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10 minutes reading time (2016 words)

The enchanted world of fairy tales

The enchanted world of fairy tales

Throughout their long history, fairy tales have fascinated people the world over. Their multi-generational appeal contradicts the notion that they are solely for children. Composers have been inspired by fairy tales to write music in various genres, including a wealth of piano pieces at varying levels of difficulty. Studying such pieces can bring motivation and imagery to the learning experience. 

The music of the French Rococo period contains instrumental and vocal works relating to myths, ancient forerunners of fairy tales. The Classical era, focused on rational explanations and emotional restraint, was unreceptive to using stories of fantasy and magic as subject matter. 

The nineteenth century was a favorable time for fairy tales. Romanticism had an affinity with the supernatural, nationalism, and the Middle Ages. All of these traits fostered interest in enchantment and fairy lore. The brothers Grimm ( Jacob and Wilhelm) were instrumental in promoting fairy tales as a national force—many of the works in their collections relate to the culture of a specific time and place. These stories have even woven themselves into the national identity of many countries. Other important fairy tales from the Western tradition include those of Charles Perrault (Mother Goose Tales) and Hans Christian Andersen. 

Romantic reverence for fairy tales was reflected in piano literature. Pieces based on these stories had their effective beginning in the nineteenth century. The use of traditional tales as subject matter for piano music has persisted until the present day. 

Robert Schumann's (1810-1856) "Scheherazade," from Album for the Young (Op. 68, No. 32), draws its inspiration from the "One Thousand and One Nights" of Oriental tradition. This piece, in A minor, is to be played "rather slowly, gently." It consists of two sections of uneven lengths, both with repeats. Arpeggios and inner voicing in the right hand provide technical and musical challenges for young students (see Excerpt 1).

Excerpt 1: Schumann: “Scheherazade,” from Album for the Young, Op. 68, No. 32, mm. 1-4.


Another intermediate piece is Edward MacDowell's (1860- 1908) "Sung Outside the Prince's Door" from Forgotten Fairy Tales, Op. 4, No. 1. This piece was published under MacDowell's pseudonym, Edgar Thorn. MacDowell did not specify a source for this piece, but it may have been a Celtic tale entitled "The Brown Bear of Norway." Written in G-flat major, this piece is in three-part form. 

MacDowell's instructions provide imagery that may help a student interpret the story. Where the composer has written "softly, wistfully," a princess may be singing (see Excerpt 2). In another section, MacDowell indicates "pleadingly," possibly to refer to the princess imploring her husband, both a prince and an enchanted bear in the story, to remember her. 

Five measures before the end, MacDowell preempts the final cadence by inserting a measure rest with a fermata. This may be regarded as a resignation that the prince is not going to awaken to hear the princess's song and that her plea has failed. Following, there is a pianissimo coda.

Excerpt 2: MacDowell: “Sung Outside the Prince’s Door,” from Forgotten Fairy Tales, Op. 4, No. 1, mm. 1-6.


The story has a happy ending after the princess sees to it that her husband is not given a sleeping potion. He hears her song, and is eventually reunited with his family. 

Fairy tales do not necessarily contain fairies. They may contain other supernatural beings or animals with human traits. Animal stories of fables are part of every culture and one of the most popular and endearing examples is Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book

"Morning Song in the Jungle" is piece No. 4 in Cyril Scott's (1879-1970) Impressions from The Jungle Book. It is in three-part form and includes changing meters. This may not be a piece for small hands—the principal theme in the right hand is presented in octaves, while the left hand contains stretches up to a tenth. "Morning Song" is restful, relating to preparation for sleep, since the animals, after hunting at night, are going "to lair," as described in Kipling's Second Jungle Book (see Excerpt 3).

Excerpt 3: Scott: “Morning Song in the Jungle,” from Impressions from The Jungle Book, mm. 1-9.


Another popular work about animals is Jean de Brunhoff 's series of French children's books about Babar the Elephant. This series, begun in 1933, was continued by the author's son, Laurent de Brushoff. 

One day in 1940, a young cousin put Jean de Brunhoff 's story on the piano and asked Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) to play it. He obliged, but he didn't write down the result. He only notated the piece five years later, when the same cousin repeated her request! 

Poulenc's The Story of Babar, the Little Elephant was originally written for narrator and piano, and it was later orchestrated by Jean Françaix. It is a moderately difficult work in thirteen movements. 

Ravel's (1875-1937) Mother Goose Suite for piano duet was originally written for Jean and Mimi Godebski, children of friends, but this piece did not succeed in motivating the girls to practice, as Ravel had intended. Instead, its premiere performance was given by two students at the Paris Conservatoire: Christine Verger, age six, and Germaine Duramy, age ten. 

One of the pieces, "Pavane for a Sleeping Beauty," does not possess technical problems and is appropriate for intermediate students with good interpretative skills (see Excerpt 4).

Excerpt 4: Ravel: “Pavane for a Sleeping Beauty,” from Mother Goose Suite, mm. 1-4, Secondo.


Rachmaninoff 's (1873-1943) "The Tale of Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf," from Etudes-Tableaux (Study Pictures), and Nickolai Medtner's (1880-1951) Fairy Tales are examples of fairy tale-inspired pieces that are not necessarily to be played by children. 

Rachmaninoff 's Etude-Tableau, Op. 39, No. 6, was inspired by the Tale of Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf, but this was not initially revealed by the composer. When questioned about possible programmatic connections in the Etudes-Tableaux, Rachmaninoff replied, "I do not believe in the artist disclosing too much of the images. Let them [pianists, audiences] paint for themselves what it most suggests."It was only after Ottorino Respighi orchestrated five of these pieces for the Boston Symphony Orchestra that Rachmaninoff supplied titles. 

