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Mirrors Reflected in Classical Music

Frances Metcalfe first learnt to read music at the age of four. She is now a retired peripatetic music teacher specialising in the violin.

Münchner Residenz (Spiegelkabinett), Munich, Germany

Münchner Residenz (Spiegelkabinett), Munich, Germany

Mirrors are a source of great superstition and folk lore. We've all heard of seven year's bad luck if one breaks a mirror, and of the evil queen in the Snow White fairy tale, demanding to know who is the fairest of them all.

More recently, J.K. Rowling featured 'The Mirror of Erised' in her first major best seller, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, which reflects one's heart's desire. Whether made from glass, water, or on a purely intellectual basis, composers have also been captivated by a mirror's properties.

Avo Pärt 1935 -

Avo Pärt visiting Christ Church, Dublin in 2008.

Avo Pärt visiting Christ Church, Dublin in 2008.

Arvo Pärt. Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in the Mirror)

As the title suggests, Spiegel im Spiegel is inward looking, a world where time almost stands still.

Pärt permits you to peer into an enclosed room where time hovers in suspended animation like mist over a lake. The solo violin floats over piano chords, imperceptibly changing pitch. The overall feeling is of time stretching out, a barely expanding universe, the duet travelling out into distant galaxies.

Hendrik Andriessen 1892-1981

Photo of Andriessen in 1963, taken at the University of Neimagen, The Netherlands

Photo of Andriessen in 1963, taken at the University of Neimagen, The Netherlands

Andriessen. Mirroir de Peine (Mirror of Sorrow)

Although Dutch, organist and composer Henrik Andriessen's works have the imprint of next door France and are steeped in the influence of Catholic liturgical music.

Originally for voice and organ, and later orchestrated for voice and strings Mirroir de Peine is a song cycle based on poems by Henri Ghéon.

It is not a pleasant subject - Christ's journey from the Garden of Gesthsemane to the crucifixion. There are five songs:

Agony in the Garden


Crown of Thorns

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Carrying of the Cross


The five songs have a harrowing and piercing beauty. Andreissen's perspective of the agonised steps to Jesus's crucifixion is not one of dissonance, disharmony, nor of harsh barbed rhythms and tortured vocal lines. It is of acceptance, of Jesus meeting his fate with sad dignity, an anguish enveloped in terrible sorrow.

Unsure which way to turn, the melodies pivot on enharmonic fulcrums, an undulating supplication towards the salvation of Man. The nine-in-a-bar lilt of Flagellation takes root in pastoral folk song idiom, Jesus, the as the suffering human, identifying with the torments of mankind.

For the first three songs the accompanying strings cradle the singer. Only when we reach Carrying of the Cross do they emerge from the shadows and actively shoulder the burden, the strenuous dragging pulled with trudging feet. And at Crucifixion itself, strings and voice face death together, finishing in a D major halo of light high up in the strings, a glowing salvation from the heavens.

Maurice Ravel 1875-1937

Portrait of Ravel in 1912.

Portrait of Ravel in 1912.

Ravel. Miroirs

Ravel was a member of Les Apaches, an organisation consisting of artists, poets and musicians. Each of the five movements of Miroirs is dedicated to a member in the group:

Noctuelles (Moths)

Oiseaux Tristes (Sad Birds)

Une Barque sur l'Océan ( A Boat on the Ocean)

Alborado del Gracioso (The Jester's Aubde)

La Vallée des Cloches (The Valley of Bells)

They are immensely difficult to play, not least due to the floaty ethereal soundscape which should sound effortless. They are not written to show off a pianist's virtuosity, though they are at the apex of the virtuosic scale. Ravel's primary objective is to produce the most ravishing of pictures for the listener to wonder at. However that necessitates as a by-product, for the pianist to be in possession of a technical box of tricks brimming with almost magical powers, allowing him to scatter delights of the finest diademed fairy dust, capturing rainbowed pin pricks of light as they swish by.

Miroirs paint highly evocative pictures of sound, the whispery flitting of the moths, briefly landing here, fluttering their wings, the lonely trilling and heartache of the sad birds, as if they know the object of their attention will never so much as glance in their direction.

