Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Music Of Fantasy Fiction

I am not the foremost authority on Fantasy as anyone reading this post will soon figure out, but I am interested in both Fantasy and Science Fiction as forms of entertainment. So rather than try to write authoritatively on a subject I have limited knowledge about, I thought I would relay it into a subject I am quite familiar with. So this is why I've tried to connect Fantasy (and later Science Fiction) with the art of music. There are several motifs found throughout musical representations of both genres, which are used for good reason: they are attempts at accurately portraying the worlds built to defy normal fictional conventions. So much of our culture is based in music that it would be foolish to try to imagine these worlds without trying to hear them artistically.

All throughout the common-practice period of music, and even today in the pieces of the 21st century, music can be used to set an atmosphere with which the listener can create his/her own interpretations. This genre being considered "absolute music", pieces wherein the music is written without a specific story to be told. The opposite of this could be considered "programmatic music", where a story is told through certain musical techniques. Some such pieces that fall under the former category go by the title of Fantasia, literally meaning fantasy. While this title was more commonly used for pieces before the 20th century, there have been more Fantasias written than can possibly be listed. J.S. Bach, W.A. Mozart and other baroque/classical composers used the title to convey the sense of an otherworldly wonder. Others in the romantic era like Chopin and Brahms use this title, while still composers in the 20th and 21st centuries write such pieces to further the ideas of atmosphere as a means to tell a story, all through the mind of the listener. While this does not directly relate to the ideas of Fantasy Fiction, it shares the otherworldly themes that the stories of the genre present.

The words Fantasy Fiction can often evoke memories of fairies and pixie dust, ugly little creatures and strong noble men hiding high in stone castles. This stereotype and others like it have been exhausted since novels like the Lord Of The Rings series had its boom onto the market. While we can see the cliche in the actual act of storytelling, it's a bit more difficult to find the root of the cliches faced in music based on these stories. What kind of cliches? There are several ways of conveying the atmosphere of these man-built worlds. One example found in almost every piece of "fantasy music" is the motif of a large, brilliant, brassy fare. Those that make the listener envision a noble knight or stoic king being serenaded by the various peasants and countrymen that make up his/her kingdom. This theme was largely utilized by composer Howard Shore in his attempts to bring The Lord Of The Rings: Fellowship Of The Ring to life, in his score for the film version. The stately theme used to represent the Fellowship is a broad showcase of the orchestra, displaying the heroic characteristics of the team, and largely Aragorn. In another musical telling of this story, this time by famous concert band composer Johan de Meij in his first symphony, written as a programmatic representation of the novels. This time, he uses a fanfare figure to represent the nobility of the hobbits in their frightening quest to destroy the one ring, which closes the work on a grand, extravagant note.

Another idea used in fantasy music is that of dancing fairies and other light magical ideas. Pytor Ilyich Tchaikovsky is known as one of the greatest melodists and romantic composers of all time. His Shchelkunchik, better known as The Nutcracker, is a suite of music from a ballet that he wrote. The Nutcracker is based on a story by E.T.A. Hoffman called "The Nutcracker And The Mouse King", about a Nutcracker coming to life and whisking away a young girl to a magical kingdom of dolls. The piece has many memorable themes, one of which is a tune written about a magical being known as the Sugar Plum Fairy. Tchaikovsky was a master orchestrator, using a little known instrument, the celesta (essentially a series of metal plates struck similarly in fashion with a piano) to illustrate the light, flowery and fantastic nature of the creature. The theme is mysterious, inviting the listener to picture a tiny fairy going about its environment, enchanting its surroundings along the way. This piece was used in the Walt Disney film, Fantasia along with the rest of The Nutcracker, to show the pieces through the eyes of Disney animators. Again, the theme accompanies a small magical being gently flying and dancing around a garden and pond, freezing plants and water into beautiful, shining glittery objects.

There are still myriad examples of what can constitute musical representations of various sorts of Fantasy Fiction. Among them are representations of folk-tales, like Russian composer Igor Stravinsky's ballet Petroushka, portraying a marionette that comes to life. Another may come from another Russian composer, Modest Mussorgsky, in his attempts to bring the tale of the Chernabog to life in his piece "A Night On Bald Mountain" (which coincidentally was used in Disney's Fantasia.) There are also several scores for Fantasy films, among the most notable are The Lord Of The Rings series scored by Howard Shore, as well as the Harry Potter series scored by John Williams.

In my next post (if this one went as well as I hoped), I will discuss the use of music in portraying Fantasy Fiction's cousin, Science Fiction. Like Fantasy Fiction, there are several tools in the composer's archive used to convey this fantastic brand of storytelling.

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