When James Galway approached me in 1978 with the idea of writing a flute concerto for him, my initial reaction was, "Oh no, not another wind concerto!" I had already written two (oboe, clarinet) and had planned that my next work would explore quite different territory. I was in a quandary. While I postponed committing myself on the idea of a flute concerto, I decided to put what I knew of the proposed event together to see if anything interesting and special would result.
The performance was scheduled for the opening night of the 1980 Hollywood Bowl season — a festive occasion and place. The orchestra would be the Los Angeles Philharmonic-large and virtuosic-and the soloist, of course, Galway, with his unique and charismatic personality. The combination of these elements strongly suggested a large-scale buoyant vehicle, but that wasn’t enough for me, yet.
So I looked further-particularly into the specialized techniques of the soloist, who also plays the tin whistle. This primitive form of the recorder (a close relative of the flute) is one of the many varieties of "pipes" that are found around the world, and I decided to investigate some of the legends surrounding them. Almost instantly, the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin came to mind.
Galway as the Piper seemed the most natural thing in the world, for to many, myself included, he is a kind of Pied Piper ("…to blow the pipe his lips he wrinkled, and green and blue his sharp eyes twinkled"-Robert Browning). Here, the mating of personality and instrument could hardly be better.
But what was even more exciting was that this could offer me a new way of writing a wind concerto. The idea of a programmatic fantasy-concerto based on the Pied Piper legend became a fascinating structural challenge. I contacted Galway with the proposal of writing a Pied Piper Fantasy and, with his approval, started planning the work.
Robert Browning’s poem The Pied Piper of Hamelin is the best known telling of the legend, so I reread it and began to consider how the story could generate the architecture of a flute concerto. The biggest problem was that the legend per se had no elements of virtuosity in it; the Pied Piper played his song to charm the rats and lead them to destruction and piped a march to lead the children away from Hamelin, but there were no actual confrontations or tensions that could lead me to write virtuosically for the soloist. So I had to modify the story a bit, and I included battle scenes between the Piper and the rats and other elements that could set the soloist’s fingers racing.
In restructuring the legend I had to provide a logical continuity for this story, but I also had to produce a satisfying purely musical structure so that the piece worked as a concerto for flute and orchestra too. Inherent in my concept was the idea that the soloist would switch from flute to tin whistle for The Children’s March. I also wanted the march to include other flutes and drums played by children and led by the soloist. I used the jaunty march against an independent orchestral background that evoked the sense of loss generated by the departure of the Piper and children. A technical problem-the fact that two groups of performers each playing music extremely divergent in tempo ideally requires two conductors-thus provoked a theatrical solution: the separation and exit of one of the groups.
The children and the exit became an integral part of the score. While originally conceived for musical reasons, these elements started a chain of theatrical additions to the performance that followed the world premiere in Los Angeles. In London (Galway with the London Symphony) stage and house lights were slowly dimmed as follow-spots tracked the departure of the Piper and the children. In Puerto Rico the young soloist began the introduction to the opening Piper’s Song offstage and entered wearing a cloak. In Israel the performance began in darkness, the lights coming up and growing in brilliance with the orchestral sunrise.
The evolution of theatrical aspects seems to me a healthy and inventive addition to the original concept, and I have no doubt that the physical trappings of future performances will continue to change and grow. Because the Fantasy is a truly programmatic and theatrical work, these additions are not artificial but grow naturally from the initial idea. As long as the musical integrity of the work is preserved, such creative extensions are to be encouraged.
I. Sunrise and the Piper’s Song
Sunrise is represented by an orchestral tutti beginning with pointillistic night sounds. A single note emerges, initiated by an oboe and culminating in trumpets. It is surrounded by flurrying bursts of energy that grow wilder and wilder. A huge crecendo suddenly breaks off and is succeeded by a soft, warm string chord signifying the risen sun. Low brass chords introduce the Piper-soloist, who begins in an improvisational manner and then plays The Piper’s Song. Eventually the day ends as the night-sounds return.