Un Barque Sur l'Océan, placed in the middle of the set, rocks to and fro on the widest 'miroir' of them all - the endless expanse of water, dazzling lazily in the sun's reflection.

The fragile delicacy of the previous three pieces is broken with Alborado del Gracioso, playfully steeped in Spanish musical idioms: the rapidly repeated notes of the guitar, the staccato Flamenco stamping feet and the sultry alluring mood of the slower section. Not that great sleight of hand isn't required here, it in its own way just as airy in parts as Noctuelles.

In a bewitching touch Oiseaux Tristes also lightly tolls its tiny mournful chimes, a foreshadowing mirror to the final movement in the suite, La Vallée des Cloches, dedicated to the sound of bells. One has a perception of a valley having been flooded, and only, when at certain times the bell tower of the church becomes exposed during a rare drought will the bells once again ring out their lonely carillon, the final echo of Miroirs.

Francis Poulenc 1899-1963

Photograph of Francis Poulenc in 1930.

Photograph of Francis Poulenc in 1930.

Poulenc. Miroirs Brûlants: Tu Vois le feu du soir (you see the Evening Fire)

Poulenc picked up a copy of Mésures, a paperback in which poets submitted their poems, on his way to a vacation in Burgundy with his singing partner Pierre Bernac.3 He found two texts by Paul Eluard, one being Tu Vois le Feu du Soir.

The text tells of a series of visions witnessed by a man's lover, in which opposites are juxtaposed - Tu Vois la Plaine Nue aux Flancs du Ciel Traînard (You See the Naked Plains in the Laggard Sky) and La Neige Haute Comme la Mer (The Snow, High as the Sea). The beloved is teaching the man how to see the world with different eyes and senses, women hold the mirror to reflect the joys nature has to offer, with one, the special one, offering to unwrap the shroud from his eyes to reveal a previously unseen vibrant and sensuous world.

Poulenc is at his most ephemeral here, wistful and wondrous and privately intimate. He is allowing you into a secret world. In this recording with Bernac and Poulenc, Bernac glides in with the sunset, Poulenc at the piano mirroring his chosen singer at the snow and sea images, closing up at the image of sacrificed animals followed by the soothing sounds, lullaby sounds for a small child.

As the song comes to a close, and the women admit the lover to their exclusive inner circle his voice ascends as if to attain the best observation point to view the world and its riches and quietly take in al the world and its riches.

Henri Dutilleux 1916-2013

Henri Dutilleux (left) attending the Concours International de Composition as a member of the jury in 2004.

Henri Dutilleux (left) attending the Concours International de Composition as a member of the jury in 2004.

Dutilleux. Ainsi Le Nuit (Thus the Night): Miroir d'espace

The string quartet Ainsi la Nuit is divided into seven sections of which the second was given the title Miroir d'espace by Dutilleux.

The first movement opens with a hexachord - a chord built up of six notes; these are the basis for the whole work, and it reappears in the same form in the final section. From the first statement chord to this last are bridging passages, reinventions of the chord, if you like, an auditory hall of mirrors, where any slight movement will initiate mirrored warps and wefts, the bulges and contraction of sonorous images.

In this way the music unfolds and refolds, is stretched and compressed, kneaded and shaped through many textures, flavoured with endless fillings , dishes set out in careful order on a great long refectory table to be chosen with assiduity for inclusion in the whole menu. And yet, after sampling the whole meal, one is left with a sense of one concentrated tang, a memory of Michelin stars where you cannot quite place the layers of unfamiliar ingredients delivered to your palette via technical showpieces refinely arranged on small fine bone china plates.

During Mirroir d'espace the first violin and cello enclose the second violin and viola within their reflective brackets, a feeling of loose freedom as they follow each other, herding the inner instruments towards the next section.

Richard Strauss 1864-1949

Postcard of Strauss in 1910.

Postcard of Strauss in 1910.

Richard Strauss. 'Ich sehe wie in einem Spiegel' (I See as if reflected in a Mirror)

In this song the mirror reveals everything of the singer's feelings. Love is a list of opposites. Agony and joy, eternal peace and constant war, and when all is said and done, the lover lives for her beloved and would die for them. The state of being head over heels in love is made clear through the medium of the mirror.

