Six Pieces Inspired by Fairy Tales

Fairy tales, folk stories and all things fantastical have long been a source of inspiration for artists across the centuries. It is therefore unsurprising that a lot of classical music is based on these age-old tales.

On Sunday 24 April Xian Zhang conducts The Firebird and Ravel’s Mother Goose so we thought we’d take a closer look at six tales and the composer’s behind them.

1. Stravinsky The Firebird

The Firebird (1910) was masterminded by Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev to cater to the French fascination with all things Russian. Diaghilev needed to commission a composer to write a ballet based on the Russian fairy tale, and his first choices Tcherepnin, Lydadov and Glazunov all backed out, so he turned to a young Igor Stravinsky who set to work straight away.

The story of The Firebird is quite complex but goes something like this: Prince Ivan, the hero of the story, goes hunting in the forest and he captures the Firebird. The Firebird is a magical creature, and she begs Prince Ivan to let her go. In exchange she gives him an enchanted feather which will summon her to help the prince should he ever need her. Prince Ivan encounters Koschei – an evil magician who has preserved his soul in a magic egg. Koschei is holding 13 princesses captive under a spell, and anyone who tries to rescue them is turned to stone by Koschei’s magical gaze. The prince discovers the princesses and falls in love with the Tsarevna.  Wisely he summons the Firebird to help overcome the evil Koschei. The Firebird sends Koschei into a deep sleep and the prince rescues the Tsarevna. He also destroys the egg holding Koschei’s soul and the spell holding the other princesses captive is broken, and the kingdom is free of his tyranny. The story ends with a great celebration complete with music and dancing.


2. Humperdinck Hansel and Gretel

Engelbert Humperdinck is probably best known for composing Hansel and Gretel (1891) based on the Brothers Grimm tale. It was Humperdinck’s sister Adelheid Wette who persuaded him to write something based on the story as a Christmas present for his nieces and nephews. The music began as a series of sketches and songs and eventually developed into a full-scale opera.

3. Prokofiev Cinderella

Written during the war years 1940–1945 Prokofiev’s Cinderella reworks the famous fairy tale as a ballet. In general, the music is opulent and romantic, but there are lighter moments too for example ‘Duet of the Stepsisters with the Oranges’ which is a mischievous interlude and out of character with the surrounding atmosphere of the ball. 

4. Bartók Duke Bluebeard's Castle

Béla Bartók’s one-act opera Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (1918) is based on the French folktale Barbe bleue written by Charles Perrault as part of his Histoires ou contes du temps passé (1697). The story tells of a wealthy nobleman who was married several times to wives who seemed to vanish into thin air. It transpires that there is something much darker behind this as Bluebeard has a habit of murdering his wives. The opera focuses on the struggle of one wife, Judith, who strives to avoid the same grizzly end.

Sir Simon Rattle conducts Gerald Finley and Karen Cargill in Duke Bluebeard's Castle at LSO St Luke's.

5. Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherezade

Scheherezade (1888) characterises tales from the Arabian Nights (or One Thousand and One Nights) – a collection of 1001 folk tales from the Middle East. The music begins with ‘The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship’ which documents the seven voyages across the seas of Sinbad the Sailor. This is perhaps the most well-known story from the Arabian Nights, and it details Sinbad’s adventures to different islands where he encounters magical realms, monsters of the deep and great riches.

800px Ferdinand Keller Scheherazade und Sultan Schariar 1880
Ferdinand Keller Scheherezade and Sultan Schariar (1880)

6. Unsuk Chin Alice in Wonderland

Unsuk Chin’s opera in eight scenes Alice in Wonderland (2004–07) is based on Lewis Carroll’s novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865). The story follows the adventures of Alice as she falls down a rabbit hole and encounters a new world full of fantastical beasts and talking animals. Chin creates musical tableaux which interact with the wit and imagination of Carroll’s characters like the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit and the Duchess.

Sunday 24 April 7pm (Barbican)

Ravel Mother Goose – Suite
Dani Howard Trombone Concerto
Qigang Chen L’Éloignement
Stravinsky The Firebird – Suite (1919 version)

Xian Zhang conductor
Peter Moore trombone
London Symphony Orchestra

Tickets: £60 £48 £35 £24 £18

 Wildcard tickets available for just £10 or £15. More information here.

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