Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four. She is now a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.
Fairy tales have been a great source of inspiration for composers, and what better for dramatic entertainment than wizards and sorcerers?
They are divided into two camps, good and evil, with evil arguably having the upper hand in which to wave a deadly wand. In recent times, the Harry Potter series has cast a wonderful spell over children, encouraging them to embark on a lifetime's journey of pleasurable, page-turning reading.
1. Dukas: "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"
Who doesn't hasn't seen Walt Disney's entertainingly endearing novice trying to control an army of broomsticks and torrents of water when his attempts to cast a spell went dreadfully wrong?
Have music and vision ever been better partners? At the outset when the strings tiptoe in, they prepare the stage for a magical scene, twinkling like stars. But hark! Those seemingly innocent shimmering drops from the violins foreshadow the uncontrollable cascades of water that are to come later in the piece.
When the instantly recognisable tune starts up, it's brim-full of bravado, cheeky and overconfident. Dukas' witty choice of bassoon is dual purpose. It perfectly fits the cocky personality of the apprentice and ironically places it in the hands of the instrument, long, brown and thin, remarkably similar to a broom! And of course, when things go pear-shaped because the apprentice's spell doesn't work, it's the broomsticks that multiply and multiply and multiply.
The music swishes and swirls with watery chaos as the overwhelmed apprentice vainly tries to stem the tumbling tide. Only on the return of his master, with a single wave of the wand, is order restored and a four-note kick up the backside concludes a bad day at the office for the sorcerer's apprentice.
2. Tchaikovsky: "Swan Lake"
Evil sorcerer Baron von Rothbart has cast a spell on Odette, who is destined to take the form of a swan by day and can only return to human form at night. This spell can only be broken by a man who has never previously loved.
The lone oboe tune introducing the action at the start of the ballet is the baron's theme. Wistful and laying a hand gently on the heart, the melody gathers momentum, the loving tenderness now doom-laden, that sleight of hand now used to confer unhappiness on his vunerable victims. The romantic music in the overture is sandwiched in between. Will it be crushed, the music is asking, or will love win through in the end?
Think of ballet and Tchaikovsky will almost certainly be at the forefront of your mind. He has moved the genre on from the dainty lightweight of Delibes to dramatic realism, if one can have such a thing in fairy tales.
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3. Stravinsky: "The Firebird"
The Firebird was the first of the three famous ballets written by Stravinsky for the Ballets Russes under the direction of Sergei Diaghilev in the 1910s. Central to the story are Kashchei the Immortal, whose eternal life depended on a magic egg in which he kept his soul which he stored in a casket, the Firebird and Prince Ivan.
Whilst in the forest belonging to Kashchei, Prince Ivan captures the Firebird. He is about to kill her when she begs for her life to be spared. In return, the Firebird gives Prince Ivan a magic feather to summon her if he is ever in danger.
Naturally danger arrives. Ivan has fallen in love with a princess under the spell of Kashchei. Ivan and Kashchei argue. The feather is duly waved. The Firebird appears and sends Kashchei and his monsters into a deep sleep. Ivan is able to find the casket, destroy the egg and with it Kastchei's powers.
To match the exotic flavour of the fairy tale, Stravinsky summons a large orchestra of his own, including no less than three harps and a considerable percussion section. As a scene setter Stravinsky's own magical touch is enchanting, sprinkling his own unique brand of fairy dust on the tremulous wanderings at the start of the ballet.
But it is Kashchei's Infernal Dance, a detonated charge of explosive entrance which rocks the ballet. Agitated and diamond cut, the hard sticks of the percussion poke the music along. In-your-face sneers from the trombones and upsurges from the orchestra washes in as if from Debussy's La Mer, until it meets the Firebird, at once changing the mood and invoking somnambulance.
4. Delibes: "Sylvia Dance of the Sorcerer"
Sylvia is a nymph affiliated to the goddess of the hunt, Diana, and in love with a poor shepherd Aminta. During the course of the ballet, she withstands thwarted love, is kidnapped by Orion, an evil hunter, sustains a wound from an arrow and opposition to marriage. Luckily love wins out in the end, who had initially obstructed the union, relents after the intervention of Eros, the god of erotic love, and gives her blessing to the love-struck couple.
