Overture to Klein Idas Blumen [Little Ida’s Flowers] (1916)

By Anna Harwell Celenza

Written for the concert Hans Christian Andersen, performed on March 11, 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

“When words fail, music speaks.” Hans Christian Andersen included this motto in the Thirty-Second Night of his Picturebook without Pictures, and in many ways it reflects the creative inspiration behind much of his writing. Few know that before Andersen began writing fairy tales, he was a ballet dancer and opera singer at the Royal Theater in Copenhagen. But neither of these appointments was long-lived, and when he was dismissed in 1822, he began writing opera libretti in an attempt to regain employment at the theater. Thus began Andersen’s career as a writer.

Andersen’s first volume of fairy tales appeared in May 1835. This volume contained four stories, three of which were retellings of folktales he had heard as a child (The Tinderbox, Little Claus and Big Claus, and The Princess and the Pea). Only the fourth, Little Ida’s Flowers, was a complete original—a product of his imagination and his experiences in Copenhagen.

According to Andersen, the story was inspired by a conversation he had with the four-year-old daughter of J.N. Thiele, a writer and folktale scholar who was one of Andersen’s earliest supporters: “One day, when I was visiting the poet Thiele, I told his little daughter Ida about the flowers in the Botanical Garden; later, when the fairy tale was written down, I kept and repeated a couple of the child’s comments.”

The imagery in Andersen’s tale makes it an ideal ballet narrative, as one can hear in the overture by Danish composer, Paul von Klenau (1883–1946). When Ida asks why her flowers have wilted, a young student (Andersen himself) explains that they were up late dancing and need their rest. When Ida awakens the following night, she discovers the student’s tale is true:

“All the tulips and hyacinths stood in two long rows . . . dancing gracefully . . . A big yellow lily sat at the piano . . . Two roses entered wearing gold crowns . . . Behind them came the carnations and lilies, bowing and waving to the other flowers. There was music. Big poppies and peonies blew on sweet pea pods with such vigor that their faces turned red. The bluebells tinkled. It was a funny orchestra to listen to and watch. Eventually all the flowers joined in the dance: violets, daisies, and lilies of the valley.”

Even a bundle of Shrovetide switches participates in the festivities; “they dance the mazurka, for they are stronger than the flowers and can stomp their feet.”

Klenau captures the exotic personalities of Ida’s flower assortment with an enchanting display of orchestral color. Adding evocative instruments such as the harp and celeste to the instrumentation, he distinguishes each flower group with its own orchestral hue. A mandolin is even employed, at one point, in the humorous dance of the Shrovetide switches.

Klenau’s overture to Little Ida’s Flowers is not representative of his overall style, which was influenced first by the works of Bruckner and Strauss and later incorporated atonal procedures similar to those of Schoenberg and Berg. Although Danish by birth, Klenau spent most of his career in Germany. During the 1930s he avoided charges of artistic degeneracy by distancing himself from Schoenberg (a composer he once promoted enthusiastically) and publishing a series of articles explaining how his 12-tone technique was derived from Wagner. Klenau’s German alliances earned him few friends in Denmark, and when increasing deafness necessitated his return to Copenhagen in 1940, he quickly became a relatively isolated figure.