Hans Christian Andersen

By Leon Botstein

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

Hans Christian Andersen lived from 1805 to 1875. This year we celebrate the bicentenary of his birth. We are, however, certainly not the first generation to recognize and be fascinated by his peculiar genius. For the composers on tonight’s program, Andersen’s contributions to the genre of the fairy tale held a special enchantment, which actually reflected a larger pattern of recollection and nostalgia for the early romanticism of the nineteenth century. Like E.T.A. Hoffmann, Novalis, Hölderlin, and certainly the Grimm Brothers, Andersen seemed to embody for the generations following the pivotal year of 1848 a purer form of romanticism, perhaps even romanticism in its youth. Early romanticism was an era that became idealized by subsequent generations. It was a time when the aesthetic imagination flourished in the first of many encounters with modernity and industrialism. For Andersen, the demonic, mystical, magical and fantastic, in all its darkness as well as joy, dramatized life’s experiences by suggesting a world of morally ordered supernaturalism, of rules and actions which provoked consistent consequences of tragedy or triumph. Such is the world as children might experience it.

Vanished childhood is a theme that runs parallel to the construction of national identity and one of its key components, the study of the history of language. In both Denmark and Germany, the early nineteenth century witnessed an explosion in the creation of dictionaries and the systematic exploration of etymology designed to reveal and stabilize language as a national, historical patrimony. These efforts, on the one hand, reflected a progressive attempt to standardize language and education, and on the other, a reactionary attempt to resuscitate a past that seemed threatened with deterioration by the mores that derived from material progress. Hans Christian Andersen’s earliest readers approached his seemingly simple stories in a context of significant social and political transformation.

The composers on tonight’s program, however, belong to a later era. For them Hans Christian Andersen had already assumed his historical place as a teller of psychological myth and parables. His simple narratives hinted at a fantasy within, a realm of psychic imagination and repressed or displaced desire. What may have first been comfortingly viewed as morality tales became for the early twentieth century modern myths, pregnant with dangerous meaning. As such writers as Bruno Bettelheim later explained, the interest of fairy tales is in what is beneath their seemingly innocent surfaces, and what is beneath is often sexuality. These composers were writing, after all, in an intellectual climate in which Freudian psychology emerged and thrived.

It is this view of Andersen’s stories as psychological mirrors of the inner self that suggests his allure to many composers who were deeply interested in the modern development of music. Zemlinsky, Paul von Klenau, and Igor Stravinsky had a strong desire to be seen as part of the vanguard of the contemporary or modern, but they were also in an important way indebted to a past that modernity threatened. It was during the period of Andersen and his contemporaries—the age of romanticism—that music assumed primacy as the most romantic of the arts. In the aesthetics of Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard, music possessed a transcendental quality that gave it ascendancy over spoken language. Music had a direct connection to the psychology of the human spirit and was the expressive vehicle of the human will and the non-rational. But prior to the advent of modernism in the post-Wagnerian world, that privileged status of music was threatened by Wagner’s success and influence. Albeit unintentionally, music was stripped of its unique status. Suddenly it was illustrative and contingent on language. Instead of symphonies, the fashion became tone poems which ostensibly narrated an extra-musical source or text. This was not perhaps what Wagner envisioned, but the formulaic clichés of musical rhetoric that he helped make commonplace with the wider audience, and which were ultimately adapted as the foundation of film music, possessed none of the enigmatic meaning offered by the first generation of romantic composers such as Chopin and Schumann. For that earlier generation, the relationship of music to a story or source of inspiration was at best indirect, and triumphant in its assertion of music’s capacity to begin where language ends.

At first glance, these strangely affecting fairy tales seem ideal subjects for narrative musical treatment in the Wagnerian vein. The most famous example of this appropriation is of course in Hansel and Gretel (1894), the greatest opera by Wagner’s disciple Humperdinck. But fairy tales also lent themselves to another use, best expressed by the music of Gustav Mahler, who chose a fairy tale for his sole unsuccessful attempt at an opera, Rübezahl (1893). Tales reminiscent of Andersen and Grimm were a clear source of inspiration for some of his earlier symphonies and for such works as Das klagende Lied (1880/9). Indeed, Gustav Mahler set the tone for the way early nineteenth-century fairy tale material influenced the shape of fin-de-siécle music that does not necessarily have words or images associated with it. For Mahler, the fairy tale became a useful bridge by which music could ultimately emancipate itself from a Wagnerian dependence on words and images by directing music away from external narration to what he believed was its more proper task of inner expression. This may be the only instance in which he found an unlikely bedfellow in Stravinsky, who otherwise had little use for Mahler. For the young Stravinsky, the magical and exotic layers of meaning in fairy tales promoted music’s independence and self-contained logic; the widely ranging resonance of their generic symbols and archetypes (to use Northrop Frye’s term) provided precisely the latitude he desired for autonomous musical expression.