In this virtuoso etude reminiscent of the demonic style of Liszt and Scriabin, there are many passages that suggest chase scenes. In the introduction, triplet chromatic scales heighten the sense of urgency (see Excerpt 5). These patterns reappear in the first section, along with broken chords. The opening melody of the second section recalls the "Dies Irae" theme (see Excerpt 6). After a repeat of the first section, the piece concludes with the chromatic passages from the introduction.

Excerpt 5: Rachmaninoff: “The Tale of Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf,” from Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 39, No. 6, mm. 1-5.
Excerpt 6: Rachmaninoff: “The Tale of Little Red Riding Hood and the Wolf,” from Etudes-Tableaux, Op. 39, No. 6, mm. 36-40.


Rachmaninoff exclaimed, after hearing a performance of Medtner's Op. 51 Skazki (Russian fairy tales), "No one tells such tales as Kolya!"2 Indeed, Medtner is likely the foremost composer of fairy tales for the piano. His skazki are the most significant part of his output. They are neglected, however, dismissed by many as anachronisms, since his neo-romantic style did not embrace contemporary trends. His fairy tales have become better known through the recordings of Hamish Milne and Marc-André Hamelin. 

Medtner published approximately forty tales in thirteen opus numbers, including a Sonata-Skazka, Op. 25, No. 1. There is also a skazka without an opus number (between Op. 31 and Op. 34). His skazki include "Ophelia's Song" and "March of the Paladin" from Two Tales, Op. 14; "Campanella" from Two Tales, Op. 20, No. 2; "Magic Violin," Op. 34, No. 1; Op. 35, No. 4, prefaced by a quote from King Lear; "Tale of the Elves," Op. 48, No. 2, and "Bird's Tale," "The Organ Grinder," and "The Beggar" from Romantic Sketches for the Young, Op. 54. However, most of Medtner's skazki do not contain programmatic associations. 

These pieces are characterized by intense harmony and complex polyrhythms. Most may be classified as moderately difficult to difficult. One of the easier and shorter pieces is the untitled No. 3 in F minor from Four Tales, Op. 26. It has a lyrical, narrative quality (narrante a piacere) and is in three-part form with coda (see Excerpt 7). The second half of the fourth measure from Excerpt 7 forms the basis of the coda.

Excerpt 7: Medtner: Four Tales, Op. 26, No. 3, mm. 1-6.


Heitor Villa-Lobos (1887-1959) launched the nationalist movement in Brazil, breaking away from European tradition. He described his prolific output as "the fruits of an extensive, generous, and warm land."3 Many of his pieces are geared to children. 

One of the four pieces in his early intermediate Fairy Tales is "And the Little Princess Was Dancing." Written in rondo form (ABACA) with eight-measure divisions, it employs a variety of touches to project images of a ballerina, beginning with staccato in its "A" section (see Excerpt 8).

Excerpt 8: Villa-Lobos: “And the Little Princess Was Dancing,” from Fairy Tales, mm. 1-4.


Like Villa-Lobos, Octavio Pinto (1890-1950) was a native of Brazil. His Tom Thumb's March and Renato Bellini's (1895-1957) Pinocchio are contained in the G. Schirmer collection 51 Pieces from the Modern Repertoire

The children's story, The Adventures of Pinocchio, was written in 1883 by Carlo Collodi, the nom de plume of Carlo Lorenzi, a native of Florence, Italy. Bellini, an Italian composer noted mainly for his voice teaching, wrote the piece Pinocchio, with homage to Collodi. Marked vivace et spiritoso, it is in three-part form, with the first part (see Excerpt 9) containing forty-eight measures and a short, contrasting section of nine measures.

Excerpt 9: Bellini: Pinocchio, mm. 1-4.


Douglas Moore (1893-1969) composed The Princess and the Pea, a late-elementary piece based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale. It bears the instruction "A Drowsy Waltz," for the first section, and "Faster and Agitated," when the story becomes more intense. This piece, along with Dmitri Shostakovich's (1906-1976) A Sad Fairy Tale, is in the collection, Contemporary Piano Literature, Books 3-4, of the Frances Clark Library for Piano Students, published by Alfred. 

Aaron Alon (b. 1981) wrote Fairy Tales in 2006 under commission from the Renée B. Fisher Competition for Young Pianists. Changing moods and tempos imply different "tales," such as "Mysteriously" (see Excerpt 10) and "With wonder" (see Excerpt 11).

Excerpt 10: Alon: Fairy Tales, mm. 1-3.
Excerpt 11: Alon: Fairy Tales, mm. 7-8.


Quoting from Alon's performance notes: 

The music seeks to capture the mysterious magic of fairy tales without referencing any particular stories. The piece is essentially a rondo, whose refrain continually evolves throughout the piece, often borrowing material from the preceding episodes. The piece offers some contemporary challenges to talented young players, including tonal ambiguity, complex rhythms, shifting meters, use of the sostenuto pedal, and one instance (measure thirty-one) where the pianist may elect to play an optional three measures.4

Thus, in the twenty-first century, piano fairy tales continue to evoke an enchanted world: one of beautiful princesses, mischievous creatures, and remarkable animals. Through this music, we are able to relive the stories that have delighted children and adults for centuries.


Bertensson, S. and Leyda, J. (1956). Sergei Rachmaninoff: A Lifetime in Music. Bloomington, IN:Indiana University Press, p. 218. 

Milne, H. (2001). Foreword to Nickolai Medtner: Complete Fairy Tales for Piano. New York: Dover Publications, Inc, p. vii. 

Retrieved from http://www.musicacademyonline.com/composer/biographies.php?bid=136. 

Alon, A. (2011). Retrieved from http://aaronalon.com/?page_id=83.

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