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Fairies, Science, and the Scherzo fantastique

Brittan, Francesca. “On Microscopic Hearing: Fairy Magic, Natural Science, and the Scherzo Fantastique.” Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. 64, no. 3, 2011, 527–600.

This is a review of an article by Francesca Brittan. Her article (see citation above) explains how the Scherzo fantastique developed. Tracing the Scherzo fantastique tradition from its origins in the music of Mendelssohn and Berlioz through to Stravinsky, she demonstrates how a fascination with the microscope resulted in a miniaturization of popular representations of fairies during the time and argues that this trend was paralleled in music. The purpose of this paper is to trace that evolution and highlight the vast influence that this new musical idiom had on the compositional trends of the day. As a result, this article helps us understand the origin and aesthetic of the romantic Scherzo fantastique as well as how and why the twentieth century scherzo continued to imply the fantastical even as interest in the fantastical itself dwindled.

It was Felix Mendelssohn who pioneered a new fairy sound by creating a texture characterized by the combination of sempre prestissimo and sempre pianissimo string and wind textures. The feature that distinguished this fairy sound from the scherzos of Haydn and Beethoven was the surprising absence of contrasting textures which resulted in what Brittan calls “single-affect pieces” (Brittan 537). The first example of this is in the third movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 20 Octet (1825), which Fanny Mendelssohn reported was inspired by the Walpurgisnacht Dream in Goethe’s Faust. The following year, Felix Mendelssohn composed the overture to Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826), which was inspired by Shakespeare’s fairy king and queen. The Overture was hailed in Germany and England as distinctively innovative. It sparked claims from critics like “there is more that is new in this one work than in any other one that has ever been produced” that persisted both during and after Mendelssohn’s lifetime (Brittan 528).

FELIX MENDELSSOHN Octet Opus 20, III: Scherzo

Likely inspired by Mendelssohn’s new texture, Hector Berlioz wrote La Reine Mab in Roméo et Juliette in 1839, referencing another Shakespearian fantastical character. French critics hailed the astonishing innovation, calling it “orchestral science” (Brittan 529). Brittan explains that from the 1840s to the mid-twentieth century, an obsession with this new fairy idiom produced a flood of fairy scherzos written by well known as well as lesser known composers, including Liszt, Bazzini, Godard, and Stravinsky. The result was that the fantastical took on the status of a musical category, birthing what became the commonly used title Scherzo fantastique.

HECTOR BERLIOZ La Reine Mab, Roméo et Juliette

To explain the advent of this trend, Brittan turns to the history of fairies and the ways in which science transformed their representations in art. Before the popular fascination with the microscope, fairies were not typically represented as microscopic in size. For example, in seventeenth-century opera, fairies and human characters were represented on the stage as the same size as the human characters in the drama. They were associated with the high virtues of the nobility, enchantment and proximity to nature. Human-like representation of fairies can also be seen in eighteenth century paintings, such as William Blake’s Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Fairies Dancing. These representations reflect a time where fairies were seen to have the properties of demigods rather than magical insects. Brittan suggests that the dawn of the Age of Reason produced a decline in ‘realistic’ portrayals of fairies and other fantastical creatures. Fairy representations were distinguished from real people and events and began to represent the things of dreams, the imagination, and child-like immaturity. As such, representation of the magical became a category in a way that it had not been before and its musical representations were confined to “a language of otherness: hushed wind sonorities associated with enchantment or sleep, modal harmonies, pseudo-archaic contrapuntal textures, and elaborate ornamentation linked by listeners either to the mannerisms of préciosité or the decadence of the exotic—to imagined and distant realms” (Brittan 530).

WILLIAM BLAKE Oberon, Titania, and Puck with Fairies Dancing

After a time, the purge of the fantastical from enlightenment depictions of reality produced an appetite for fantastical representations of a new kind. Through the mixing of imagination and empiricism, the ‘fantastique moderne' was born, where the fantastical coexisted with the verifiable. The home microscope became a popular household item, conflating the belief that the non-material lurked under the surface of the material, waiting to be discovered. There was also a surge in public entertainment events where phony scientists would use solar-microscopes to reveal the hidden world of insects and pond water microbes. Their displays contributed to the sensationalization of all things microscopic. Advertisements for such events visually combined insects and microbes with fairies by proving for the sake of spectacle that they inhabited the same mysterious spaces and invisible realities. The belief that the invisible, whether fantastical or empirical, could be observed and experienced if you had the right equipment conflated the fantastical and the empirical on the level of public’s perception of the microscopic. Brittan suggests that because of this social-scientific phenomena, fairies became miniature and because fairies are fantastical, the miniature also became fantastical. It was this conflation of the miniature and the fantastical that inspired the new sound pioneered by Mendlessohn and Berlioz, an elusive texture lurking ‘under the surface’ of the human ability to hear.

