Musical Story Telling
Join Active Minds as we investigate how composers and musicians tell stories with music. From 1001 Nights to depictions of the sea or children’s tales, composers have used "performance music" as a colorful palette for telling stories. We’ll listen to musical examples from Scheherazade, La Mer, and Peter and the Wolf as we explore music’s unique ability to create a scene and make it come alive. No musical experience is required.
Key Lecture Points:
• Throughout musical history, listeners have requested that composers tell a story to help better appreciate the presentation. “What does that mean?” is frequently asked of music that lacks an obvious story, such as ballet and opera. (The popularity of ballet and opera is due in part to the underlying story enhanced by movement and singing.)
• This is a testament to most listeners’ desire to utilize creative brainpower and make a “mental movie” while the music is being played.
• With the help of story narrations and movies like Disney’s Fantasia, children learn early-on to visualize stories such as Peter and the Wolf and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
• When a piece of music tells a story, it is referred to as “program” music as opposed to “absolute” music. Vivaldi was one early pioneer of program music when he composed his Four Seasons concertos. To appease audience demands for a story, Beethoven told the story of a day in the country by way of his 6th Symphony “Pastoral.”
• More obvious examples of using music for story-telling are Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (1001 Nights), that introduced listeners to exotic characters Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sinbad. Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture depicts Russia’s noble defense of Moscow against Napoleon. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas depicts the downside of magical powers.
• Symphonic Poems are one device that composers used to tell a story without words. Many symphonic poems are based on folk tales such as Dvorak’s Water Goblin and Noonday Witch.
• In the 20th Century, Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, Debussy’s La Mer (The Sea), Richard Strauss’ Alpine Symphony paint story pictures using thematic devices to enhance the story portrayal and set the mood.
• Gershwin portrayed the sounds of a city in his American in Paris while Ferde Grofe painted tonal pictures of the American Southwest in his Grand Canyon Suite.
• Descriptive story music is epitomized by Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals when accompanied by the poems of Ogden Nash.
• Just as important as realistic depictions is Impressionism in music. This form aims to create descriptive impressions, not necessarily to draw clear pictures. The music is not designed to explicitly describe a picture of anything, but rather to create a mood or atmosphere as a “soundscape” to your mental story-picture. This is done through almost every aspect of music: melody, harmony, color, rhythm, and form.
The listener has new responsibilities in the “artistic process.”
• How is Peter portrayed in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf?
• What instrument depicts the swan from “Carnival of the Animals?”
• What Ferde Grofe piece was used to sell Phillp Morris cigarettes on radio?
• What was your favorite scene or segment from Walt Disney’s animated classic, Fantasia? Why?
• Do you remember music that makes you afraid or tense? Calm and soothed? That makes you laugh or cry?
• Think about the characteristics that each piece of music has to bring out these emotions in you.
More to Explore:
• Impressionism: http://library.thinkquest.org
• Camille Saint-Saens: www.saintsaens.com
• Fred Grofe: www.classical-composers.org
Books For Further Reading:
• Wold, Milo (Gary Martin, James Miller), An Outline History of Western Music (Paperback), McGraw-Hill Humanities/Social Sciences/Langua, 1997, 336 pages. This succinct overview of the development of Western music can help students of all levels understand the evolution of musical styles. Although the text is only half the size of most music histories, it is enhanced by the many cross-references to the best anthologies and recordings for further information and examples. Click here to order.
• Dolezal, Robert (Reader’s Digest), 700 Years of Classical Treasures: The Complete History of Classical Music...the Composers, Their Instruments, and Works (Hardcover), Reader's Digest Association, 2005, 104 pages. Here is a complete classical music education in one volume. Presented chronologically, this volume provides a wealth of information. Click here to order.