The rainbow. A beautiful natural phenomenon with its terminus of an illusionary pot of gold. A bridge to nowhere. Except in the imagination, that is. Which got me wondering how composers have tackled the tricky task of recreating the concept of a rainbow in sound, approaching the subject variously via mythology, folklore, fantasy and religion.
In Greek mythology, the goddess Iris was the personification of the rainbow with its spectrum of colours. The chromatic arc is reflected in Yves Prin’s Le souffle d’Iris (8.555347) (The Breath of Iris), completed in 1986 and written for the celebrated flautist Pierre-Yves Artaud, whose consummate skill makes light of the range of technical demands the work presents. This extract, featuring The Breath of Pierre-Yves, is from the closing section of his performance that exemplifies the extended palette of timbres available on the instrument.
Iris represented, like the rainbow, a link between gods and men, the sky and the earth. A similar perception is embodied in the Amerindian legend of the rainbow snake. In 1975, the Danish composer Erik Norby (1936-2007) took the legend and embodied it in his symphonic poem, The Rainbow Snake (8.226096). He requested that a précis of the legend accompany any performance, so we’ll do that here for this radiant extract from the piece:
The Rainbow Snake is an Indian legend of how the rainbow appeared in the sky; about how a snake heard the laments of the Indian people over a long period of drought and infertility, and had itself thrown up in coiled form at the sky. There it uncoiled, and became longer and longer, until both its head and its tail reached the ground. Its arching back scraped the blue ice down from the sky.
The snake began to shimmer in all colours, the ice melted and after a long drought rain fell once more on the earth. The land came to life again, the water once more filled the dried-up river beds, and the roses bloomed anew.
Since then the snake has arched its supple body across the sky every time it rains on a sunny day.
Clifford Mills and John Ramsey wrote Where the Rainbow Ends, a Christmas play for children, in 1911. It tells the story of four children, accompanied by a pet lion cub, in search of their parents. There’s danger at every turn, of course, accompanied by talking animals, mythical creatures and a white witch. But a magic carpet and St George of England manage to see off the dragon of evil. The play was well received, maybe no surprise when one reads the actors’ names involved with the early productions, among them Noel Coward, Hermione Gingold, Gertrude Lawrence and Jack Hawkins. The English composer Roger Quilter provided the incidental music, subsequently gathered into the suite titled Where the Rainbow Ends (8.223444). Setting the scene for this pastoral fantasy territory is the opening movement, Rainbow Land.
Moving to the sphere of religion, The Genesis Suite (8.559442) is a collaborative work, written in 1945. It depicts the earliest Bible stories and was narrated at its première by distinguished actors, accompanied by full orchestra and chorus. The work features the music of seven famous composers (including Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Milhaud), most of them European exiles living in Hollywood during World War II. But it was performed only once, in 1945, before much of the music was lost in a fire. Happily, the score was reconstructed earlier this century. Ernst Toch wrote the music for the movement telling of Noah’s Ark and the great flood, ending with the rainbow representing the covenant between God and man that no further flood should occur. Here’s how Toch painted the scene.
Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time (8.554824) involves a more fervent vision and considered interpretation of the rainbow. His 8-movement piece for violin, cello, clarinet and piano—composed and first performed while the composer was in German captivity during World War II—reflects Messiaen’s deeply held religious convictions. The quartet was inspired by a vision from The Book of Revelations, Chapter X, which starts: “And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed in a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire.”
The penultimate movement is titled, in translation, ‘Tangle of rainbows, for the Angel announcing the end of Time’. Messiaen described his vivid creative process in writing the music as follows:
“The powerful angel appears, and above all the rainbow that covers him (the rainbow that is the symbol of peace, wisdom, and all luminous and resonant vibrations). In my dreams I hear and see ordered chords and melodies, familiar hues and forms; then, following this transitory stage I pass into the unreal and in ecstasy submit to a vortex, a dizzying interpenetration of superhuman sounds and colours. These swords of fire, these blue-orange lava flows, these sudden stars: behold the tangle, behold the rainbows!”
Here’s the closing section of the movement.
We’ll end with the gentler, more familiar sounds of the piece that probably first popped into your mind at the mention of the word rainbow: Dorothy’s song Over the Rainbow from the comedy-drama film The Wizard of Oz (1939). Instead of playing the original soundtrack, however, I’d like to introduce you to Toru Takemitsu’s wonderful arrangement of Harold Arlen’s song (8.573595), played here by the brilliant classical guitarist Shin-ichi Fukuda.