Russian Fairy Tales at Orchestra Hall

“Once upon a time….”

There are few phrases that can so quickly capture our attention and fill us with an expectant sense of wonder. This is, of course, the phrase that opens the door to the world of fairy tales and imagination… and for many of us, a phrase that rekindles long-forgotten memories of childhood. People all over the world love their fairy tales, which have stoked the creative fires of authors, screenwriters, painters and musicians for centuries.

Especially for Russian composers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

It is hard to overstate the influence of fairy tales on Russian art music. A wide range of Russian composers, each with radically different aesthetics, have created works inspired by fairy tales, using them to express profound truths about the human condition… or simply to tell an irresistible story. These composers drew not just from Old Russian tales for their music, but also from works by Charles Perrault, E.T.A. Hoffmann, the Brothers Grimm, and Hans Christian Andersen. And from these tales they created a dazzling array or works, ranging from ballets such as Swan Lake, The Firebird, and Sleeping Beauty, to operas such as Ruslan and Ludmila and tone poems like Scheherazade.

This is an incomparable musical legacy.

Over the next two weeks, the Minnesota Orchestra is presenting a mini-festival that highlights Russia’s musical love affair with fairy tales. The festival features gorgeous music and you do not want to miss it.

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It is a pity Peter Tchaikovsky’s The Snow Maiden is not better known. It was originally written to accompany Alexander Ostrovsky’s play of the same name, which premiered in 1873. It tells the story of the Snow Maiden, who is a daughter of Father Frost and Lady Spring. Although she is beautiful the Snow Maiden has a heart of ice, and she is warned that if she ever falls in love, her heart would melt away.

Clearly this tale of dangerous love resonated with Tchaikovsky, as he dove into the project with great gusto. His letters to friends and family shimmered with enthusiasm about his new work, and he claimed he was so inspired that he finished the score in three weeks—ten days before Ostrovsky finished writing the play itself.

And such music!

Like the scores to today’s movies, the music had to walk a delicate line—it had to enhance the scene and add to the overall emotional impact, without ever dominating the scene and drawing too much attention to itself. Tchaikovsky handled this challenge with élan, creating vivid miniatures that brim with emotion and melody. It is relentlessly delightful.

Plus, it is relentlessly Russian. To capture the essential Russian character of the story, Tchaikovsky drew from Russian folksongs, either quoting them directly or composing new material in the same style. In this way, he created one of his most nationalistic scores, and one that spoke directly to the hearts of his Russian audience. It was one of the first scores in which the young Tchaikovsky found his voice, and it helped establish his reputation as one of Russia’s great composers.

And in the end, it remained one of the composer’s favorite works. In an 1897 letter written to his friend and patron to Nadezhda von Meck, he wrote: “The Snow Maiden is one of my favorite offspring. Spring is a wonderful time; I was in good spirits, as I always am at the approach of summer and three months of freedom. I think this music is imbued with the joys of spring that I was experiencing at the time.”

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A half-century later, Russian composers were still drawing inspiration from fairy tales… even such “modernist” composers as Igor Stravinsky.

In 1928, Stravinsky composed a remarkable ballet for the actress-dancer Ida Rubenstein: The Fairy’s Kiss, based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen. As he explained,

“In 1928 Ida Rubenstein commissioned me to compose a full-length ballet. The thirty-fifth anniversary of Tchaikovsky’s death was 1928 – the actual day was observed in Paris’ Russian churches – and I therefore conceived my compatriotic homage as an anniversary piece. I chose Andersen’s The Ice Maiden because it suggested an allegory of Tchaikovsky himself.”

The plot roughly follows the original tale. A fairy acts as a muse; she imprints her magic kiss on a child at birth and sends him forth to find his destiny. Twenty years later, when the youth has attained the very zenith of his good fortune, she repeats the kiss. This second kiss, however, signals an end to the man’s earthly life, and the fairy carries him off to live in supreme happiness with her ever afterward.

In the end, this is the most bewitchingly beautiful scores Stravinsky ever wrote.