The Sorcerer's Dance comes at the end of Act I after Aminta is mistakenly shot by an arrow by Sylvia. He is brought back to life after Eros dances, in the guise of a sorcerer. The music has an exotically eastern slant, delicate and formal, horns remind us of the hunting theme and the Act is drawn to a close by an expansive swell.
5. Gilbert and Sullivan: "The Sorcerer"
In true British farce, this early Savoy opera has a ridiculous plot.
A couple about to marry, Alexis, son of Sir Marmaduke Pointdextre, and Aline daughter of Lady Sangazure, decide they want to set the romantic cat among the pigeons within their village, Ploverleigh. Why not send for a magic potion from a London sorcerer which causes the drinker to fall in love with the first person they see after taking a sip (excepting those already married)? Surely everyone in the village should be happy just as they are. After all, what could possibly go wrong?
The sorcerer, Mr John Wellington Wells, duly arrives with his elixir and at a pre-nuptial banquet it's offered to all the inhabitants of Ploverleigh. Soon all the singletons are asleep, drugged by the drink.
Naturally, there are complications. Marmaduke and Lady Sanguaze are secretly in love with each other, and the young maid Constance is in love with the local vicar, Dr Daly.
Of course, mayhem ensues. All the unmarried people are in love with totally unsuitable matches, including his Alexis' own father who has fallen for Constance's mother. Worse, Aline happened upon Dr Daly before meeting her real betrothed and is smitten.
Alexis pleads with the sorcerer to reverse the potion's effects but is told one of them must give his life up to the spirit who conjured up the draught. The sorcerer agrees to take the rap and is enveloped in a fireball. Order and the right matches are restored, and everyone lives happily ever after.
John Wellington Wells' aria is a real hoot, a tongue twister for the singer, very witty and typical of Gilbert and Sullivan's jolly style. The tune is pared right down, the simplicity and chug of the accompaniment a supporting framework for the agile baritone.
6. Rimsky-Korsakov: "Kashchei the Deathless"
Stravinsky wasn't the only one to take the Kashchei story and find inspiration in it. His teacher, Rimsky-Korsakov, also used it as the basis for one of his operas, though without the addition of the Firebird, a separate folk tale which was spliced into Stravinsky's Ballets Russes production.
The opera begins with a series of pointed chords, left hanging to produce an air of mystery. A princess has been imprisoned by Kaschchei in his sombre kingdom. Her lament is heartfelt as she longs for her true love Prince Ivan. Her torment is twofold. In a magic mirror, she witnesses Prince Ivan in the company of Kaschchei's daughter Kascheyevna.
Kaschchei's daughter, however, is the key to his demise: should anyone see his death in one of her eyes, it will destroy his immortality, and he will die. Despite her hard and immovable nature, she does indeed cry, and the princess and Prince Ivan are able to leave the kingdom.
Against the frantic pleading of the princess, Kashchei is uncompromising, forceful and intimidating. An undulating bass unsteadies the passages, and the orchestral forces begin to build, slowly and deliberately, as if playing with the princess's sensibilities, causing Kashchei to laugh.
A little later in the scene, the orchestra expands, the texture changes from the smaller forces and becomes busy, more strident and clanging. Strings race up and down like razors as Kashchei sends storm-Bogatir, the wind, to his daughter to verify how well she can keep his immortality safe. A solo clarinet arpeggiates in tritones, intervals associated with the devil and devilish behaviour. The chords from the opening recur, and the scene comes to an end.
To read more about classical music inspired by the devil click here.
7. Wagner: "Parsifal"
Parsifal is a story about betrayal, the Holy Grail and a sorcerer intent on revenge. The sorcerer, Klingsor has wrested the holy spear which had been used to pierce the side of Christ when on the Cross, from Amfortas, leader of the knights of the Holy Grail. Klingsor stabs Amfortas with the sword which leaves him with an incurable wound. Only a naïve young man who becomes wise through compassion can heal the wound. Parsifal is this young man.
