Once Upon a Time: Storytelling
Who's your favorite storyteller? Mark Twain? Flannery O'Connor? What about your favorite musical storyteller? Throughout the millennium, composers as well as writers have delighted and captivated audiences with stories. Musical storytelling, which often goes by the name "program music" or "tone painting," is simply an attempt at depiction through music, without the assistance of words. In this installment of Milestones of the Millennium, we examine the different ways composers have told stories with music.
Although a musical story usually requires a unique musical form, it can also appear in the guise of a more conventional form such as the symphony. In the 1780s, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf combined the formal outlines of the symphony with fantastic mythological tales in his Twelve Symphonies on Ovid's Metamorphoses. In the nineteenth century, the orchestral tone poem and the symphonic suite provided the composer with enough formal liberty to depict just about any story. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's symphonic suite Scheherezade actually tells a story about the telling of a story.
Certain stories retain a timelessness and continue to inspire composers throughout the centuries. Favorite among composers are the stories of Shakespeare, in particular Romeo and Juliet. Interestingly, composers have set the play in a variety of forms, and relate the action of the story to varying degrees. Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky's orchestral version, which the composer dubs a "fantasy-overture," highlights a mere handful of scenes from the play. Hector Berlioz likewise depicts only select scenes in a symphony inspired by the play. However, Sergei Prokofiev covers all of the play's action in a full-length ballet.
How does a composer convincingly portray the action in a story? Contemporary American composer John Corigliano says that it helps when the story is well-known to the audience. "It's impossible to tell a story specifically. You can retell a story that people know, like 'The Pied Piper,' because they can make the associations, because they already know the story. But there's no way that an abstract piece of music can specifically tell a story." When flutist James Galway asked Corigliano for a concerto for flute and orchestra, the composer came back with the Pied Piper Fantasy, a musical setting of Robert Browning's famous poem "The Pied Piper of Hamelin." To depict the tale, Corigliano calls for a variety of innovative devices, such as the oboist wetting down his reed to imitate the shrieking of rats, and children literally rising up out of the audience at the end of the piece and following the soloist offstage.
Often, an outrageous story demands an outrageous means of expression. Contemporary American composer Lowell Liebermann utilized some interesting solutions in his orchestral setting of Edgar Allen Poe's macabre short story "Loss of Breath." Liebermann begins the work by summoning a bit of music from another musical story, Felix Mendelssohn's music for A Midsummer Night's Dream. He takes the music from Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" and distorts it into a vertiginous and fiendish whirl of sound. Elsewhere in the work, Liebermann uses special percussion instruments to create unique effects. A large wooden hammer depicts the sound of the gallows, and the shrieking sound of the flexatone represents the appearance of a mysterious, diabolic character.
Musical storytelling has been enjoyed by audiences for most of the millennium, and will surely endure for ages to come. The possibilities for musical storytelling will continue to develop as composers continue to discover new means of musical depiction.
Milestones of the Millenium
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