Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Music of Myth & Magic - and a little Background

This weekend, the Harrisburg Symphony plays a concert called “Music of Myth and Magic” which features four works on the program conducted by Stuart Malina: the suite from “Lieutenant Kizhe” by Sergei Prokofiev; Richard Strauss' “Death and Transfiguration”; the suite from “On the Waterfront” by Leonard Bernstein; and “The Sorcerer's Apprentice” by Paul Dukas.

The performances are Saturday at 8pm and Sunday afternoon at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg.

Two of the works are certainly comic and based on myth or legend. The other two are inspired by reality and are tragic or at least more serious. All four of them are, each in their own way, magical.

This post offers a little background information for The Sorcerer's Apprentice, Lt. Kizhe, and On the Waterfront. I'll cover Strauss' tone poem, Death and Transfiguration, in a separate post.

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

Many listeners respond to a piece of music if they know “what it's about” – what story is it telling? If they know the story, they'll probably enjoy the music more. If they don't know the story, chances are good they'll make something up to accompany the music in their mind's eye.

Generally, we can describe music that “tells a story” as program music. Music that doesn't is called abstract music, just music about music.

Beethoven's 6th Symphony, the Pastoral, doesn't really tell a story but the composer gave each movement subtitles – “pleasant impressions upon arriving in the countryside – scene by the brook – merry gathering of peasants – storm – song of thanksgiving after the storm” – and though he doesn't give you a phrase-by-phrase story, we can imagine what the music suggests.

Beethoven's 5th Symphony has no nickname and has no “program” but most people think of it as a struggle between a man and some crisis that happens to him – perhaps Beethoven and his own deafness – which he then overcomes in the final movement with its triumphant finale.

While this “localizes” the impact of the music, it remains universally relevant because the generic nature of its conflict not only succeeds as abstract music, it succeeds at fitting almost any kind of dramatic conflict one cares to set against it (witness the famous argument skit between Sid Caesar and Nanette Fabray from a 1950s TV show).

When I played some very energetic music from Jennifer Higdon's Concerto for Orchestra for my students at the State Street Academy of Music, they responded by describing it in “action terms,” as if someone were being chased down a long hall-way, creating the details of a story even though the composer didn't intend it to “tell” a story at all.

The thing is, technically, music can't really “tell” you a story – what one person hears in it (or implies from it) may not be what someone else hears (or implies). Even when the composer writes music inspired by a story or to accompany that story in a ballet or a film, different people can still get different stories or details out of it, listening to it out of context.

In 1940, Walt Disney created a film that has become a classic but at the time was a commercial failure: cartoons set to classical music? It was called Fantasia.

Many people who grew up with this film – like me – now have trouble NOT thinking of a family of flying horses straight out of Greek mythology along with its strolling love-sick centaurs, a rollicking grape harvest (and that donkey!) with Zeus throwing thunderbolts at them when they hear Beethoven's 6th Symphony when the composer was thinking of something a little closer to the countryside outside Vienna in 1806.

Another part of this film became a classic in its own right: Mickey Mouse as the Sorcerer's Apprentice. I doubt there are many people in concert halls today, hearing this music, who will not have the world's most famous mouse in their minds as he deals with a broom that has taken on a life of its own.

So, without further ado, here is that scene – introduced by Deems Taylor who sets up the story (based on an ancient legend) with Leopold Stokowski conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra... and Mickey Mouse in one of his most famous roles in “The Sorcerer's Apprentice” with music by Paul Dukas.
- - - - - - -

- - - - - - -

Though it wasn't intended as a film score when Dukas composed it in 1897, he followed the story so carefully, it's what is often called “cinematographic” music – as if it were written for a film. It is not difficult to imagine the rising tension as the broom, having been shattered by the apprentice's anxious ax-blows with each splinter coming to life as a whole new broom until the whole situation is out of control.

Even the subtle nuances of the sorcerer setting things to right – the raised arms to separate and dissipate the flood waters – down to the final broom-to-the-butt final chords seem tailor made for Disney's animation (of course, it's the other way around).

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

In 1933, Sergei Prokofiev, who'd recently returned to his native Russia which had now become the Soviet Union, wrote music for a film. The director, Alexander Faintsimmer, is unknown in the West today, as is Yuri Tynyánov, the author of the story it's based on. The film survives largely because of its film-score.

- - - - -
UPDATE: an anonymous commenter sent me a link to the original film which I had not found in an earlier quick search and didn't know existed. You can see the entire film (with English subtitles) with Prokofiev's original music, here. The plot of the film is quite different than the traditional program notes usually supplied for the suite: the description below has been amended accordingly. By the way, I prefer using the Russian spelling "Kizhe" than the French "Kije" as it is usually spelled in the West.
- - - - -

The starting point for the 'reel story' of Lt. Kizhe (in Russian, Porúchik Kizhé) is basically a typo. Tsar Paul I, Emperor of Russia (the son of Catherine the Great and infamous for being more than a little unbalanced himself) read a routine report about guard duties that should have included the words porúchiki, zhé... which means simply “the lieutenants, however...” but which an over-worked scribe hurriedly wrote down as Porúchik Kizhé. Hoping no one would notice the error, two ministers hand the report to the Tsar who naturally wonders who this Lieutenant Kizhe is.

