Playing fairies

The importance of the date may have flown under your radar, but 24 June marks International Fairy Day. Acknowledging just how integrated these treasured tiny creatures of mythic imagination are in everyday life and centuries-old traditions, there will no doubt be numerous festivals taking place around the world in honour of the wee folk who have inspired so many artistic creations across all disciplines. So, instead of leaving out a biscuit and a glass of milk for any and all passing fairy folk, I thought this blog could make a quick flutter across music that has been inspired by fairies and a selection of their cousins: the sprite, imp, brownie, puck, dwarf and troll.

Karol Szymanowski
© HNH International

We open with one of Polish composer Karol Szymanowski’s Songs of a Fairy Princess, which he wrote in 1915 and are settings of six texts by his sister Zofia Szymanowska. The composer explained: “I have written six songs to Zioka’s words with which I am very satisfied. […] I had a certain style in mind – and she has done it perfectly. The songs are for coloratura soprano.” The Princess is enigmatic. We don’t know her name or where she comes from, but her provenance is revealed by the music: colourful arabesques, melismata and ornamentally embellished melodies leave no room for doubt that she must be a fairy princess from the Orient. Here’s her fourth song, titled Taniec (Dance).

Taniec (C480981A)

Frederic Curzon

Frederic Curzon (1899–1973) was possibly one of the least known and most underestimated of all major British composers of light music. Much liked and greatly respected by fellow musicians during his lifetime, little was known about him even by his closest friends. Daniel Curzon, Frederic’s stepson, captured his essence: “I can certainly subscribe to the suggestion that the marked degree of modesty shown by Frederic Curzon in respect of his own abilities and musicianship amounted to almost diffidence. Perhaps an innocence of the true value of one’s abilities and skills, in any field of creative art, is an essential ingredient in the production of excellence.”

Here’s Frederic Curzon’s Dance of an Ostracised Imp. It dates from some the darkest days of the Second World War, in 1940, and may be seen as a welcome antidote to the grimness of those times. It uses a gem of a melody, ascending quite normally but descending via whimsical chromatic byways. Where the title came from is anyone’s guess, although it seems that Curzon may simply have been following the example Ravel set with Pavane pour une infante défunte in that he just liked the sound of it!

Dance of an Ostracised Imp (8.555172)

Geirr Tveitt
Photo: Gyri and Haoko Tveitt

Over to Norway and music by Geirr Tveitt (1908–1981), a student of Nadia Boulanger whose musical style shows the influence of Bartók, Debussy, Ravel and Stravinsky. Tveitt drew deeply from Norwegian folk music to develop a lyrical personal style that found favour both internationally and in his homeland. One of his pieces for wind band, Garsvoren dansar (The Brownie Dancing), is included in his Suite No. 5: Trolltonar (Troll Tunes) and vibrantly captures the pixie’s strange, exotic dance.

Garsvoren dansar (8.572095)

Now to an orchestral arrangement by English composer Colin Matthews (b. 1946). It’s one of a set he made of Debussy’s Préludes for piano, La danse de Puck (Puck’s Dance), after an Arthur Rackham illustration for the mischievous fairy in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is almost a miniature tone poem, which changes direction every few bars. The composer explains the motivation for his arrangements:

Colin Matthews

“For the opening concert of the Hallé Orchestra’s 2001/2 season, its newly appointed principal conductor, Mark Elder, asked to include a work of mine; but what emerged instead was the idea of orchestrating several of the Préludes. [I decided] that I would go in at the deep end by tackling two of the most pianistic preludes, Ce qu’a vu le vent d’ouest and Feux d’artifice. I added Feuilles mortes as a gentle interlude.

This initial venture seemed to work: the Hallé asked for more (I had been appointed their associate composer), and gradually I realised that I was going to have to transcribe all twenty-four preludes. Why undertake such a project? In my own (very inadequate) playing of the pieces I had always heard the sounds of the orchestra, and had in fact annotated two of them (Voiles and La sérénade interrompue) with possible instrumentation some time in the 1970s. I have always enjoyed working with the music of other composers and the insights that this brings, and the challenge of adding around ninety minutes to Debussy’s orchestral sound-world proved irresistible.”

La danse de Puck (9.70215)

A lighthearted interlude now referencing the fairy-tale world of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in this 1938 recording by The Comedy Harmonists, a celebrated German close-harmony group of the time. This is their take on Hi Ho Hi Ho , Its Off To Work We Go!! – the dwarfs’ original song from the 1937 animated Disney film – titled Dwarf’s Yodel Song.

Dwarf’s Yodel Song (8.120613)

Hugo Alfven
© HNH International

My penultimate piece is by Hugo Alfven (1872–1960), whose music is generally considered to represent his native Sweden better than that of any other composer. The colourful, virtuoso orchestration skills he developed have been compared with those of Richard Strauss. He was also an accomplished painter of watercolours and had in his youth contemplated a career as a painter.

Alfven used the sounds available from the later romantic orchestra in highly resourceful ways for his ballet-pantomime Bergakungen (The Mountain King) which he completed in 1923. The ballet is based on the legend of Den Bergtagna, the shepherdess who is abducted by the mountain king and rescued by her beloved. They are aided by a troll, who is nonetheless indignant at not getting the girl himself and lets them die in a snow-storm.

The premiere took place at the Stockholm Opera in 1923 with choreography by Jean Borlin. When the work later fell from the repertory Alfven constructed a concert suite from the score, the second movement of which is titled Trollflickans dans (Dance of the Troll Maiden) and is worth hearing in full.

Trollflickans dans (8.555852)

Edward German
Photo: David Russell Hulme and the Edward German Archive

We end on a brighter note with The Sprite’s Dance by English composer Edward German (1862–1936). Although orchestral music and operettas were German’s main focus as composer, he wrote around a dozen works for violin and piano. The Sprite’s Dance, which remained unpublished, is an early work dating from 1883. A rather quaint descriptive programme for the piece appears on the title-page of the autograph manuscript:

One day a venturesome little Sprite entered a Giant’s Castle, and while prying about, the Giant went out and locked the door. The Sprite then commenced his revels, when in the midst of enjoying them the lock was turned, the Giant’s step heard, and the Sprite had gone.

The Sprite’s Dance (8.573407)

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