There is no part of The Fairy’s Kiss that doesn’t sparkle with magic. But perhaps surprisingly, it overflows with melody. In paying homage to his idol, Stravinsky chose not just to adopt Tchaikovsky’s musical sensibility, but to incorporate Tchaikovsky’s music wholesale into the score. Interestingly, Stravinsky opted to use Tchaikovsky’s piano pieces and songs instead of orchestral works; they include, among others, his Scherzo à la russe, Humoresque, Evening Reverie, and Danse Russe. The key benefit of utilizing these works was that it allowed Stravinsky to orchestrate them in his own style, creating a wonderful fusion of music that is clearly a homage to Tchaikovsky’s work, while still feeling fresh and original as well.

As Stravinsky wrote in the dedication: “I dedicate this ballet to the memory of Peter Tchaikovsky by relating the Fairy to his Muse, and in this way the ballet becomes an allegory, the Muse having similarly branded Tchaikovsky with her fatal kiss, whose mysterious imprint made itself felt in all this great artist’s work.”

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Fairy tales worked their way into seemingly “absolute” music, too. Arts writer Scott MacClelland has a fascinating take on Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony and how it relates to fairy tales:

When he wrote his Fifth Symphony, Prokofiev had recently composed the music for his Cinderella ballet; and the work on today’s program could easily be called the “Cinderella” Symphony. It differs from Cinderella in two important ways: it replaces the gentler fairy tale-narrative with an edgier symphonic ambition, and it veers sharply in favor of the classical sonata example of Haydn (the composer he had honored and parodied in the “Classical” Symphony.) Nevertheless, the Fifth is shot full of music from Prokofiev’s Cinderella ballet, which makes appearances in every movement, some obvious, some disguised.

Prokofiev completed the Fifth Symphony in one month. Immediately paraphrasing Cinderella, it begins with a memorable rising theme, softly intoned at the start, then gaining energy as it begins its journey. Soon a second, more excited theme begins on the high winds, leading toward a return of the first theme and, in turn, an elaborate development of both that climaxes with bristling dissonance. Out of the tumult the first theme calmly signals the recapitulation, with further development; the second theme then reappears, moving into a powerful finale that casts the first theme in bold face underscored by low percussion.

Serving as a scherzo, the sizzling second movement captures the spirit of the “Classical” Symphony, tinged with the sarcasm that marked the composer’s early period. Between its gentle beginning and ending, the middle section swaggers with exuberance. The clock scene from Cinderella is at hand, with no missed shot at spoofing itself.

The adagio recaptures the fairy tale music of the ballet (with flavors from the composer’s Romeo and Juliet also in evidence), yearning dreamlike for something elusively out-of-focus. Still the energy piles up to a grand symphonic climax. A slow introduction to the final movement quotes from the first movement’s first theme, then opens a headlong rondo theme that recurs throughout, sandwiching recalled earlier material and new ideas.  

There is a second reason that the Fifth Symphony might be called the “Cinderella;” it turned out to be the composer’s last happy ending. Despite the war, he was in an upbeat, even exhilarated, state of mind, as evidenced by a statement he released at the time describing the Symphony as “a hymn to free and happy Man, to his mighty powers, his pure and noble spirit,” and adding, “The music matured within me. It filled my soul.” Two weeks after conducting its premiere, in January 1945, he suffered a mild heart attack that caused him to tumble down a flight of stairs. He never fully recovered from the resulting concussion of the brain, and in the eight years that remained was forced by poor health to severely restrict his activities. Even so, those years did see the completion of the Piano Sonata No. 9, Symphonies Nos. 6 and 7, the film music for Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible, The Tale of the Stone Flower ballet and the Symphony-Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, composed for Rostropovich.  

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You should hear these magical works for yourself. The Minnesota Orchestra’s The Art of Russia Festival—presented in partnership with The Museum of Russian Art—run November 6 through November 15. Tickets are available here, so don’t miss this opportunity!



2 thoughts on “Russian Fairy Tales at Orchestra Hall

  1. Prokofiev’s Fifth is one of my all-time favorite pieces. Very interesting to learn about the origins of the other works. Have you ever thought about writing program notes? (smile)


  2. Pingback: How I Fell in Love With Mozart | Mask of the Flower Prince

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