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.