Music For Families: Once Upon an Orchestra
Mikhail Glinka (1804-57) was the man from whom, in the words of the composer Igor Stravinsky, “all music in Russia stems.” Glinka’s opera Ruslan and Ludmila was premiered in Saint Petersburg in 1842. It is a fairy tale told in verse by Russian’s greatest poet, Alexander Pushkin. Ludmila is daughter of the Grand Duke of Kiev. Ruslan is one of three young men who vie for her hand in marriage. Ludmila chooses him, but during ceremonies to celebrate their engagement evil spirits sent by the wizard Chernomor kidnap her. The Duke promises that she shall marry whichever of the three young men rescues her. Ruslan defeats Chernomor, but the wizard has cast Ludmila into a magic sleep, and Ruslan cannot awaken her. He takes her back to Kiev, but a wicked fairy captures her, transports her to her father’s court, and makes it appear as though one of Ruslan’s rivals has saved her. At this point Ruslan encounters two strokes of luck. His rival has no better luck than Ruslan in waking Ludmila, and Ruslan comes upon a magic ring that enables him to bring his beloved out of her sleep. They marry, of course.
Engelbert Humperdinck (1854-1921) was a friend and disciple of Richard Wagner. Hansel and Gretel, given its world premiere in 1893, was his first stage work, and no other composition of his equaled its immediate and lasting popularity. This fairy-tale opera features two female voices in its title roles, a soprano who sings Gretel and a mezzo-soprano who sings Hansel. Their story is well-known. Sent by their mother into the forest to gather strawberries, they get lost in the woods. As evening falls, a sandman visits them, then they say their evening prayer and fall asleep, guarded through the night by fourteen angels. In the morning they discover a candy house and are captured by the wicked witch who lives there. They outwit her, free the other children who have dwelt under her spell as gingerbread figures, and are reunited with their parents.
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) was a great musical storyteller who knew how to draw every ounce of color from the orchestra. He had always loved fairy tales, and in 1941 he began to compose music for a ballet based on Cinderella. The ballet was first produced in 1945. Probably no one here needs an introduction to the story of Cinderella, but just a few comments: The Waltz is the elegant music to which Cinderella, having been transformed by her Fairy Godmother from bedraggled servant girl into the most beautiful woman at the Prince’s ball, is dancing with the Prince. The music is at once joyous and ominous, for in the rapture of the moment Cinderella forgets her Fairy Godmother’s warning: At midnight, the spell that has made her so glamorous will be broken. As her dance with the Prince ends and he leaves the scene, Cinderella is suddenly confronted with a huge clock face, the hands just moments before the dread hour. At the twelfth stroke, she is suddenly in her grubby tatters again. She runs away, losing one of her slippers in the process, and as the Prince enters he finds it, his only clue as to the mysterious woman’s identity.
Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-93) is among our most durable composers, an artist who possessed an amazing well of melody and brilliant powers of orchestration. His style is subjective and emotional, often touched with melancholy. Tchaikovsky’s first ballet began with a modest commission for a score on the subject of Swan Lake. Some years before, he had composed a miniature dance setting of the fairy tale as an amusement for his young nieces; now he accepted the invitation “because I could do with the money, but also because I wanted for a long time to try my hand at this kind of music.” The work that emerged was to establish Tchaikovsky as one of the unchallenged masters of the form and provide a seminal influence on modern ballet. With the ballets that followed—The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker—a dance trilogy of such elegant impact was created that many music lovers today honor Tchaikovsky not primarily as a symphonist, but as a genius of theatrical music. In his music for Swan Lake, Tchaikovsky produced a score of symphonic proportions, reasserted the dignity of ballet music, and, for the first time since the days of its classical masters, established music’s rights to equal partnership with the dance.
Alan Menken (b. 1949), together with his songwriting partner Howard Ashman, is credited with spurring the Disney animation renaissance of the 1980s and ‘90s. Menken’s remarkable run has included songs and scores for beloved films, including Tangled, Enchanted, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast (both the classic 1991 animated film as well as the more recent live-action version), Aladdin, Pocahontas, Hercules, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Little Shop of Horrors, Home on the Range, and Newsies. He is equally at home on Broadway, penning hit shows such as Newsies, Leap of Faith, The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Little Shop of Horrors, Sister Act, A Bronx Tale, and Aladdin. Over the years Menken has picked up eight Oscars, eleven Grammy awards, seven Golden Globes, Tony and Drama Desk awards, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. His songs are notable for their emotional pull, effortless mix of styles ranging from pop ballads to French operetta pastiche, and, of course, their beautiful melodies.
Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908) based his 1887-88 work Scheherazade on a collection of tales called The Thousand and One Nights. These stories originated in the Middle East and parts of the Far East. According to legend, the stories were assembled as a way to honor one of the world’s most famous storytellers, a woman named Scheherazade. For almost three years, she would tell a different tale each night to the Sultan, the ruler of the kingdom. These were more than stories, however; Scheherazade’s stories were a way to keep her standing with the Sultan, who had the power to dispatch people at will. “In composing Scheherazade I meant the hints [conveyed by the titles] to direct the listener’s fancy but slightly on the path which my own fancy had traveled,” Rimsky wrote in his memoirs. “All I had desired was that the listener, if he liked my piece as symphonic music, should carry away the impression that it is beyond doubt a narrative of some numerous and varied fairy-tale wonders and not merely four pieces played one after another and composed on the basis of themes common to all four movements.” Scheherazade’s vitality, the charm of its tunes, and the effortless brilliance of its orchestration never fail to delight. Listen for the silky sound of the solo violin, which portrays Scheherazade herself.