Year of composition
soprano, mezzo-soprano, contralto, tenor and small orchestra: 1 1 0 2sax 0 - 0 1 1 0 - timp. - perc. - piano - strings - dancers
From this: Petite complainte (Small lament) for oboe and piano (1941) - Hug Musikverlage (GH 11129)
From this: Danse grave for piano (3'30'', manuscript only)
Brothers Grimm; Marie-Eve Kreis, scenario
Das Märchen vom Aschenbrödel
A talk given by Frank Martin as introduction to the first performance of the ballet
[…] We come now to the ballet of Aschenbrödel which I composed last summer after Marie-Eve Kreis’ scenario taken from Grimm’s tale. I say Aschenbrödel and not Cendrillon as Cendrillon suggests Perrault’s tale, where the tone is quite different, although the story is basically the same. Perrault’s tale is all French, all civilised and polite; written for children who are already civilised and polite, beautiful children who are well-dressed and well-spoken. Grimm’s is closer to the true thoughts of a child, honest and cruel, an innocent cruelty which punishes the wicked without mercy when they lose the game.
The wicked here are completely wicked, the good are totally good, but what struck me first as a rare exception, is that the wicked are not ugly. Here is something which is not primitive. The wicked sisters have lovely, white faces, but wicked, black hearts. There is no description of the step-mother, other than her large and powerful stature; a strapping fellow of a step-mother. I immediately associated her with the sound of a trombone, virile and pompous. But that’s a technical detail.
With a subject such as Cinderella, of course, I had to give free rein to my fantasy; there could be no question of choosing one atmosphere rather than another. Using a fairy tale manner would have resulted in a little play for children, creating a childish nature far removed from the rigidity, I should say the solemnity, of Grimm’s tale. It required seriousness, comedy, mystery, tenderness and wickedness, perverse seduction and the purest love.
The text of the sung introduction was of great help to find a good starting point. The different personalities are presented there, starting with Cinderella’s father, this father who is not represented at all in the ballet, so colourless, weak-willed, soulless as he is. All we know about him is that he is rich and has remarried a wicked woman. I would have liked to have him represented as an insipid character, always following his second wife, saying nothing, not even dancing. Doubtless it would need an excellent mime player to represent the humour of such an insipid figure. We gave up on him. The next one in the text is Cinderella’s mother who dies after promising to watch over her from heaven. This is very important and explains Cinderella’s spiritual state, full of faith and hope, her humility and also her humiliation.
Then her father remarries and we fall suddenly into the hell where Cinderella has landed, abused by the step-mother and her wicked daughters. The character of the music changes abruptly and the curtain rises. To depict such different characters, on one hand Cinderella and her mother, on the other hand the step-mother and her daughters, needs, of course, very different music, especially as these personalities have totally different ethical levels. Here we can see the magnitude of this tale: it is an exact symbol of spiritual and material life. There is no common factor between Cinderella and the other three women. There is no way they can understand each other; they are condemned to suffer. I felt obliged to write two kinds of music which confront each other, but I did so without taking sides, giving free rein to the expression I felt, on one hand the material and on the other hand the more exalted. However, this spiritual element had to be adapted to the candid and simple soul of a young girl.
The material element was spontaneously expressed by jazz-inspired music. For me jazz has an obvious aesthetic value, and this is inevitably steeped in each of us and ready to burst out at the first possibility. But here it is an art and an aesthetic beauty completely void of any ethical value, purely material art and beauty, without soul.
The saxophones, muted trumpet, the trombone with its glissandi and vibrato symbolise the three wicked women. There is little detailed psychology here: the sisters are unkind to Cinderella, nasty to each other, seductive to the prince, furious at the end in their wounded pride and disappointment. The step-mother always remains pompous and unbearably vain! Cinderella, on the contrary, evolves; in fact, while material is static, the spiritual is by its very nature the source of all development. At the beginning, she’s a little girl weeping at the loss of her mother, suffering in her surroundings; she is timid in the presence of others. Alone, she regains courage and rediscovers, you could say, her beauty. With the arrival of the fairy, a messenger from heaven, she is transfigured, but she is always alone and her beauty is only apparent in her solitude. To symbolise Cinderella’s primordial humility, I thought of the oboe with its rustic and profound evocation; it is this instrument that plays the little waltz depicting Cinderella’s sadness left all alone in the house.
