THE LITTLE MERMAID
Seven tableaux for piano based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale
The composition opens with an Introduction, the presentation of ‘The Theme of the Little Mermaid’, which returns unchanged after Part IV and at the end of thge composition. In addition, the harmonic foundation of this theme with its succession of half-diminished seventh chords acts as a connecting element between the various parts. The first part, The Palace at the Bottom of the Sea, depicts the castle of the Sea King; the image is expressed by a stately melody in B-flat major. The second part, Waltz of the Mermaids, illustrates how the sisters of the little mermaid swing through the briny waters as in a ballet. The third part, The Shipwreck, presents the episode in which Andersen tells how the king’s yacht founders in a storm and the prince is thrown overboard. Ondine, watching the dramatic scene, rescues the king’s son and takes him to the shore, where she lays him down on the beach. In the ensuing weeks she is consumed by love for the handsome youth; in the central part of the cycle, Ondine’s love, her state of mind is portrayed with a melancholic melody, followed by the major variation of that theme and a distant reminiscence of the well-known love song My Funny Valentine. Hoping to win the prince over to her, the little mermaid decides to visit the Sea Witch. The witch is willing to split her tail and convert her into a human being with two legs. However, the price she has to pay for this is high: from then on every step will hurt her, and if the king’s son marries another, she will evaporate into foam on the wedding night. This sinister fifth movement, At the Sea Witch, shares the melodic material and the key of B-flat minor with Part III and could be regarded as a variation on this. Part VI, The Wedding Feast, bears characteristics of Part II: the same waltz theme returns, preceded by a robust polonaise and a graceful mazurka. This ballet-like part illustrates the wedding of the prince and the princess of a neighbouring kingdom on the royal yacht. At the end, however, the music takes a dramatic character: Ondine jumps overboard at the moment the happy couple retreat to the royal saloon. Then, in the final movement, The Ascension to Heaven, the theme of the first movement returns varied, now standing for the higher world into which the little mermaid is inducted. Her steadfast love has softened the hearts of the gods, and instead of turning into sea foam, she is allowed to ascend into the world of the zephyrs, the angels of the sky.
The composition is thus completely symmetrical in structure. The total playing time is approx. 30 minutes; with a few exceptions the parts merge into each other. The harmonic language is that of the 19th century, but a certain influence from older musicals and film scores from the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s is demonstrable. The music is preceded by an illustrated preface in which the fairy tale is briefly retold in Dutch and English.
In the ‘corona year’ 2021, Dutch pianist, piano pedagogue, composer and author Albert Brussee has launched a new large-scale work: a series of narrative piano pieces based on The Little Mermaid, the famous 1837 story by Danish author H.C. Andersen. This is a musical painting of the story in the form of seven ‘tableaux’, many of which are linked by a short bridging, creating a continuous whole. (…) True to his habit, the composer has added a comprehensive and interesting introduction to this composition in which he discusses the story, its reception in Western cultural history, and the construction of this piano cycle.
The Little Mermaid opens very catchily with a short and almost Rimskian introduction in which ‘the theme of the little mermaid’ is heard; this theme will continue to be referred to frequently, giving it, as Brussee writes, a role similar to that of the promenade theme in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Each of the seven movements has an episode of Andersen’s fairy tale as its extra-musical subject. With that, this is effectively programme music; there is frequent sound painting, for instance in part III (‘The Shipwreck’) and part V (‘By the Sea Witch’). Brussee also makes use of musical quotations; in the introduction he mentions the song My funny Valentine, which appears in part IV (‘L’Amour d’Ondine’), and which, through its lyrics, also emotionally plays a substantive role in this composition. (…)
In his writing for piano, Brussee uses techniques such as those developed mainly by Liszt, and later incorporated by many composers. As a result, the piece is fairly virtuosic, although everything ‘lies’ exceptionally well. (…) Curious are also the very precise pedal indications à la Bartók that appear in some places (…).
The beautifully edited score is printed on nice heavy paper – so heavy, in fact, that the book tends to slam shut. No doubt that problem will disappear if a pianist truly ‘immerses’ in Brussee’s poetic sound world and studies these pieces over a longer period of time – something I wholeheartedly wish for this music. Just playing through it gave me great pleasure. I estimate the duration at over 25 minutes.
Bert Mooiman in Piano Bulletin 2022/1.
© 2021 AB Music Productions & Editions – The Hague.
Number of pages: 56. With an illustrated introduction in Dutch and English.
Available in the music shop (distrubution by Hal Leonard in Holland and Belgium) or direct via AB Music Productions & Editions.