From a Children's Tale.

When I was little, there was a series on Showtime called "Faerie Tale Theater," created and hosted by the actress Shelly Duvall. Some of the best, most popular actors and directors working at that time (the 80s) helped create hour-long stories that we're all familiar with, sometimes with a little twist, a lot of times with a bit of innuendo that went right over my head.

My favorite is the tale of Thumbelina, with Carrie Fisher and Burgess Meredith. The story itself is very wistful and sad, and it was not portrayed comically as some of the other fairy tales were. As you may know, the little girl is born of a magic flower, and is soon taken from her mother by a toad who wants to marry Thumbelina to her ugly toad son. Thumbelina escapes them only to face a harsh winter alone; she is rescued by a field mouse who takes her in and becomes a sort of father figure. The mouse's friend, Mr. Mole, soon asks for Thumbelina's hand in marriage, and the field mouse grants it. Thumbelina escapes, once again, just before her wedding with the help of a friendly swallow who flies her away to a fairy kingdom. And so on and so forth.

Anyway, the short film itself potrays adult concepts simply enough that I understood the poignancy as a child, but deeply enough that it resonates even more all these years later. And one of the wonderful things about Thumbelina is the music.

In college, one of my required courses was Orchestration. I had a great teacher, Dr. Freund, a young guy who'd been to the major music schools and has his own modern music group (Alarm Will Sound) that performs in cool places like New York. Anyway, after arranging pieces for string quartet, woodwind quintet, and brass quintet, we had to arrange for orchestra. I chose the themes from the music of Thumbelina.

It can be, obviously, very difficult to accurately portray the sound of a piece; it's much easier to hear it. And since I can't give some easy link to it, I will just describe what I arranged. It was titled, appropriately, "From a Children's Tale."

It began with pizzicato (or plucking) in the strings, with staggered rhythms between each section. Five measures in a flute solo introduced the first of the two main themes, with the oboe and clarinet easing in on harmony lines. The entire woodwind section then finished the simple melody, and as we progressed toward the "chorus," the strings abandoned their pizz and played a scalar run toward the fully orchestrated chorus (for lack of using a more complicated term). As is often the case, the flutes/clarinets and violins carried the melody, while the violas, cellos, and lower woodwinds offered harmonies and countermelodies.

Then began the second main theme, an absolutely gorgeous section of long tones gently but inevitably leading higher and higher to the upper register of the violins and flutes. Then, because the poor brass had had little to do (and I had to use them to get a good grade), I turned the theme over to them, and the melodies, countermelodies, and harmonies mirrored that which had been heard previously in the woodwinds and strings.

In hindsight, if I were to reconstruct this arrangement, I would rewrite the brass's interpretation of the second theme. Although, if I must say, I did love having the horns take the melody and just soar, the way all good French horn players are wont to do.

Then there was a tiny bit of a bridge, a transition to get us back to the delicacy of the beginning. The strings took us downward, to the middle and lower registers, and employed simple long tones. Then the woodwinds returned with the first main theme. This time, however, I gave the solo to the clarinet, and one by one the other instruments dropped out until the clarinet was alone, finishing on a beautiful rubato passage.

Though the bulk of my conducting career was spent in front of bands, it was such a thrill and such a wonderful opportunity to be able to conduct our university's philharmonic (the top orchestra), which graciously agreed to play my class's orchestral arrangements. As the composers we were expected to conduct our pieces, and I was quite up to the task. I even got a bit of conducting instruction from the philharmonic conductor himself, the esteemed Edward Dolbashian (a native New Yorker - love that place). We had a particularly excellent string bass player from Brazil, and I loved watching her take total control of the crucial bass line. Another Brazilian student and excellent musician named Marcos was the clarinet player who interpreted the end of my piece so perfectly. I felt so, so honored in that moment.

And just being there, hearing achingly beautiful music come forth at the behest of my humble baton - I would hope that it's an experience every single person could appreciate, given the opportunity. A melody I'd loved all my life, vibrating in the air around me. Brought to life, even if only briefly. This is a music experience that not only will I never forget, but that I will treasure as long as I have my wits about me.

Addendum: I'm forgetting myself. The first theme has words, beautiful, beautiful words that never age, that the Thumbelina character sings:

One day in spring she heard him sing
A song to her delight
And back again came then her friend
To warm her summer nights

Don't cry for me while I be gone
Though it an eternity seems
Though we are apart, I'll follow my heart
And come to you in your dreams

1 comment:

Liz said...

Beautiful piece. and you should be in someone's
symphony orchestra