The rise of the Scherzo fantastique coincided with a flourishing of pieces about insects. Pieces depicting the sounds of crickets, grasshoppers, bees, cicadas, and butterflies utilized the same features of the fairy sound to portray the microscopic. Even Mendelssohn commented to a friend to listen for his ‘buzzing fly’ in a particular spot in the Overture to Midsummer Night’s Dream. Brittan explains that for Mendelssohn and his contemporaries, the production of humming sounds and microscopic noise evoked images of both fairies as much as insects. She argues that at this time, “insect sound is fairy sound” and that the natural and the supernatural are considered to be completely intertwined at the level of the microscopic (Brittan, 546).

The musical idiom of elaborate counterpoint at break-neck speed at a dynamic difficult to hear challenged listeners to lean in so as to perceive the entire texture. It suggests to the audience that if they could simply listen at a more detailed level of resolution than their senses will allow, they might be able to perceive a music more astonishing than is typically available to them. The notion developed that certain creative people had ‘the sight’ and could perceive this microscopic music while others could. Brittan relates George Sand’s story The Fairy with Large Eyes. This story portrays a nanny who has microscopes for eyes and due to her disability has trouble functioning normally but on the other hand can see a marvellous world of that others without this disability are blind to. This piece of literature highlights that while having ‘the sight’ affords the seer a unique and magical perspective, it comes at the cost of normality and results in suffering for the seer. Berlioz applies the narrative of ‘the sight’ to the sense of hearing in his literary work The Strolling Harpist, which develops the myth that the composer is the gatekeeper to the realm of the unhearable.

Knowing about and being able to identify the specific features of the Scherzo fantastique in romantic and twentieth-century repertoire is useful for performers. As a result of reading this article, I have noticed the presence and influence of the fantastical idiom in repertoire where I had not noticed it before. Once a performer has identify the idiom in their repertoire, they should keep in mind that the intended effect is to overwhelm the listener with an excess of detail at a speed that is unhearable. While these effects will already be evident from the score’s indications, knowing that they imply the fantastical can lend a unique inspiration to a performer’s interpretation of the piece.

The virtuosic demands of the fairy idiom can be intimidating. Once the idiom has been identified, performers should allow for more preparation time than usual so that the performance can come off as compact as being dense with light, microscopic detail. Performing in the fairy idiom requires a level of familiarity with the score that allows one to simply turn off the thinking part of the brain and let it rip. It simply goes by too quickly to be thinking. Knowing this in advance might impact the manner in which a performer prepares one of these pieces for the concert stage.

One example of this idiom that I found particularly useful as a pianist was Brittan’s description of Liszt’s Gnomenreigen (Danse des lutins). She described it as elucidating “a world of unprecedented detail (where) … all the tropes of the elfin scherzo are in evidence, but are filtered through the pianist’s own sensibility” (Brittan 577).

She discussed how Liszt wrote this with his sources in mind, specifically Bazzini’s La Ronde des Lutins, Scherzo fantastique with respect to the title, Berlioz’s ‘Mab music’ with respect to the textures, and Mendelssohn’s signature feature of the idiom, the “trademark feather-light gesture” that end these scherzi as if they aren’t ending at all but simply vanishing from our perceptive abilities (Brittan, 577).

This article shifted my thinking about insect scherzi, specifically with respect to the pieces having to do with butterflies. It made me consider whether Schumann’s Papillons was not only drawing upon butterfly imagery as it’s inspiration but also on the fantastical conflation between insects and fairies that was prevalent at the time. Having read this article, I now consider how pieces about insects might be drawing upon the fantastical.

I found Brittan’s discussion about the myth of 'the sight’ in relation to the fairy idiom to be useful. Extending the notion of ‘the sight’ from the composer to the performer might provide the performer with the emotional arrogance necessary to effectively pull the performance of a fairy scherzo off. The performer’s choice to internally dramatize the mystique of having the sight could also impact it’s effect on the audience. For me, this concept of the creative person having ‘the sight’ is consistent with the literature about the curious nature and role of shaman and prophets. The notion that being such a prophet by nature involves a certain amount of conflict with ones ability to function normally in society is very interesting to me. As such, performers should not expect to perform a fairy scherzo without a certain amount of suffering.

This article is an important read for anyone who is playing repertoire from the romantic period. As you would expect from an article that is seventy-five pages in length, it is thorough and well researched. Using an approach that blends the chronological progression of events and a certain amount of circumambulation, Brittan brings together elements of history, science, pop-culture, mythology, repertoire, drama, literature, and art to inform our understanding of how the Scherzo fantastique evolved and how the fantastical idiom was established in music. Understanding its origins, being able to identify fairy and insect scherzi, and appreciating the intended effect of the fantastical is immensely useful when undertaking to perform works that make use of this fantastical idiom.