciting Scenes from Norwegian Fairy Tales was originally written for a children’s play and, among other things, describes some pretty ferocious trolls.
American composer MacDowell also had a passionate interest in fairy stories. His Forgotten Fairy Tales are similar to Grieg’s Lyric Pieces in scope and imagination and were undoubtedly inspired by them. MacDowell explores some general fairytale themes and subjects here.
Háry János was a real person who served as a private in the Austrian army around 1800. Upon his return to civilian life, he told tall tales of his exploits that were put into verse by János Garay in 1843. Of Háry, Kodály wrote “He does not lie, he simply tells fairy stories. No one has seen anything he tells of but nevertheless he has experienced it as though it were real, even more real than reality itself.” Entrance of the Emperor
and his Court closes the Háry János Suite. The heroic Háry has just ‘defeated’ Napoleon and is greeted by the Emperor’s
Hansel and Gretel, also by the brothers Grimm, was turned into a marvelous opera by Humperdinck. The Dream Pantomime, where Hansel and Gretel fall asleep and dream of fourteen angels standing guard around them, closes the second act of the opera and ends our collection of musical fairytales.
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ONCE UPON A TIME