As for the fairy, the flute and muted strings give colour to her intervention which is formal and mysterious; the fairy is not a person, any more than the herald; these two characters only function as liaison officers, the first for celestial might, the second for royal power. After the fairy’s scene Cinderella is transformed, transfigured, and the first act ends.
I haven’t spoken about the birds that help Cinderella every time. It’s a touching insertion by Grimm, the only poignant element in the tale, an evocation of nature and its guileless beauty in the middle of this little all-human play.
The second act is the ball at the King’s palace. The prince is waiting with his knights for the arrival of the beautiful young girls invited to the ball by the herald. The ladies arrive: a round dance. All of a sudden, the two sisters enter. They dance with the prince and are close to making him lose his head when, with a rumble of thunder, the dazzlingly beautiful Cinderella appears. And the love story, in three phases, begins in the prince’s heart and in hers. First a sort of ecstatic admiration, then, in a dance for two, a profound tenderness awakens; finally, carried away in a prolonged waltz movement, they feel a great passionate love developing which will unite them for ever!
In the middle of the waltz the twelve strokes of midnight resound; Cinderella flees, the prince is sad and wistful, then swears that he will only ever marry the one whose foot fits the golden shoe that he found on the stairs.
This vow forms the musical basis right at the beginning of the third act. It is announced throughout the country, sung by all voices.
When the curtain rises Cinderella, alone, is dreaming about her prince, dancing again in her thoughts their love-dance. Now she is sure of herself; deep inside she recognises her victory, even though she is melancholic and lonely, and subjected to her sisters’ harshness. After a dance that portrays the fury of the two sisters frustrated by their lack of success with the prince, the herald arrives carrying the golden shoe. A vicious scene of the two sisters cutting off parts of their feet to fit the famous shoe, interrupted by the birds who unmask the deception: Ruckediguck, ruckediguck, Blut ist im Schuck. Finally, Cinderella and the prince are reunited and it is a happy ending, the grand finale, the triumph of good over wicked, of spiritual over material.
The tone becomes more and more serious, restrained, the prince’s love for Cinderella is more than just a caprice. They are not simple lovers: heaven has intervened. It is more than just a love-story, it is the story of a soul reaching supreme joy after afflictions in this earthly world.
I hope you will excuse me if my ballet ends a little like an oratorio. But let us not forget that it is also a nice little fairy-tale and a ballet. The text is charming, accessible to small children. This “oratorio ending” is another dance, the little love-dance from the second act, now played by the whole orchestra, embellished with coloratura by the singers.
Let’s not take things too seriously and try to go home glad to have seen evil punished and virtue rewarded, happy, hopefully, to have seen good dancers, heard good musicians and good singers. The rest, that is the meaning underlying these dances, songs and music, only concerns the creators, those on the other side of the fence, the accused on trial. If the judges are not too unhappy, if they have enjoyed themselves for a few moments, if they have applauded kindly, we, the accused, are only too happy and say together with the old Spanish authors: please excuse the author’s mistakes.
Ballet by Marie-Eve Kreis
World premiere: Basel, 12 March 1942. Marguerite Gradman-Lüscher, Hélène Suter-Moser, Pauline Widmer-Hoch, Max Meili; Paul Sacher, conductor
Recordings (selective list)
Clémence Tilquin, soprano (Aschenbrödel, Die grosse Schwester); David Hernandez Anfruns, tenor (Der Prinz, Der Herold); Varduhi Khachatryan, alto (Die Stiefmutter, Die Fee); Alexandra Hewson, soprano (Die kleine Schwester)
Orchestre de la Haute école de musique de Genève; Gábor Takács-Nagy, conductor
Claves 50-1202 ℗ 2012 (FMS006)
‘Intégrale pour piano solo Frank Martin’
Daniel Spiegelberg, piano
GALLO CD-636 ℗ + © 1991 (FMS168)