Per Nørgård WILL-O´-THE-WISPS IN TOWN (2005)
for soprano, trumpet, trombone, violin, cello and piano
At the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Hans Christian Andersen’s birth. The Society for Publishing Danish Music commissioned works from ten Danish composers, myself among them, to be based on fairy tales of our own choice. I chose the fairy tale” The Will-o’-the-Wisps Are in Town, said the Marsh Witch”, and composed fairy tale cantata for mezzo soprano, actor, mixed choir, children’s choir, drummers and orchestra.
Artistic director of the Athelas Sinfonietta Copenhagen, Anders Beyer, commissioned a version for only one singer (Helene Gjerris who sung at the premiere of teh large-scale version in Birmingham, England on Andersen’s 200th birthday, April 2, 2005), and five instruments of my choice: trumpet, trombone, violin, cello and piano. This limitation meant that that the chamber version would necessarily became a re-composed, in parts a wholly new work, rather than a mere arrangement of the larger work. Thus, the absence of large orchestral forces (including percussion and siren) meant that instead of the ´ironic´, programmatic ouverture (“The 1864 Ouverture”), hinting at how the Danish Romantic devotion to nature and nationality deteriorated into hubris and national catastrophe – the chamber music version attempts, in a manner which is actually just as programmatic, to express the deterioration and ultimate petrification of the creative imagination. This is actually the ´inside´ of the initial words of the fairy tale, about a man who “used to know any number of new fairy tales, but now he had run out of them.”
The absence of adult and children’s choirs did not mean that I had to leave out every scene they take part in. Instead, I have recreated some of these movements from the large-scale version in the form of arias. Therefore the part of the soloist is significantly more demanding in the chamber version. In the large version, she remained the Marsh Witch (bare-foot, following Helene´s own idea – self-evident, when you come to think of it), whereas in the smaller version, not only does she have extra arias to sing, but she also takes over of the narrator, as well as that of the poet (Hans Christian Andersen himself!), both of them speaking Andersen’s own words. As before, the wild Marsh Witch-text of Suzanne Brøgger alternates with the words of Andersen, but in the chamber cantata the words are spoken by the same lips, those of the mezzo soprano!
A couple of the choir movements have been reworked (reduced!), so that the great “Here they are now”-culmination has been replaced by a short instrumental fight scene. At certain points in the score, the musicians must express themselves vocally in talking and shouting choirs, and in one instance as a falsetto choir of will-o’-the-wisps.
Two levels of fantasy coexist in this fairy-tale cantata.
The first layer consists of Hans Christian Andersen’s own words, describing a strange incident: Andersen himself meets a real fairy tale character, none other than the Marsh Witch! It is evident that the “man” of the story is indeed Andersen himself, and that it takes place about a year after 1864.
Owing to the short-sighed ultra-nationalistic policy of the Danish government, 1864 was the fatal year when Denmark lost one third of its territory (the Second Schleswig War with Prussia and Austria). The understandable misery of the Danish people was shared by Andersen. He felt that he had run out of inspiration and creative impulse. Now, when the story is about to begin (Andersen actually wrote it in 1865), he - the Poet -realize that he misses writing stories and fairy tales. He decides to go and seek out the Fairy Tale.
The Marsh Witch agrees to help the troubled poet out (she is the proud possessor of a whole collection of stories “in bottles”) but, abruptly, 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 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 I needed 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 a 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 quite 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.