Hans Christian Andersen: how did his tales inspire composers?

The wonderful fairytale world of Hans Christian Andersen inspired works such as Dvoπák’s magical opera Rusalka and Le Rossignol by Stravinsky. We delve into the storybook to find out more…

Hans Christian Andersen: how did his tales inspire composers?

Music can communicate feelings and atmospheres more directly than words and is able to make the unreal spring to life – the natural companion to imagination and fantasy.

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Myths and folktales have always attracted composers, especially the Romantic composers in the Romantic era; but the stories of Hans Christian Andersen have had a special allure for musicians, which endures even today.

At a casual count, at least 80 composers have been inspired by him, among them many enduring masters, and even composers today are finding fresh inspiration in the tales. You might well ask why simple old-fashioned fairytales, the stuff of poppy pantomime, should still speak to a new and sophisticated generation of musicians – but perhaps you’ve never read Andersen with an adult eye. His tales are neither simple nor childish, and in fact music has been at their heart from the beginning.

What did Hans Christian Anderson write?

Andersen never intended his tales to be just for children. Nor, while some do draw on traditional motifs, was he retelling straightforward folktales, like the Brothers Grimm. They are sophisticated literary creations by a writer already established in a different style. Before they appeared, Andersen had actually attracted notice as a poet, playwright and novelist in a radical, realist vein; his first play, The Mulatto, attacked racial discrimination, and his novels display a very Dickensian social concern. But like many other authors he found that realism was a straightjacket for wider human truths he could express more richly in imaginative, poetic form, and it was his first collection of fairytales, published in 1835, that swiftly made his name known across Europe. They attracted both children and adults, rather like the Harry Potter tales today, with their blend of charm and magical adventure, but also an uneasy sense of darker depths, injustice, pathos and potential tragedy, an awareness that even happy endings come at a price and are seldom absolute: the Little Mermaid dissolves into foam in the end; the Little Match-Girl’s consolation is at the point of death; and the porcelain Shepherdess and Chimney-Sweep love one another ‘until they were smashed to bits’. The world they inhabit is magical, but not sweet or certain.

Who was Hans Christian Andersen?

Andersen himself was equally not a simple man, very far from the goofy Danny Kaye depiction in Frank Loesser’s schmaltzy Hollywood musical. He was indeed the son of an illiterate washerwoman and a poor shoemaker in the then small town of Odense, but his father, though depressive and struggling, was educated and had books in the house, and Andersen grew up a voracious reader. He swiftly fell in love with the theatre as well, and at 14, armed chiefly with steely self-belief, went to Copenhagen to make his name. A theatre manager was impressed enough to send the awkward youth to school, and though Andersen hated it, he matured swiftly into a promising author and poet. In other ways, though, he remained the awkward outsider, even when he travelled throughout Europe as his country’s most famous citizen. To his unusually ugly appearance, gaunt and gawky, he added a complex nature, self-deprecating yet intensely ambitious, sometimes entertaining, sometimes demanding and rather leech-like. Charles Dickens, after what was meant to be Andersen’s brief visit, pinned up a sign: ‘Hans Andersen slept in this room for five weeks – which seemed to the family AGES!’ Somewhat sexually confused and frustrated, he had unrequited crushes on the most unsuitable people, such as the star soprano Jenny Lind and the dancer Harald Scharff. One can see self-pity reflected in the pathos and alienation of many of his tales. He was very much his own Ugly Duckling, but as Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s son pointed out, it was his mind that had become a swan.

How did Hans Christian Anderson inspire the Romantic composers?

Andersen may have loved Jenny Lind as much for the music she embodied, for it had always been central to his theatrical fascination. Its power over him appears in the imagery of many of his tales – the compulsive dancing of The Red Shoes, for example, or its transcendent, uplifting effect, even driving back death itself, in The Emperor and the Nightingale. From an early age he co-authored popular musical vaudevilles, and in 1832 he began writing the librettos for more serious operas by I Bredal and the leading theatrical composer JPE Hartmann, who provided many of the bouncy, colourful scores for the famous expressive Bournonville ballets still popular today.

One of their operas, Liden Kirsten (Little Kirsten, 1848) remains a major work of the Danish repertory, with a tenor aria recorded by Axel Schiotz and Lauritz Melchior, among others. Andersen’s growing international success, and his wide-ranging travels abroad, increasingly brought him into contact with leading European artistic figures, not only those of literature such as Dickens and the Brownings, but major composers, among them Schumann, Liszt, Mendelssohn, and even Wagner. He was one of Wagner’s earliest admirers – setting him in the forefront of musical taste – and visited him in his Swiss exile in 1855; Wagner read Andersen’s tales to his family. Schumann set four of Andersen’s poems in his Fünf Lieder Op. 40 (1840) and dedicated it to him. Many leading Scandinavian figures also set his poems, from Niels Gade in early years to Edvard Grieg, while Lumbye, the genial ‘Strauss of Denmark’ in the Tivoli Gardens, created Andersen waltzes. Right up to Andersen’s death in 1875, and after, he remained a favourite subject for Scandinavian composers, too many to list; but others across the world were taking an increasing interest in the tales themselves.

