- 26 July, 2013
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I’ve never forgotten the first LP I bought as a youngster and can still see the vivid red line drawings on the cover that included a lion, a swan and a tortoise. Nor have I forgotten the impact the music on that record made on me, as I listened time and again to Saint-Saëns‘s imaginative Carnival of the Animals, until the needle and the vinyl fell out with each other.
Those good old days have now been replaced by even better ones as regards that particular work, as anyone who has tried out the new Naxos app for Saint-Saëns’s animal parade will confirm. Full of visual fun and accompanied by amusing rhymes, it will surely be another case of once experienced, never forgotten by today’s youngsters.
The notion of making compendiums of animals goes back a long way, to the times when bestiaries were familiar productions. Popular in the Middle Ages, these illuminated books included drawings and descriptions of animals and birds, often attaching moral lessons or symbolic interpretations to them.
Whereas Saint-Saëns’s novelty item is a one-off for a musical animal collection, there are plenty of examples of classical music works that feature creatures from Greek mythology, and that are worthy of a brief survey here.
The Sirens have often been a popular choice: they took the form of beautiful femmes fatales who lured sailors to the dangerous rocks surrounding the island they inhabited through their enchanting singing. Debussy‘s Sirenes from his orchestral suite Nocturnes (Naxos 8.570993) is a well-known depiction of these creatures, but if you are interested in an alternative portrait, try Glière‘s opulent symphonic poem The Sirens (Naxos 8.550898).
Prokofiev‘s ballet The Prodigal Son (Naxos 8.553055) also features a siren who attempts to distract the character of the title; the work was originally staged in a production by the legendary choreographer George Balanchine in 1929. Balanchine also collaborated with Elliott Carter on his 1947 ballet The Minotaur (Naxos 9.80011). That creature was part man, part bull, and lived at the centre of an elaborate labyrinth on the Greek island of Crete. Although many mythological creatures enjoyed immortality, the Minotaur’s life was eventually taken by Theseus, an Athenian hero.
One creature that never dies, however, is the Phoenix, an ancient bird that is constantly reborn from the ashes of its predecessor, an image that was readily adapted for the resurrection symbolism of early Christianity. Bright Sheng‘s The Phoenix (Naxos 8.559610) was inspired by a text on the subject by Hans Christian Andersen; his colourful account gives the subject a new dimension in this work for soprano and orchestra.
Dragons are associated with a number of legends from all parts of the world, in which they are often slain by an heroic figure and commonly portrayed as fire-breathing monsters. In some Asian cultures, however, dragons are revered less as ferocious monsters than as peaceful founts of wisdom surpassing that of mortals, as in Isotaro Sugata‘s The Peaceful Dance of 2 Dragons for orchestra (Naxos 8.570319) and Chen Yi‘s Dragon Rhyme for wind band (Naxos 8.572889).
One particularly unpleasant creature in Greek mythology was the Charybdis, that occupied a truly monstrous form and created perilous whirlpools to devour passing ships by swallowing and regurgitating huge volumes of water. No wonder Odysseus chose to skirt round the obstacle on his epic journey; and a pity he fell prey to the monster Scylla as a result, losing members of his crew to the creature’s insatiable appetite. Kasper Rofelt‘s Charybdis (Da Capo 8.226564) portrays the creature in music for accordion duet.
Let’s end our mythological menagerie with a work by Gian Carlo Menotti that manages to highlight three creatures in one go. His opera The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore (Naxos Historical 8.111360-61) found its inspiration in a translation Menotti read of a mediæval Latin bestiary. The creatures act as allegories for different stages in the central character’s life: the unicorn, a horse with a spiral horn on its forehead and a symbol of purity and grace, represents the beauty and optimism of youth; haughtiness of middle age takes the form of the Gorgon, with a head riddled by a mass of venomous snakes and a gaze capable of turning a person to stone; while the sphinx-like Manticore represents the retreating isolation of old age.
If that all sounds a bit heavy, be prepared for a surprise when you listen to the work. Built on the format of the Italian madrigal comedy, the storyline will have you enjoying a chuckle during the 12 light-hearted madrigals, interspersed with instrumental interludes.