(Canberra Symphony Orchestra)

There are Fairies

(Articles & Program Notes)
Published – 26.04.2021
(Writing)

When we are young, we jump headfirst into stories, into magic and fantasy and make-believe. We spend hours occupied on the tales we have invented ourselves, play-acting them and recruiting others to take bit parts. I’ve been thinking about this recently: my seemingly lost ability to leave the reality of bills and deadlines for the creations of my imagination. Of course, we have collectively experienced what has been for many the most challenging year of our lives so far. It has been harder to tumble into unknown worlds as the news marches forwards relentlessly, capturing out attention on every device whether we want it to or not. I was bemoaning this situation recently when a Spotify playlist I had playing as background music made the unusual choice to shuffle Schubert’s famous setting of one of Goethe’s Erlkönig into my speakers – unusual because I had forgotten adding it to the playlist in question, and unusual because I would never consider this grand song “background”. It caught me off guard – the driving tempo, the characterful storytelling, the distinctly colourful setting. In just four minutes, a whole night had passed, a tragedy had ensued, a life had been lost. What has been missing in these long days and nights at home? Stories! Fairy tales, of course, and tales of the supernatural, but also stories of love and romance, and lost love and deception, and stories of lives lived.

“Who rides so late through the night and wind? / It is the father with his child. / He has the boy in his arms; / he holds him safely, he keeps him warm.” So begins Goethe’s Erlkönig, setting the scene for a pacey and devastating poem about a young child attacked by the Erlking, who, in European folklore is an evil elf waiting patiently for children who spend too much time alone in the woods. The Erlking, though, lives amongst many good fairies and otherworldly creatures – in Liza Lehmann’s There are fairies at the bottom of our garden, who dance with the “butterflies and bees” underneath lights held by rabbits and our narrator is, it happens, the queen of the fairies, who steals away in the evening after a long day of being a little girl.

But stories cannot all be fairies and gnomes and terrible elves – love must make an appearance. Many favourite operas cover extensively the life cyles of a love story, but two of the most famous arias – Mozart’s Deh vieni non tardar from Le Nozze di Figaro and Lehar’s Meine Lippen sie Kussen so Heiss from Giuditta – deliver snapshots of two very significant parts of falling in love. Deh vieni is a declaration of love from Susannah to her lover, Figaro (though of course, in opera tradition, she sings it while dressed as the Countess as a ruse to outsmart the Count…) Lehar’s Meine Lippen comes a little earlier in the game of love – “my love’s fiery kiss” speaks of the title character Giuditta’s new work as a night club dancer, and the early stage of falling for someone, even if they are not accessible to you.

As quickly as love comes, it is just as fast to go – or at least such is truth in stories and songs. In Amy Woodforde-Finden’s Kashmiri Song, poet Laurence Hope’s (who was born Adela Florence Cory, and used Hope as a pseudonym) storyteller writes a love letter of sorts, asking where their lover has gone. They reminisce on better times, and the pale hands of their beloved, but wish they’d be dead rather than see the one they adore wave them goodbye. Poulenc’s Les chemins de l’amour echoes these reminiscing’s: “I search for you ceaselessly,” the poem goes, “Lost paths, you are no more and your echoes are muted.” And the lamentation does not end there: “My peace is gone, my heart is heavy,” sobs Gretchen in Schubert’s Gretchen am Spinnrade, wearing her heart on his sleeve even more significantly than Poulenc or Woodforde-Finden. Gretchen am Spinnrade (Gretchen at the Spinning Wheel) spins and cries for her beloved completely openly, with not a care for who might hear or who might judge. And encapsulating all these heartbroken feelings, Stephen Foster’s Why, no one to love? written in 1862, is still a clear insight into the minds of all of us who have ever grieved over not being able to find someone to go steady with or share stories with, or think of forever alongside.

And then life, with all its stories and love and losing of love, must come to an end. Mozart’s Abendempfindung comes to its narrator at the end of the day – the “sun has vanished” and the storyteller is considering the nearing end to their life. The imagined closing, though, is elegantly poetic: our narrator imagines flying to the “land of rest”, and pictures themselves appearing to their friends present and weeping at the grave. Their tears will become, so imagines our evening thinker, a pearl in their crown. So their life, and all its woes and triumphs, heartbreaks and joys, is not over, not really. Their friends carry on their stories, and through the telling’s and re-telling’s, they survive.

Stories, I’ve realised, need not take you out of your life for long, but are entirely necessary for our imaginations and for our survival. They are warnings and laments, reflections of our inner-most feelings and promises of how life will one day be. They speak to romance and pain and deception and lust, and most importantly, perhaps, they remind us to keep our eyes wide open. After all, there are fairies at the bottom of our garden.

Notes:
Erlkönig Translation © Richard Wigmore, author of Schubert: The Complete Song Texts, published by Schirmer Books, provided courtesy of Oxford Lieder (www.oxfordlieder.co.uk)

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