Kundry, Klingsor's accomplice, tries to seduce the innocent Parsifal, but when he rejects her advances, she lobs the sword at him. Parsifal catches the sword and with it makes the sign of the cross. Magically, Klingsor's castle vanishes. Parsifal touches Amfortas with the sword, and his wound is healed.
In Act II, Klingsor commands Kundry to enchant Parsifal. Restless and darkly chromatic and run through with evil power, the melody angles this way and that. Kundry is consumed by her master's will, ensorcelled by his corrupt magic. She is possessed by Klingsor's villainy, defenceless against his charm, and his determination to be the keeper of the Holy Grail. The music brightens as Klingsor anticipates that his plan is foolproof as he reminds himself he has the holy spear. How can his intentions fail?
8. Andrew Thomas: "Merlin"
Edwin Arlington Robinson's poem Merlin was the inspiration for this piece for solo marimba by contemporary American composer Andrew Thomas.
The poem tells of Sir Gawaine visiting Camelot and seeing it for the first time after the battle that brings King Arthur's court to an end. 4
The work is divided into two movements, Beyond the Faint Edge of the World, and Time's Way. Merlin had previously advised Gawaine that it was better not to be king because it was so difficult to attain peace. As Gawaine looks upon Camelot, another knight, Dagonet, steals up on him. They talk of war and peace, love and frailties and hopes for the future and how even Merlin too is encumbered with all these facets of nature.
The cautious opening and sudden bursts within a muted palette mirror Gawaine's own reflections and back-and-forth reasoning of the state of play in his own undecided mind.
The second, longer movement is troubled and restless, with hiatuses. The final anguished bars are testament to the realisation that the world is a tumultuous place in which stability and permanence is fleeting and old orders do not necessarily survive.
9. Karl Goldmark: "Merlin Overture"
Chromatic strings, sudden outbursts, melodies both lush and delicate make for a beautifully portrayed Romantic overture to the opera Merlin from this little know Jewish-Hungarian composer. Sensitive handling of the orchestral forces invokes the enigmatic of Merlin. Influences of Weber, Wagner and even Tchaikovsky can clearly be detected,
A falling triton interval starts it off, and from it, Goldmark carefully unfolds his overture, increasing the tension, until it falls back in its final moments as the strings soar into the ether and disappears, like Merlin himself.
10. Purcell: "Masque - King Arthur"
Purcell's masque, or semi-opera, so-called for the amount of speech in the work, focusses on the war between the Britons and the Saxons, rather than the knights of Camelot. But there is still lots of magic around provided by Merlin and Osmond, a Saxon magician, who have spoke roles.
Add to that love interest for Arthur, who does get the girl in the end and is victorious in battle to boot. The two opposing sorcerers also fight, with Merlin emerging as the victor. To the sound of trumpets Merlin waves a wand and the British ocean is revealed in a storm, calmed by Aeolus, keeper of the winds.
The trumpets are truly magnificent, played here on authentic instruments from Purcell's era, heraldic and triumphal, regal and stately. Purcell was a master of creating music fit for a monarch - he held the prestigious post of organist at the Chapel Royal,6 and King Arthur one such glorious work.
And Finally . . .
If you enjoyed this article why not read about classical music inspired by the moon?
4 Steve Weiss Music
5 Encyclopaedia Brittanica
© 2018 Frances Metcalfe
Frances Metcalfe on October 16, 2018:
Thank you Chitrangada for your lovely comments, I thought I'd do some topical articles for Hallowe'en as it's coming up!
Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on October 16, 2018:
A well researched, informative and interesting article!
I opened some of the videos shared by you and they are enjoyable indeed.
Thanks for sharing this excellent article!
Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on October 10, 2018:
Hi Flourish. Yes it's nearly Hallowe'en, so the pieces are topical. It was great fun reading up on all the sorcery!
FlourishAnyway from USA on October 09, 2018:
I especially enjoyed the dark pieces 3,6, and 7 because they were so fitting for this time of year. Very enjoyable!