II. The Rats
The rats come out at night. This section is totally orchestral, with the rodents represented by two "rat motives". At the climax the low brass ominously sound the night-music chords, against the high squeaks of strings and winds.
III. Battle with the Rats
The Piper enters the fray. Clusters of rodents dart about the lower register; he rushes down the scale after them, but they disappear, only to immediately resurface in another spot at a higher pitch. The Piper races to that area, but again most of the rats vanish. He tries to scatter the stragglers with sudden sforzandos, but more and more appear until a sort of Totentanz ensues, with Piper (flute) and rats (orchestra) locked in angular embrace as the soloist imitates and challenges the rodents with their own musical motives.
IV. War Cadenza
The battle culminates with a gigantic orchestral glissando-and then silence. The soloist explores this sudden quiet, testing the air. He charges up a scale, anticipating flurrying rat-sounds at the top but finding only silence. He savagely attacks a note, expecting the hidden rats to scatter-but once again, silence. He slowly begins to relax and to become more and more lyrical (although sudden short flute outbursts indicate he is still being cautious). But the extended silence finally convinces him. He becomes confident, then joyous, then exultant, singing the same improvisation from the beginning of the work-but with a purer and richer sound. Just, however, as the Piper is about to relax completely and begin his song again, a soft scraping sound rises from the orchestra. He realizes there are many more rats than he could ever have imagined-millions. They run beserk. Their glissando-motive snarls through the brass, as winds and strings portray their wild scampering. He is overwhelmed.
V. The Piper’s Victory
In despair the Piper improvises a lament. It continues over the scurrying and unconsciously incorporates a fragment of The Piper’s Song. The racing sounds below cease as the rats become aware of this hypnotizing melody but resume as the lament continues with other material. This happens twice, but by the second time the Piper begins to realize that his special song has a strange effect on the rats. So, he begins to play the entire Piper’s Song, and as he does, the rats freeze and begin a hypnotic slow dance. The song grows in intensity as the swaying rat-sounds diminish.
VI. The Burgher’s Chorale
The last strains of The Piper’s Song are interrupted by a distant-sounding, pompous chorale, accompanied by a banging bass drum. This is The Burgher’s Chorale, the march of the townspeople: smug-sounding, self-satisfied, self-important. As the burghers approach the Piper, he begins to play. His music is bright and cheerful, for he obviously wishes to make friends with the new arrivals but is constantly interrupted by the blaring brass. This non-conversation continues, with the Piper’s flexible and warm music persistently cut off by the rigidly metronomic chorale. Gradually the Piper becomes more and more irritated with the proceedings and finally he takes to mocking the bass-drum figure with a high, shrill flutter-tongued note.
VII. The Children’s March
The Piper has had enough. He puts his flute aside and pulls a tiny tin whistle out of his pocket and plays The Children’s March. In contrast to the chorale, the march is bright, cheerful and lively. It grows in volume and spirit despite occasional interruptions from the burghers’ brass group. After the march’s first peak. The Piper begins to trill. Suddenly a group of young flutists positioned in the audience answers his call. The Piper calls again, and another group responds and yet another. The flutists join with young drummers similarly positioned in the audience, all moving toward the stage; more children appear, answering the Piper, and all gather on stage where he proceeds to lead them in The Chidren’s March. As a final bid for attention the burghers try an outburst of their chorale, but it is easily swamped by the piping children who, led by the Piper, begin to march off the stage, back into the audience and eventually out of the hall. They play a counterpoint to an orchestral restatement of The Piper’s Song; this begins in the low range of the cellos and grows as it progresses through the strings and winds to a final utterance by the orchestra’s solo flute, echoing the town’s sense of loss. The lonely sounds return in the orchestra, as the jaunty distant marching melody fades away.
– John Corigliano