Since it was neither polite nor safe to correct much less contradict the Tsar, his ministers were forced to create this “Lieutenant Kizhe” from scratch and turn him into a real person, though one who is "confidential and has no shape." The ministers turn him into a scapegoat for an incident that had annoyed the Tsar during the night - someone had shouted 'Guard!' - and so Kizhe is ordered into exile in Siberia. The ministers figure that's that.

When it is discovered the annoying incident was an accident, the Tsar decides to call Kizhe back from exile and promotes him to the rank of Colonel.

Now the real challenge for the ministers begin. Even before they've figured out how to manage this, the ever insecure Tsar decides he must have an honest man as his personal guard - and of course that would be Kizhe, and he now promotes him to the rank of General.

When he returns (accompanied by the Troika music), our new General is "too tired" to appear before the Emperor who then decides that a young lady-in-waiting should marry Kizhe - immediately! (She is, however, in love with the younger of the two ministers who actually is the one who accidentally shouted "Guard!" when she pinched him that night the Emperor was so annoyed...)

When Kizhe doesn't appear at his own wedding, the older minister basically informs everyone that Kizhe's role in the government is so top secret he has no shape, then tells the priest to get on with the ceremony. Everybody congratulates the newlywed couple (even though the groom seems to be missing), the bride (looking unsure) air-kisses where the groom ought to be and they walk out together, arm in... well, air, reminding me of a scene from "Harvey."

At the wedding reception, it is announced General Kizhe is to be promoted to Major General and is given property and a chest of 10,000 rubles. Everyone looks very pleased and smiles at the empty chair, offering their congratulations.

But of all the misfortunes that Major General Kizhe should fall ill on his wedding night!

The next morning, when the Emperor demands Kizhe present himself so he can announce Kizhe will now command the Imperial Army, Tsar Paul discovers Kizhe is missing. Instead, he finds the young minister hiding under the marriage bed... uhm, looking for General Kizhe... all they could find were his boots which are then placed on a stretcher and taken off to the hospital. Where, unfortunately, Kizhe takes a sudden turn for the worse and is pronounced dead.

The Emperor is very distraught by this and orders a state funeral. While the procession passes beneath the palace windows, the Tsar tells the young minister to bring back the chest of rubles (which the young minister has already pilfered) but he tells him Kizhe had spent it on... on meals. Angered that his trusted servant has proven to be a thief, the Emperor demotes Kizhe, regardless of his deceased state, back to Lieutenant again – no, wait, to Private – and orders the minister to stop the funeral so the body can be returned to be buried as a mere private. To thank the young minister, he makes him a general.

Left alone in his chambers, the Tsar comments on how difficult it is to rule the state.

Though I'd never seen the film before, I found the treatment of the story much more amusing than I'd always read it in liner notes for the concert suite of Prokofiev's music – rather than being far away from the Imperial Capital, Lt. Kizhe is right under the Emperor's nose.

Prokofiev's concert suite from his film-score includes the “birth” of Kizhe, then a song about Kizhe, a celebration of Kizhe's wedding, the famous troika ride (the typical Russian sleigh pulled by three horses) which has since been used by other film-makers and advertisers whenever they need to create a “sound” suggesting winter and snow, and finally the death and burial of Kizhe.

Here's a clip of the troika.
- - - - - - -

- - - - - - -
And here's a link to a scene from a ballet based on the suite. Some of the music for the “birth” of Kizhe originally took place during a scene when Tsar Paul inspects the troops: though the dancer in white (the emperor) prances about like someone from Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks (speaking of parodying bureaucrats), I suspect it's because he is at times both Emperor and the horse he rode in on...

*** ***** ******** ***** ***

Leonard Bernstein was a young conductor and composer in 1954 when he made a brief visit to the world of the film composer, writing music for Elia Kazan's Oscar-winning film, On the Waterfront, with Marlon Brando, a story about union workers filmed around the docks of Hoboken, NJ. The story concerns two brothers, the younger (Brando) who wants to testify against a mob-boss (Lee J. Cobb) represented by the older brother (Rod Steiger).

You can read more about the film here - and the wikipedia plot synopsis here.

One of the most famous scenes in film history is the one between the two brothers in the back of the cab, especially (beginning at 3:40) when Brando blames his brother for his lack of success and says “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been SOMEbody...” Bernstein score is not simply “background” music for this scene: it sets the mood very powerfully.
- - - - - - -

- - - - - - -

While The Sorcerer's Apprentice and Lt. Kije are based on fiction, the story behind Kazan's film was based on a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of newspaper articles exposing corruption and racketeering along the New York waterfront. The film treatment takes it beyond the local aspect to a story of universal significance. Bernstein's music humanizes the struggle, both real and emotional.

Though embedding isn't allowed with this clip of the music Bernstein recorded later in 1960, you can listen to the first 9 minutes of the suite, here.

Bernstein wrote a great deal of music for the stage, much of it later converted to film, but “On the Waterfront” is the only work he composed originally as a film score.

(“On the Waterfront” Poster disclaimer: This image is being used to illustrate the article on the movie in question and is used for informational or educational purposes only.)

- Dr. Dick


  1. Why didn't you just link to the Lieutenant Kizhe film itself?


    (The plot is a bit different from what you describe, though the basic idea is right...)

  2. Dear Anonymous - I didn't know there was a copy of the film available on-line: nothing came up in my initial, rather hurried search (I think I limited myself to YouTube, anyway). So I've included your link and completely rewritten the plot-synopsis which does not, in fact, parallel what we usually read in the program notes for Prokofiev's concert suite.
    Dr. Dick