Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Haydn Wood: The Dance of a Whimsical Elf

Ever since the days of Felix Mendelssohn’s music to A Midsummer’s Night Dream, composers have had a fascination with the ‘little folk’ One need only consider the large number of piano pieces with titles like Forest Fairies, Fairy Footsteps and The Sad Troll. And that is ignoring the subtler efforts of Tchaikovsky and the Sugar Plum Fairy. I guess that a thesis could, and may well have been written on this topic.
Yet one work I have always enjoyed is The Dance of a Whimsical Elf. It is part of a suite called A Day in Fairyland, Suite de Ballet are:
The suite has four movements that each relates to a time of day: -

1.Invocation (Dawn)
2. Dance of a Whimsical Elf (Noon)
3. A Dream Fairy (Sunset)
4. Fairy Revels (Night)

The Oxford English Dictionary describes ‘whimsical’ as being “characterised by a whim or whims; actuated by a whim or caprice.” There is a subsidiary adjectival meaning determined by “mere caprice, fantastic, fanciful, freakish odd or comical”. Of course the word ‘elf’ carries with it a large number of meanings. However I believe that Haydn Wood is simply using it in its basic form as a synonym of ‘fairy’. For interest an elf was originally masculine and an elven feminine, however in modern usage an ‘elf’ is really a ‘male fairy.’
At time of the first performance, the second movement was called Dance of a Lone Elf. Listening to this attractive miniature today, it would be difficult to consider the character portrayed as a ‘lone’ or even ‘lonely’ unless it is in the sense of a fairy who is a bit of a loner, by choice. There is no real way of telling is Haydn Wood imagined this elf to be a good fairy or a mischievous one: it is more to do with mood and suggestion. The orchestration of this piece is superb. A variety of techniques are used to create an air of ‘whimsicality’ or caprice. Look out for the muted brass, the xylophone and the intricate woodwind. But perhaps the greatest surprise is the use of five beats in the bar – this really does make the little fellow seem quite capricious.

The piece is quite short being just over two and half minutes long, no doubt designed to fit onto one side of a 78-rpm record.
This is another one of these pieces that makes me wonder just where the divide is between ‘light’ and ‘art’ music. I guess that it must be more to do with subject matter, for this piece is a great example of craftsmanship and formal design. If it was by Elgar, and was part of say a Third Wand of Youth Suite it would be a regular on Classic FM and in the recording studios.
The work was first performed in November 1933 during a broadcast by the BBC Orchestra Section C, conducted by Joseph Lewis.

Unfortunately there is not a recording of the entire Suite, the only movement on CD being the Dance. However there are at least two versions of this on Marco Polo and Guild.

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