I adore fairy stories. The Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, even Disney. They’ve all been a staple part of my reading diet circa ‘a long, long time ago’. Hence how I find myself here this evening, at a concert about a fairy tale. When my friend invited me to join her for this Hallé orchestra event, she knew I’d say ‘yes!’ straight away given our current mutual obsession with ‘Once Upon a Time’ a TV show featuring all your favourite characters as they battle evil, cross realms, and fire off copious amounts of magic spells.Tonight is a special combined lecture and performance of prominent Czech composer Antonín Dvořák’s (1841-1904) work. Famed for his symphonic style, which eloquently captures folk customs, his work is heavily rooted in Slavic traditions. Towards his later life, and following a period of travel, Dvořák wrote five ‘symphonic poems’; single continuous orchestral movements which depict short stories. Four of these are based upon the works of Karel Jaromír Erben, a mid- 19th century writer of folklore tales and ballads, and the fifth upon what is assumed to be an autobiographical tale.
Tonight’s recital is of the fourth of Dvorak’s creations, ‘The Golden Spinning Wheel’, recounting the ballad of the same name from Erben’s collection ‘Kytice’. Like all good fairy stories there is romance, a Prince, an evil step-mother, a wise old sorcerer, a little light magic, a dastardly plot exposed, reunited lovers, and a gruesome dismemberment. (Ok, so perhaps that last one’s a little more macabre than the norm!).
We take our seats and the musicians file onstage, dressed all in black. Our narrator extraordinaire this evening is the conductor (and also music director of the Hallé) Sir Mark Elder, who strides front and centre, spotlight shining, and greets us with a warm smile.
He introduces the evening and explains he wanted to do something a little different tonight, and will therefore be taking the opportunity to discuss Dvořák’s particular style, musical theatrics, and layering of instruments, all before performing the piece in its entirety.
We are sitting comfortably, and so he begins. Our attentions are instantly captivated, for he is quite the wordsmith. He looks a little like another Sir, Sir Anthony Hopkins, and his gestures, intonation, and facial features prove he is just as talented, as he expertly conveys the clear passion and love he holds for Dvořák’s music.
He first demonstrates some of the musical devices Dvořák uses in his work through samples of another of his symphonic poems, ‘The Wild Dove’. Once we are well acquainted with the subtleties and nuances, he deftly turns his attentions to ‘The Golden Spinning Wheel’.
The tale unfolds thus. ‘Once upon a time, there was a Prince riding through a forest who happens upon a solitary cottage…’. At this point we are treated to the brass section demonstrating the ride, perfectly denoting both the timbre of the horses canter, and the pomp and circumstance that often surrounds a royal travelling party.
Next, Elder reveals our beautiful maiden, Dornička, who is seated outside the cottage, spinning away upon her wheel. The violin takes centre-stage here, its luscious top notes almost reminding me of the fine strains of ‘moon river’. It perfectly encapsulates her beauty, and I imagine her long blonde locks blowing on the breeze, her golden crown catching in the dappled afternoon sun, as she converses with our Prince.
Our Prince, of course, is overcome with passion, as the orchestra signify, and how can he not help but fall in love with her instantly? The music is so sweet and soft, so ethereal; I too see why the Prince is beguiled, the pace of this section flawlessly capturing the ardent hedonistic attraction.
Dornička protests, meekly, telling the Prince that he will have to come back later to speak with her step-mother, who also lives in the cottage (along with her step-sister, who looks similar to Dornička herself).
The Prince does of course return, and we witness an exchange of words. The ugly evil of the step-mother is skilfully expressed by the low reedy tones of the clarinet, and-as Elder clarifies-the pace of the notes reflect the intonations of the very words of the poem, as if we are hearing the conversation itself. It’s an extremely clever device and almost makes you feel as if you are hearing a song performed, whose lyrics you have momentarily forgotten. Simply wonderful.
The Prince requests of the step-mother that Dornička is brought to his castle so he may marry her, and so the step-mother, step sister and Dornička, all set out, but alas, as they ride deeper into the forest sinister music pre-empts the dastardly deed about to be committed. A symphonic frenzy ensues, however it is short, and actually over in mere moments, a true crime of passion, as Dornička’s eyes are plucked out, and her hands and feet dismembered; the pizzicato of the strings illustrating the violence here.
The perpetrators gather up these body parts, leaving the mutilated corpse behind, and arrive at the castle where the step-sister is passed off to the Prince as Dornička. A royal wedding swiftly ensues, set to traditional Czech music, but low and mournful, as if hinting at this false glimmer.
No sooner are they wed, than the Prince rides off to battle (naturally), instructing his faux-bride to spin for him in his absence. Meanwhile, in the forest, a mysterious old sorcerer, somewhat fortuitously, stumbles across Dornička’s butchered remains and decides to bring her back to life. He sends his apprentice, a young boy, to the castle three times to persuade the step-mother to part with the two feet in return for a golden spinning wheel, the two hands for a golden distaff, and the two eyes for a golden spindle. The body parts retrieved, the wizard is able to repair and revive Dornička.
Elder is outstanding through all this. He effortlessly breaks the story down little by little, revealing each delicate layer like an onion, stripping our narrative down to the bare bones; before building it back up piece by piece, taking us on a guided tour of the subtle shades and refinements of Dvořák’s work.
Three times we bear witness to the young boy bartering for the body parts, his role played by the flute, matched with the sulky greed of our step-mother on the clarinet once more. We hear the words in earnest; as yet again the tempo and notes reflect the syllables of a spoken conversation.
Our scene shifts; the Prince of course returns, and asks to see what our imposter has spun for him.
Gleefully, our Dornička-doppelgänger produces the golden wheel, and in true Fantasia fashion the wheel animates as she spins, beginning to sing; simultaneously revealing the gruesome details of the crime, and sealing the ill-fate of our schemers. At once, our Prince rushes to the forest to be reunited with his true love, the real, and now whole again, Dornička.
This crescendo is more mature and developed than our earlier love proclamation, and feels as if this transition has evolved out of such great adversity. The moment our lost lovers reunite reminds me of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, the climax a dramatic breath-taking affair. Sheer magnificence.
Once demonstrated in its composite parts, the cogs of our time piece exposed, Sir Elder next proceeds to conduct the piece in its sum, with visual screens to the side of stage denoting with written prompts whereabouts in our story we are up to.
I barely need the screen to guide me as we commence though, so well has my guru taught me. I hear the music, and I SEE the music, clear as day, as it flows through the tale, weaving like a strong, fine thread, linking each segment together with mastery and expertise.
I am there from the very beginning; a member of our Prince’s riding party, with them as they journey through the forest, royal banners blazing high. I trace our story, spellbound; right through to those final burning moments when our lovers reunite. My skin is tingling as it finalés, and I am set alight with pure mystique.
It’s all over, and I grin from ear to ear as raucous applause follows, our players all taking a bow, with Sir Elder leaving, then returning for an encore bob, his charismatic smile still upon his face.
Such imagination, and beauty, I feel as if I have just read a great tome, so immersive was the duality of this experience, the events of our fairy tale now forever emblazoned firmly in my mind. As we spill out of the Bridgewater, carried forward by the momentum of fellow audience members, we recount our favourite parts to one another with great gusto.
When I do eventually bid my friend adieu, I amble happily off into the still-sunny evening, and am somehow able to make it out of the woods, back to reality, but with just a little bit of magic still ringing in my ears.