Tales from the Realm of Faerie, Part Two
On November 8, 2018 in Faith and Culture, I proposed the idea of composing a musical counterpart to the great Christian fairytale tradition of MacDonald, Tolkien, and Lewis. I explained how I intended the first movement of my Symphony No. 2: Tales From the Realm of Faerieto be regarded in some kind of analogous way to those works of literature, and I provided a link to a web page where you can hear that movement.
Upon completion of the second movement (to which I will also provide a link, below), I would now like to go a bit deeper into the comparison between instrumental music and the fairytale, this time invoking George MacDonald’s short essay, “The Fantastic Imagination.” MacDonald makes several references to music, notably this one: “The true fairytale is, to my mind, very like the sonata.” I will return to that particular comparison in due course. But first it would be good to make a certain distinction. My previous article focused largely on the allegorical aspect of the Christian fairytale genre. However, allegory is an independent aspect of those works. As MacDonald says, “A fairytale is not [necessarily] an allegory. There may be allegory in it, but it is not an allegory.” Rather, a fairytale that does not contain a specific allegorical symbolism – for example, Christ figures in the form of lions and such – is simply an imaginative story that describes and draws us into another “realm”, as my symphony’s title calls it.
While stories from this realm may not always line up allegorically with a particular narrative, they may still be a great vehicle for beauty, truth, and goodness. MacDonald says a fairytale “cannot help but have some meaning; if it have proportion and harmony, it has vitality, and vitality is truth. The beauty may be plainer in it than the truth, but without the truth the beauty could not be, and the fairytale would have no delight.” He goes on to say that the realm of Faerie is governed by the truth of its own consistent set of rules, which is perhaps also to say, its own consistent cultural milieu. For example, he says it would break the spell if we found “one of the gracious creatures of some childlike region talking Cockney.” It may be noted here that many of our postmodern, so-called fairytale films like Shrek, Tangled, Frozen, The Princess and the Frog, Ella Enchanted, and Enchanted badly fail this test by constantly referring to modern pop culture (e.g., someone wise-cracking that the monster “needs a Tic Tac” for his breath).
Likewise, in seemingly abstract art, especially music, the transcendental value of “truth” may have to do with a consistent operating principle or musical language, perhaps unique to that composition. G.K. Chesterton said, “Art consists of limitation. The most beautiful part of every picture is the frame.” Like a fairytale, each piece of music (ideally) is framed by its own operational “rules,” in terms of the particular style of melody, harmony, rhythm, and form. If you threw a few bars of Mozart into a composition by Wagner, the rules that govern the “realm” of Wagner would be broken. The world of the fairytale in literature delights us with itsfantastic imagination (MacDonald’s title) – for example, talking animals in Narnia – because we understand Narnia’s boundaries and its rules. Indeed it would be more surprising to come across an animal in Narnia who could not speak.
For MacDonald, truth comes from “proportion and harmony,” which create “vitality”. Proportion in a musical composition has, among other things, to do with its form, the literal sense of proportion in time. For example, in a “ternary” form with an ABA design we feel the music divided into thirds. The first melody (“A”) might go on for two minutes, and then a contrasting, new melody (“B”) might last over the next two minutes, before “A” returns to balance the tri-partite proportion for the last two minutes. Popular songs have something like this kind of plan in their arrangement of the “verses” and the “choruses”. MacDonald’s use of the word “harmony” is metaphorical, as in “a harmonious arrangement of furniture in this room” – that is to say, a pleasing one. As a nineteenth-century writer, he could not have meant to include the discordant harmonies of twentieth-century Modernist music, but was saying that vitality, ergo truth, is the product of pleasing (“harmonious”) sounds in discernible proportions.
MacDonald qualifies this idea of making up one’s own set of rules by stating that the moral laws of our world are the exception, lest truth fundamentally be violated: “The laws of the spirit of man must hold, alike in this world and in any world [man] may invent.” Is this true of music, though? Are not abstract sounds in the air free from the imposition of moral law? I would reply that they are not free of an obligation to truth. If, in MacDonald’s terms, you cannot hear in them anything like “proportion and harmony,” then you are essentially hearing an attempted fairytale whose enchantment has been broken by a fundamental violation of truth. He says, “If my drawing, on the other hand, is so far from being a work of art that it needs THIS IS A HORSE written under it, what can it matter that neither you or your child can know what it means?” I have heard some pieces of music that need “THIS IS A HORSE” (or more to the point, “THIS IS MUSIC”) written under them.
MacDonald further says, “A genuine work of art must mean many things; the truer its art, the more things it will mean.” This certainly applies to music. Here is where he compares the fairytale to a sonata. “If two or three men sat down to write each what the sonata meant to him, what approximation to definite idea would be the result? Little enough…. To one the sonata is a world of odour and beauty, to another of soothing only and sweetness.” And here is his main point: “The greatest forces lie in the region of the uncomprehended.” Music has a natural advantage here, being innately ineffable, whereas the presumption of words is that they are precise in nature. However, words can be woven into such fantastic imaginings that in their cumulative disposition, each word adding to the meaning of the previous ones, they can also possess transcendence, that is, “odour and beauty”. To write and to read a fairytale, he says is not to “give [the reader] things to think about” but to “wake things up that are in him.” Likewise, he says, “The best way with music, I imagine, is not to bring the forces of our intellect to bear upon it, but to be still and let it work on that part of us for whose sake it exists. We spoil countless things by intellectual greed.”
This makes a good segue, to borrow a musical term, into a few comments on this new second movement of my symphony. In the light of the above comments, I will say that in this movement, as in the first, I paid careful attention to “proportion” in the form and to a “harmonious” sound, generally. There are clear “fictional characters” in the form of different themes, but they will mean different things to different listeners, and, I hope, “wake things up” that are in them. There are allegories, too, for me, as I described in my previous article, but these remain private, and it is for the listener to use his own fantastic imagination and be willing to enter a fantastic realm. Of course this symphony is a work on its way to the concert hall with a live orchestra, where there will be no visual images accompanying the performance. On my website, however, as with the first movement, I have added some images for fun, which you are invited to view or ignore, as you wish. I have here shared a very realistic-sounding virtual “mock-up”, which is what we composers create nowadays to give to conductors and producers, to “demo” how the work will sound. So here is another sneak peek at the behind-the-scenes stages in the creation of a symphony for large orchestra. On this site will be videos of both movements. Scroll down for the video of this new second movement: Bonus Video.