Soprano, Mezzo soprano, Tenor, narrator
THE WILL-O’-THE-WISPS GO TO TOWN
A Fairy-Tale Cantata
Texts by Hans Christian Andersen (1865)
Suzanne Brøgger (2004)
Preface / Programme Note
Two levels of fantasy coexist in this fairy-tale cantata.
On one level we are guided by Hans Christian Andersen’s own words. Taken from his story, The Will-o’-the-Wisps Are in Town, the Marsh Witch [org. Woman] Said they are spoken by the Narrator and relate a remarkable incident that happens to the Narrator. It is fairly obvious that ‘The Man’ in the story is indeed Andersen himself, and that the time is one year after 1864.
Owing to the ultra-nationalistic policy of the Danish government, 1864 was the fatal year when the Second Schleswig War with Prussia and Austria lost Denmark one third of its territory. A sense of despondency weighed on the Danish people. Andersen suffered too, lacking inspiration and creative impulse. Only now, when the story is about to begin (Andersen actually wrote it in 1865) does the Poet realize that he misses writing stories and fairy tales. He decides to go and seek the Fairy Tale out.
The remarkable incident that happens to Andersen (yes, it is he, there can be no doubt about that when one reads the story) is his ensuing encounter with a true fairy-tale character, the Marsh Witch herself! What comes of this meeting is told by Andersen and depicted in the music of the cantata.
The Marsh Witch agrees to help the troubled poet out (she is the proud possessor of a whole collection of bottled stories) but she interrupts her Marsh Witch Brew boost and instead proceeds to warn The Man and the townspeople that the Will-o’-the-Wisps have just arrived in town and intend to spend an entire year turning people’s heads! "Therefore," her dramatic disclosure ends, "be on your guard, humankind! The Will-o’-the-Wisps are in town."
This is also where Andersen’s story ends, however. Some will say, it ends just when it was about to begin! At least that is what I thought, as a composer. This story is a wonderful torso, but for a presentation of it in music we need to know more - what are those Will-o’-the-Wisps really up to in town, and how do the townspeople react? In short, what really happened?
I passed my questions on to the poet, Suzanne Brøgger, and her words create the second level of fantasy in the cantata. She simply took the poor Will-o’-the-Wisps and placed them in the metropolis of today! The year is [now] 2005, and in comparison with the extent of seduction and decadence in modern times, all that the 1865-Will-o’-the-Wisps can come up with to tempt us is harmless and to no avail.
So, the Will-o’-the-Wisps fail miserably, and the audience is presented with a disturbing succession of revelations of present-day morals. (It is comforting, however, that it is we ourselves who are ‘intentionally blind’ and that we are not the victims of witchcraft - because this again means that we ourselves are free to choose another path, a better one.)
The cantata opens in a light and ‘Danish’ mood that soon takes a militaristic turn during the orchestral prelude, an ‘1864 Overture’ depicting the consequences of one-eyed nationalism in 1864, namely decline, chaos and confusion. The cantata is concluded with a hymn to Fairy Tale itself as something that can come knocking on everyone’s door; something which for all its strange language and often somewhat peculiar storyline maybe has the power to make you and me and all of us think differently.
The orchestra and the two soloists already mentioned above (the Narrator and the Marsh Witch, a mezzo soprano) are joined by a mixed chorus (the townspeople, also represented by a soprano and a tenor soloist from the chorus) and a children’s chorus, divided into the little ones from the town and the invading Will-o’-the-Wisps from the meadow land outside; the latter come with a an attendant group of young musicians playing percussion instruments.
That this cantata should be integrated - in the sense that it is written for both professionals and amateurs or semi-professionals (percussionists from music schools or music academies) - seemed the obvious choice for the composer, entering the world of this Andersen story.
The cantata was commissioned by the Society for the Publication of Danish Music for the bicentenary of Andersen’s birth, and my work on the cantata was supported by the Danish Arts Foundation.
Per Nørgård, 2005