Notes On A Fantasy

An illustration from ‘Elfin Song’ by Florence Susan Harrison, shared by Plum Leaves on Flickr, Creative Commons.

holsthousezoom     Simon Brackenborough

Fantasy sells. Game Of Thrones and Harry Potter are testament enough to that. But while wizards and dragons are familiar in fiction, fantasy has a long history in instrumental music too.

There’s the ‘fantasia’ form, whose lack of constraints begs the composer to indulge their imagination. Works like Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique have used the orchestra to tell a specific fantastical story.

We might expect the music of fantasy to be dazzling, exciting, dramatic. Otherwise, what would be the point? This impulse could manifest itself in a number of ways, but here I want to share one of my favourite examples: the Fantastic Scherzo by the Czech composer Josef Suk.

Josef Suk, Wikimedia Commons.

Scherzo means ‘joke’ – and is commonly used for fast, boisterous movements of a larger work, usually relatively short in length. But Suk’s free-standing movement, running at about 15 minutes, is effectively a full-blown tone poem. Smetana’s Vltava or Saint-Saëns’s Danse Macabre are perhaps good comparison pieces – and like these, this has an unforgettable, sweeping melody at its heart.

Suk begins in a suitably rambunctious fashion, with a tussle of insistent melodic fragments and stabbing interruptions. The bright timbres of woodwind, brass and triangle feature prominently.

But an unexpected sleight of hand soon sends us tumbling down a rabbit hole. The lower strings and bassoons make a snaking descent, and suddenly we find ourselves in another world entirely. A waltz begins on the cellos, smoothly gliding and gracefully shaped, with an irresistible sway.

And what a joyful melody it is. See how it twice sets itself a problem – a long drop of a seventh – and climbs its way back up the scale. At the second instance it ecstatically spills over, and flourishes into a dancing rhythm as it descends.

Suk’s cello melody.

Illuminated by woodwind figures, shining violin harmonies and tambourine rhythms, it’s pure magic. But the spell is soon broken, and the music picks up the muscular battle once more.

These two musical worlds alternate throughout the outer sections of the piece. But while the fragmentary elements are constantly developed and churned about, this melodic episode is always preserved pristine. It seems incorruptible – it could be a dance of eternal youth in a fairy kingdom.

Suk understood that fantasy is about transporting us. And alongside the ‘hidden portal’ trope of the rabbit hole or Narnia wardrobe, authors such as Tolkien have also imagined arduous journeys to distant lands.

The transition to the central section of this work creates a similar feeling of remoteness. A bridging passage with a series of unpredictable harmonic shifts, dramatised with cymbal strokes, takes us over the hills and far away.

We arrive at a picturesque scene: trilling woodwinds overlap like forest bird calls, and gentle harp chords echo with mythic suggestions. A mournful song emerges on the cellos. Suk is combining his fragmentary and melodic approaches now, to tell a new story. And this languid river of sound soon builds in strength to reveal a mountainous grandeur.

After an equally strange transition on quiet, divided cellos, the thrilling energy of the scherzo erupts anew – and while the alluring dance melody is given its due, it’s this blistering spirit that claims victory in the end.

Fantasy sells – but it relies on us being able to suspend our disbelief. Without that, the genre can seem twee, ridiculous and far-fetched – just as a musical fantasia might sound wayward and unconvincing in the wrong hands. But on this count, I think Suk’s scherzo – jesting and joyful, wild and winsome as it is – succeeds magnificently.

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