How Hans Christian Anderson influenced the 20th century composers

The years before and after World War One saw something of an international Andersen explosion. In Britain, for example, influential composers such as Charles Stanford and Granville Bantock composed Andersen works. Delius’s early opera Irmelin (1890) was derived from Andersen’s The Princess and the Swineherd. In Austria, Mahler’s contemporary Zemlinsky based two of his richly orchestrated pieces, Once upon a time (1900) and The Little Mermaid (1903), on Andersen tales, as did the young Erich Wolfgang Korngold his precocious piano pieces (1910). So did their Czech neighbour Vitezslav Novák – and another even greater Czech composer, of whom more later. The Franco-Swiss Honegger also set The Little Mermaid.

In Russia, Stravinsky, borrowing a taste for fairytale subjects along with much else from his teacher Rimsky-Korsakov, turned to Andersen for his opera Le Rossignol (The Nightingale, 1914) and his Tchaikovskian ballet Le baiser de la fée (The Fairy’s Kiss, 1928, based on The Ice Maiden). Prokofiev set The Ugly Duckling as a showpiece song (1914). Even in the 1930s the Ballet Russe commissioned d’Erlanger’s Les cent baisers, again based on The Princess and the Swineherd, while 1935 saw Jean Françaix’s Le roi nu (based on The Emperor’s New Clothes) premiered at the Paris Opera.

By then, though, the tide was slackening, even back in Denmark. Louis Glass’s Elverhoj was Andersen-inspired, but the greatest of Danish composers, his contemporary Carl Nielsen, steered curiously clear, setting only a couple of songs. Late in life he did consider an Andersen-based opera, but never pursued the idea; instead, in 1930, he contributed incidental music to Amor og Digteren (Love and the poet), a play about Andersen and Jenny Lind. Perhaps he felt Andersen was becoming overworked, or that the tales weren’t suited to his particular fresh-air genius.

If so, he had a point. A lot of the music based on Andersen, however fine in its own terms, fails to capture the poignant atmosphere of his tales with any great success, becoming either too sugary or too glassily sophisticated. The latter is true of many recent composers who’ve adopted Andersen, such as Hans Werner Henze, by all accounts, or the serialist Werner Egk in his chamber version of The Nightingale. And it’s well-nigh impossible to find anything much Andersenian about Helmut Lachenmann’s opera The Little Match-Girl (2001), whose long and cacophonous score is interleaved with, among other things, an anti-capitalist rant by the German terrorist Gudrun Ensslin. Much more impressive is the British composer Brian Easdale’s Oscar-winning ballet score for Powell & Pressburger’s famous film of The Red Shoes (1948), magically danced by Moira Shearer. Easdale, deftly eclectic, even using the electronic ondes martenot, captures the right mix of charm and mounting unease, even if the ending, the amputation of the unstoppable feet, is rendered rather less gory.

Which are the best musical interpretations of Hans Christian Anderson’s tales?

Only a few works, for me, catch the peculiar Andersen magic. The closest comes from a little-known Danish composer who was always an Andersenian outsider. This is August Enna (1859-1939), son of a poor Sicilian immigrant family – cobblers like Andersen’s father – who, like him, escaped into the world of the theatre. Despite some success in Denmark and abroad his operas, many based on Andersen tales, were often ignored by the musical establishment. However, the only one yet recorded, The Little Match-Girl (1897), reveals a clear-sighted minor genius, strongly influenced by Wagner. His music is as directly vivid and charming as Humperdinck’s, but without the hint of over-sweetness. Among internationally famous composers Stravinsky is quite successful, especially in the elusive early opera Le Rossignol, despite its stylistic diversity; but the later Le baiser de la Fée, diminishing some of the sentiment in its Tchaikovsky themes, achieves a cool magic of its own.

Perhaps the greatest Andersenian work of all is curiously enough one of the most freely adapted, transplanting The Little Mermaid to the Czech forests of Dvořák’s Rusalka (1901). The librettist Jaroslav Kvapil introduced many elements of his own, but kept the central framework of the tale. He too was an outsider, and the heartbreakingly vulnerable music he creates for his alienated heroine, and the entire wonderful atmosphere of magic and legend with which the score surrounds her, is resonant with Andersen’s authentic art.

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Is Hans Christian Anderson still relevant today?

Can we still respond positively to Andersen today? We’re rude about Frank Loesser and pantomimes – but is today’s ‘serious’ musical language biased towards intellect at the expense of feeling? Can it really capture that delicately elusive magic? If it merely stresses the darker depths and psychological writhings in the tales at the expense of their poetic charm and airy grace, it will be just as great a travesty as anything Hollywood could produce. Perhaps the Symphonic Fairytale series and the other commissions represent a challenge, a bid to recapture a lost innocence; and given the distinguished composers involved, we can at least hope for some interesting results.