The four works on tonight’s program suggest the diverse applications that Andersen’s stories have undergone in music. Stravinsky’s Song of the Nightingale, based on Andersen’s The Nightingale, is perhaps the most famous work on tonight’s program. Less known but now increasingly embraced in a general renaissance of appreciation for Zemlinsky is The Mermaid, which shares a nostalgic, anti-modern undercurrent with Mahler. Paul von Klenau was a Dane, who was an ambitious but ambivalent modernist. He made the unforgivable choice of embracing the Nazis. Nazism glorified the folk tale with radically different consequences. Finally, the Czech composer Karel Husa brings us into the present age with his rendition of one of Andersen’s most famous and poignant tales. In the traditions of Czech music, the fairy tale has a strong place, particularly in the late work of Antonin Dvořák, such as his great opera Rusalka (1900) and his late tone poems based on Erben, a Czech Andersen.

It is interesting to reflect that there was one composer who resisted the allure of the fairy tale with its faux simplicity and Janus-faced ability to mesmerize children and adults alike, sometimes rather sadistically. That composer was Richard Strauss. Even Till Eulenspiegel (1895) is not a nineteenth-century fairy tale in the ordinary sense. Strauss possessed little nostalgia for early romanticism and was deeply skeptical about the grandiose claims made for music by Mahler and later Schoenberg. He had little use for the fairy tale exoticisms of Rimsky-Korsakov and early Stravinsky. His ambition was to try to find a way to make music that confronted the compromised complexity and density of the real dilemmas of life. He had little interest in hiding behind the façade of the primitive or the artificially innocent or symbolic archetypes of fairy tales—except when they occasionally underwent an almost unrecognizable metamorphosis by his librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, as in Die Frau ohne Schatten. Strauss is a useful contrast through which to place the objectives of the composers on tonight’s program. The allure of Andersen in the hands of the composers on tonight’s program was, as a basis for a modernist inversion of the Wagnerian, rooted in music’s capacity to generate a radical revelation of the human soul. Their ambition was to use enchantment as a means of aesthetic inspiration (to allude again to Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment [1975]). By so doing they found a way to circumvent Wagnerian myth or Straussian realism.

The Steadfast Tin Soldier (1974)

By Anna Harwell Celenza

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

Like many of Andersen’s fairy tales, The Steadfast Tin Soldier (1838) was written as a personal commentary on the joys and sorrows of life. Andersen regularly used his tales to voice ideas and emotions he felt uncomfortable expressing publicly. As he once explained in a tale called The Little Green Ones: “One ought to call everything by its right name; and if one does not dare do it in everyday life, at least one should do it in a fairy tale!” Andersen’s tales were not written specifically for children; often quite the opposite was true. In a letter written to his friend B.S. Ingemann in 1843, Andersen described his approach to fairy tale writing: “I seize an idea for older people, and then I tell it to the young ones, remembering all the while that father and mother are listening and also must have something to think about.”

Czech-born American composer Karel Husa clearly adopted a similar approach when he composed The Steadfast Tin Soldier for orchestra and narrator in 1974. Interested in discovering what he described as “the many possibilities of how my composition could be presented to children,” Husa also sensed the need to connect with adults, especially given the circumstances surrounding the composition’s origins. The Steadfast Tin Soldier was commissioned after the death of a child; it is a memorial to a young boy named John Ernest Fowler.

The narrator’s text in The Steadfast Tin Soldier remains close to Andersen’s original fairy tale. According to Husa, this was a necessity. Andersen had captured a vision of life and death that seemed especially appropriate for the commission. “His tales always seemed to me most beautiful and poetical, but also sad, sometimes even cruel, as they dealt with all subjects of life as well as death. As in many of his famous stories, and in The Steadfast Tin Soldier, the symbol of love remains the leading motif.”

When Husa composed The Steadfast Tin Soldier, he imagined that it might also “serve as a ballet, as it follows the text very closely and often in a descriptive manner.” All the characters in Andersen’s story are brought to life through music, and many are associated with specific instruments. For example, the object of the Tin Soldier’s love, a dancing paper doll, is represented by solo saxophone. Similarly, in a scene labeled “Games of Toys,” Husa introduces listeners to “scribbling chalk” (solo flute), a “canary” (piccolo solo), “noisy tin soldiers” (con legno strings), and a nutcracker (a quotation from Tchaikovsky’s famous Nutcracker ballet). Some additional toys, not in Andersen’s original, include an elephant (trombone) and two clowns (French horns).