Strauss is embracing the German lieder heritage mixing it with his obvious affinity for the voice handling it with care and attention, a muted and personal reflection on love. Only when the antonyms of confusion pour out does the music intensify and on the word 'sterbe' (die) at the end there is a lean on an unexpected note, bowing to the consequences of love.

Samuel Barber 1910-1981

Photograph of Barber held in the Van Vechten Collection at the Library of Congress.

Photograph of Barber held in the Van Vechten Collection at the Library of Congress.

Samuel Barber. Vanessa

In this tragic opera, Vanessa, who lives with her mother and niece, Erika, once had a lover, Anatol. But he left her, and because she did not wish to witness herself age, covered up all the mirrors. Twenty years on, a young man appears at the house. He too is called Anatol and Vanessa believes her former lover has returned, but confusingly he is the son who has been given the same name.

That evening Erika is seduced by Anatol and becomes pregnant. Vanessa, however is deluded and refuses to believe the Anatol before her is no other than Anatol senior. Anatol junior is happy to feed Vanessa's delusion and plans to take her away to Paris. Erika forces a miscarriage, and in a mirror of Vaness'a covering of the mirrors two decades previously, also shrouds them, saying she now must await Anatol junior's return.

In this recording of the final Act IV we hear the original cast. All five of the principal roles sing in a quintet before Vanessa's departure with Anatol. Tender and ominous, lush and stark, ending in a thin isolated G from the strings, the mirror-less Erika is left to her fate.

Mozart or Not Mozart? Der Spiegel Duet for Violins Parts

This intriguing composition is was included by Köchel, Mozart's cataloguer, as an appendix and annotated as 'doubtful or falsely attributed work4. Nevertheless, no matter who it's by, it remains a little work of art.

Using a retrograde canon, a tried and tested method of composition from older composers, in particular J S Bach, a mirror effect is achieved.

Retrograde canon sounds very technical, but in fact it's not hard to grasp. However, it is far from easy for a composer to write! It takes a special talent.

First of all you need to know what a canon is. It's also known as a round. Think of the song Frère Jacques. There are four separate voices, starting with just one, with the words, 'Frère Jacques'. When this voice sings the second line, another voice enters, but with the beginning of the song's words and music until all four are singing together, but in their individual lines as demonstrated in the picture below.

A retrograde canon is where the following voice (in these cases there are usually only two parts) is a mirror of the lead voice, the exact reverse, other words. If you imagine the whole work set out on the page, you'd see the second part starting with the last note of the first and working its way backwards. Realistically you have to hear it at least twice to realise what is going on.

This canon is even more complicated as there is only one sheet of paper. The violinists stand at opposite ends and play from their own 'top' except the second violin's part is actually the bottom of the first. And upside down!

It's called a table top canon and as you can surmise, they are not easy to think up so it doesn't sound contrived and awkward.

This little gem is one of those canons that is entertaining for players and audience alike.

Frère Jacques



1 Everipedia

2 Business Services Week

3 Graham Johnson Hyperion

4 Classical Music Guide

© 2018 Frances Metcalfe


Frances Metcalfe on July 14, 2018:

Sherwyn - thank you for reading the article. I'm happy you liked it - hopefully as much as I enjoyed writing it.

sherwyn bertolano on July 13, 2018:

wow interesting article..

Frances Metcalfe on July 10, 2018:

Thank you Chitrangada for your kind remarks - yes, the article did need a lot of research and I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Chitrangada Sharan from New Delhi, India on July 09, 2018:

An interesting article about mirrors reflected in classical music. I am sure you must have done lot of research for this and the results are no wonder, great.

Thanks for sharing!

Frances Metcalfe (author) from The Limousin, France on July 01, 2018:

What lovely comments, Flourish! The Ravel is indeed ravishing, isn't it? But the Andriessen wins hands down for its other worldly radiance.

FlourishAnyway from USA on June 30, 2018:

This was highly entertaining. I liked the Ravel piece quite a bit, and that Vanessa plot was head turning (what a doozy). Thank you for explaining the canon and it’s variants. Very interesting. I feel better informed having read this!

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