Sleeping beauties

You may have missed it, but March 17 was World Sleep Day. Its slogan: ‘Sleep soundly, nurture life.’ Part of its mission: ‘ …to lessen the burden of sleep problems on society through better prevention and management of sleep disorders.’ Ernest Hemingway would probably have signed up: ‘I love sleep. My life has a tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?’ J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations, written to help alleviate a nobleman’s insomnia, might yet become World Sleep Day’s adopted anthem. Knowing few bounds, music is well placed to invoke lullabies, the onset of sleep and its other-worldly, dreamy state. Nightmares add the yang to the yin.

I guess many people’s first response to the question of ‘sleep + music = ?’ would be the story of Sleeping Beauty, probably as told by Tchaikovsky’s ballet score of the same name. More of Charles Perrault’s 1689 fairy-tale later. I challenged myself to nominate my favourite sleep-themed work; I instinctively came up with several pieces from the Renaissance and Baroque periods; Purcell’s Sleep came in first by a short head; it’s from his 1692 semi-opera The Fairy Queen (8.550660-61):

Hush, no more, be silent all,
Sweet Repose has clos’d her Eyes.
Soft as feather’d Snow does fall!
Softly, softly, steal from hence.
No noise disturb her sleeping sence.

John Wilbye’s Draw on sweet night (8.553088) seems to be referring to a more eternal form of sleep, ‘ … when the busy world is hushed’, as Cardinal Newman’s prayer goes. Wilbye expresses the state of mind so beautifully:

Draw on, Sweet Night, friend unto those cares
That do arise from painful melancholy.
My life so ill through want of comfort fares,
that unto thee I consecrate it wholly.

John Dowland’s Come, heavy sleep (8.553381) maybe alludes to a more ambivalent state, somewhere between a refreshing night’s rest and a more permanent arrangement:

Come, heavy sleep the image of true death;
And close up these my weary weeping eyes:
Whose spring of tears doth stop my vital breath,
And tears my heart with Sorrow’s sigh-swoll’n cries:
Come and possess my tired thought-worn soul.
That living dies, till thou on me be stole.

In response to this piece, Benjamin Britten wrote his Nocturnal after John Dowland: Reflections on Come, heavy sleep (8.573026) some 350 years later, in 1963. It’s an exploration of the many moods of sleep, passing through states of intense agitation and disquiet, leading towards the final statement of a melancholy serenity which resolves all tensions, melting gently into Dowland’s original air. The transition is magical.

Time to throw a token nightmare into the pot. I’ve chosen Procession and Nightmare from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (8.559126). It may be brief, but Bernstein manages so expertly to change moods with seemingly minimum effort and maximum effect.

To clear that atmosphere, let’s sample a couple of dreams that are more relaxing. Here’s part of Dreaming, one of the movements from Elgar’s Nursery Suite (8.557166). Depicting a sleeping child, it’s scored for muted strings. Written in 1930, it was dedicated to the UK’s Duke and Duchess of York and their children, Princess Margaret Rose and Princess Elizabeth (the current Queen Elizabeth). It was first performed at a recording session in 1931, conducted by the composer.

If you fancy a bit of music for simply day-dreaming, I can recommend Un rêve (A Dream) by Dan Evmark, the Swedish pianist, composer and arranger who is heard here accompanying cellist Paula Gustaffsson in an extract from the piece, together with a few of their friends from the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra. If the music has a pleasantly soporific effect for you, then you might consider exploring further the other tracks in the compilation from which it was taken, Silent Dreams (8.572143).

The 1689 fairy-tale by Charles Perrault, La belle au bois dormant (Sleeping Beauty), inspired Tchaikovsky to write his famous ballet score exactly two hundred years later. It also provided the narrative for an opera by Engelbert Humperdinck, Dornröschen, which he completed in 1902. He subsequently constructed an orchestral suite of music from the score; here’s part of the evocative Prelude (8.223369) from that suite.

Ottorino Respighi’s opera on the same subject, La bella dormente nel bosco (8.223742), calls for an ensemble of puppets and is addressed to young audiences. Premièred in 1934, it became so successful in his own lifetime that, along with his ballet La boutique fantasque, it heads the group of his most frequently performed stage works. Here’s a scene-setting clip to whet your appetite.

Finally, a dip into Tchaikovsky’s celebrated score for his ballet The Sleeping Beauty (8.550490-92). No sleeping scenes, however, in case you drop off in your armchair. Here’s the Waltz from the beginning of Act I.

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