Karel Husa has played a major role in American music over the last fifty years as a composer, conductor, and teacher. His honors include two fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation (1964, 1965), the Pulitzer Prize (1969), the Kennedy Center’s Friedheim Award (1983), and the Grawemeyer Award (1993). In addition, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1994, and in 1995 the Czech Republic awarded him the Gold Medal of Merit.

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.

Chant du rossignol [Song of the Nightingale] (1917)

By Maya Pritsker

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

Works of Hans Christian Andersen have been translated and published in Russia since 1845. The last decades of the nineteenth century, however, witnessed a special surge of interest in the writer and his tales. In 1892, Andersen’s first Russian biography was published. Three years later, Russian readers received the most complete collection of his works: five volumes, including 154 fairy tales, in excellent, still unsurpassed translation from the Danish by husband and wife team P. and A. Ganzens. This edition was recommended by the Ministry of Education for schools and libraries and became an indispensable part of each literate Russian household, thus firmly implanting Andersen’s characters, images and plots into Russian consciousness.

The seed fell into fertile soil. Andersen’s compassion for the “little man,” his melancholic and intimate voice, the wealth of his images and the beauty of his style—all were close to Russian hearts and resonated with Russia’s artistic trends of the time. Andersen’s stories were much admired by Russian writers—Leo Tolstoy, Anton Chekhov, Alexander Block and Ivan Bunin, to name just a few. They also captured the imagination of the Mir Iskusstva [World of the Art] artists, especially Petr Dobuzhinsky, known for his illustrations and stage productions of the Dane’s tales.

Igor Stravinsky was one of those who grew up with Andersen’s tales (not to mention his connection with Mir Iskusstva). Andersen’s The Nightingale (“Solovey” in Russian), a parable about the power of true art as opposed to artificial and simplistic entertainment, seemed like a natural choice for his first opera. The year was 1908, and 26-year old Stravinsky was still a student of Rimsky-Korsakov at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, often seeking his advice. His teacher’s fondness for fairy tale opera plots, particularly those that glorified nature, as well as his mastery in recreating exotic images of the East in music, rubbed off on the young composer. Nevertheless, already a master of the orchestra, Stravinsky did not follow his teacher’s musical path, but chose instead the spicy and cool harmonies of more fashionable impressionism.

The work, however, stopped after the completion of the first act. Was the cause Rimsky-Korsakov’s death, which brought a period of psychological stress into Stravisnsky’s life, or the commission of the ballet Firebird, which came soon after from Sergei Diaghilev?

Only in 1914 did Stravinsky, by then the author of three masterpieces of his Russian period: Firebird, Petrushka, and Rite of Spring, somewhat reluctantly return to the unfinished opera. Moscow’s Free Theater wanted to stage it, and the composer, although concerned about the stylistic discrepancies between the early and the later parts, added two new acts to the first of 1908. The Free Theater did not survive to realize the production, but Diaghilev came to the rescue. In 1914, the premiere of the new opera, the title of which was translated for this occasion into French as Le Rossignol, took place at the Paris Opera. It was the last prewar production of Diaghilev’s celebrated enterprise.

Soon there would be another reincarnation of Le Rossignol. In 1916, Diaghilev—seeking, as always, a new ballet project—offered to transform it for this purpose. Stravinsky, who preferred symphonic music to opera anyway, happily obliged. From the music of the second and third acts and the “Song of the Fisherman” of the first act, he created a symphonic poem, Song of the Nightingale, in the early months of 1917. It premiered in concert in 1919, and was choreographed in 1925 by Léonide Massine for a Ballet Russes production with sets by Henri Matisse.

The score captured both the poetry and irony of Andersen’s tone. It has a touch of lyrical warmth and tender melancholy in it—not typically “Stravinskian,” but obviously inspired by Andersen. The music style is in some ways reminiscent of Petrushka, with the frequent use of ostinati, sudden dynamic shifts, preference for short melodic segments, erratic rhythms, and theatrical “signals” and “gestures.” There are even some traces of impressionism. At the same time, the score looks toward Stravinsky’s style of the 1920s, when large symphonic orchestra would be rejected in favor of smaller ensembles, and the winds, percussion and piano with their clear articulation would replace more expressive strings. In the composer’s own words, in the Song of the Nightingale he “treated [the orchestra] more as a chamber orchestra and laid stress on the concertante side, not only of the various solo instruments, but also gave this role to whole groups of instruments. This orchestral treatment was well adapted to music full of cadenzas, vocalises, and melismata of all kinds…”

