January 21, 2018

The unsettling innocence of Britten's "Midsummer" Fairies


As mentioned in last week's post, Benjamin Britten's opera A Midsummer Night's Dream opens with the supernatural. Rather than delay the appearance of the fairies with a lengthy expository first act set in Athens (as in Shakespeare's play), the composer chose to plunge us immediately into a world of magic and spells and fanciful winged creatures.

"Fairy Twilight" (John Anster Christian Fitzgerald)
Forget every image you've ever had of fairies, from Tinkerbell to the Tooth Fairy to Pinocchio's Blue Fairy to the Dew Fairy in Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel (although, as we shall see below, Britten seems to have tipped his cap to the latter in a sly homage). Conventional "fairy music" is typified by the Overture to Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream" music: delicate, ethereal and rapid, depicting tiny sprites darting here and there at lightning speed. Above all, they are cute. So are Britten's fairies obese and sluggish and repulsive?

No, no, and no! Puck boasts that he can "put a girdle about the earth in forty minutes"; let's see Tinkerbell beat that. And since children are generally cast as Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Mustardseed and Mote, the cuteness angle is covered.

But Britten's music is as far removed from Mendelssohn's sound-world as sushi is from cotton candy. Listen to the orchestral introduction to Act 1. For opera lovers accustomed to Puccini, Verdi and Mozart, the music is fairly daunting: not exactly atonal, but odd, tuneless and non-functional. Unrelated major triads are connected by mysterious, sinewy glissandi in the strings.


The sound is primordial, primeval, unsettling. "Oh no", wails the conservative listener, "it's crazy modern music with no melody! Why, why, why?"

If that's your gut reaction, let me flip your sensibilities upside down. Remember, what takes place in this forest is a "dream" -  it's right there in the title!

And we dream when we're asleep.

And when we sleep, many of us....

....SNORE.

Listen again. Sliding up, sliding down; sliding up, sliding down. Get it now?

The orchestra is snoring. The forest is snoring. You and I, and all the mortals who enter the forest, are asleep!!

Yes, it's unsettling - it's also funny! Once you get the "joke", you can't help but smile. But on to the fairies themselves.

There is a unison chorus of Tytania's fairies, singing of the life they lead:
Over hill, over dale,
Thorough bush, thorough brier,
Over park, over pale,
Thorough flood, thorough fire,
I do wander everywhere.
Swifter than the moon’s sphere.
And I serve the Fairy Queen,
To dew her orbs upon the green, etc.

These verses have proven popular with several composers. (The first line is actually used in "The Caisson Song", though I suspect any allusion to Shakespeare is unintentional.) It will be useful to contrast some settings with Britten's, to better understand what he was trying to achieve in his operatic version. Here are three choral settings worth noting; the links will take you to YouTube performances.

A. Ralph Vaughan Williams. This 1951 composition is lilting and graceful. However, the composer doesn't appear to have had fairies in mind as much as a jolly group of outdoorsy British men and women out for a tramp in the countryside. They sound... mortal.

B. J. L. Hatton. This British composer was a contemporary of Mendelssohn; his setting seems an attempt to emulate Mendelssohn's elfin lightness. But again; it's more a virtuoso choral vehicle than music suitable for a music drama.

Amy Beach, a gifted American composer with whom we should all be more acquainted, has a simply gorgeous and ethereal version imbued with grace and lyricism.

With all those more or less conventional settings in your ear, now go back to the Britten link above and listen to this "Over hill, over dale". (I begins about 90 seconds in.)

Big, big difference.


The descending and ascending scale-figures clearly remove these fairies from either the 19th-century world of Victorian Romanticism or the Disney ideal of winsome sweetness. Those scales mesh nicely with the "snoring" motion of the orchestra; we are still sleeping, still dreaming. Their vocal line is simple, yet the rhythm lacks symmetry and the phrases are irregular; the effect is slightly stringent and harsh, yet also full of child-like innocence.

As for Hansel and Gretel, I hear a veiled reference in this phrase of our fairies:

This is so similar to the Witch's "Hocus-pocus" spell in Humperdinck's opera that I doubt it's a coincidence, particularly as both operas deal with magic spells being cast in the forest.

The piquant off-beat charm of the fairies continues with this tune which is truly catchy despite harmonies that refuse to support "normal" tonality:

Humor, catchiness, charm - all of these qualities are assigned to the magic beings in Britten's Midsummer forest; yet the sound of them creates a highly original conception of what a "fairy" is. As we'll see, these beings are less cuddly than mischievous; less precious than weirdly innocent.

In coming posts, we'll examine the King and Queen of Fairyland, Oberon and Tytania.

Next week: what the lovers learn in their dreams

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