The poem follows the narrative. It opens with a picture of the Chinese Emperor’s Court with its lavish décor and noisy bustle. The next episode brings the first sharp contrast: a small bird, invited by ministers to please their emperor, sings its gentle, touching song (flute cadenza, then a violin’s melody, accompanied by piano, harp, and celesta). Suddenly there is another nightingale—a gilded and sparkling mechanical gift from the Emperor of Japan. It repeats the same primitive tune over and over again (piccolo, flute, oboe), but the court is charmed. The real bird, saddened, flies away to the forest and a fisherman, and the angry emperor names the mechanical one the First Singer of the Imperial Court. But when Death arrives to take the emperor (dark timbres and slow tempo), the real bird returns and saves the ailing emperor with the beauty of its song. However, it rejects the invitation to stay forever: the bird wants the freedom to sing for anyone in need. The melancholic song of a fisherman concludes the poem.

Die Seejungfrau [The Mermaid] (1903)

By Christopher H. Gibbs, Bard College

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

“At first Schoenberg’s teacher, he later became his pupil.” Alma Mahler’s verdict on Alexander von Zemlinsky, her own former teacher and lover, is neither literally nor figuratively accurate, but it does register the fact that for much of the twentieth century Zemlinsky’s name was principally known as Schoenberg’s lone teacher. The latter, with uncharacteristic deference, acknowledged the debt: “The one to whom I owe most of my knowledge of the technique and the problems of composing was Alexander von Zemlinsky. I have always thought and still believe that he was a great composer.”

The two composers represented a new generation poised between the seniors they revered, Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, and the juniors they taught, most notably Anton von Webern and Alban Berg. In April 1904, as part of ongoing efforts to present new music in Vienna, they founded the Society of Creative Musicians, a sort of musical counterpart to the “Secession” in the visual arts. Mahler agreed to be honorary president and conducted the Viennese premiere of Strauss’s Symphonie domestica in its first orchestral concert in November. The second concert, on January 25, 1905, presented the premieres of Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau and Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande. The large forces and extra rehearsals necessary for these imposing orchestral works put the society in financial straits and forced cancellation of a third orchestral concert in March.

The two works share similar literary origins, as well as larger aesthetic aims. Both attempt a synthesis of Wagnerian techniques and programmatic associations with the thematic procedures associated with Brahms’s absolute music. Mahler insisted that they be presented only with their titles and without descriptive programs. Reviews of the concert make clear, however, that Andersen’s fairy tale and Maeterlinck’s play were not familiar to everyone. (“Scarcely fifty people” in the audience really knew the play, remarked the critic Max Vansca in the Neue Musikalische Presse.) Andersen’s story may have been more familiar. A mermaid falls in love with a prince whom she rescues when a storm destroys his ship at sea. She visits the Mer-witch, who changes her tail to human legs, but she loses her lovely voice and each step she takes causes excruciating pain. She meets the prince, who eventually marries another woman with the young mermaid in attendance. She must choose between stabbing the prince and then returning to the sea, or dying. She throws the knife into the ocean and begins to dissolve, ultimately joining floating figures in the sky who “do good deeds.”

We know something of Zemlinksy’s programmatic intentions for depicting this narrative from letters he wrote to Schoenberg, from a chart of themes he made early on, and from a few indications in the score. When he began composition in February 1902 he planned a two-part work in four sections, which he described as: “Part I a) on the sea-bed (entire exposition); b) the mermaid and the mortal world, the storm, the prince’s rescue. Part II a) the Mermaid’s longing; in the domain of the Mer-witch; b) the Prince’s wedding, the Mermaid’s end.” This eventually expanded to three parts, which he completed in March 1903. As he informed Schoenberg, “Today I finished the last few bars of my Mermaid. The third part is the most inward, I think.” Indeed, Zemlinsky called the work a Fantasy, and its form becomes increasingly free as the piece progresses. Certain specific moments in the story are apparent, such as a solo violin theme representing the mermaid, turbulent passages depicting the storm, a section for the prince’s wedding, and so forth.

Although reviews of the premiere indicate that Zemlinsky’s Fantasy received a more positive reception than Schoenberg’s Pelleas, only a few performances followed, notably in Berlin and Prague, before it disappeared for decades. Zemlinsky gave the score of the first movement to Marie Pappenheim (librettist for Schoenberg’s monodrama Erwartung) and took the other two movements with him when he fled to America in December 1938. The Mermaid was only reassembled in the 1980s by musicologists Peter Gülke, Ernst Hilmar, and Alfred Clayton, and first performed again in 1984 with Gülke leading the Austrian Youth Orchestra.