Dream a Little Dream
It’s hard to write about dreams. How do you describe something that didn’t happen in real life, but did happen in your brain? And if that’s not tough enough to do, how do you compose music about these things that “didn’t happen – but did?”
Lots of composers have given it a try. Here are a few dream pieces as we say good-bye to sleepy winter.
Claude Debussy wrote Rêverie, for solo piano, in 1890, when he was 28 years old. It’s comforting and peaceful right from the beginning notes, but don’t let the atmospheric calm fool you into thinking it’s an easy piece to play. Here’s Van Cliburn’s version.
The story goes that Eugène Fromont published the piece years after Debussy sent it to him. His style had matured by then, and not only was he unhappy with Fromont’s decision to publish, he also said of the piece in a letter to the company, “Frankly, I consider it to be no good.” Little could he dream then how beloved this early composition of his would become.
In addition to symphonies, chamber music, and sonatas, Franz Schubert was a master at song writing. In fact, he composed over 600 of them. While Nacht und Träume (“Night and Dreams”) is not among the Austrian composer’s most well-known pieces it has always been one of my favorites. This song is based on a short poem, written by Matthäus von Collin, that perfectly describes someone waking up from a lovely dream, and wanting to get right back to it. There are a number of recordings by both male and female voices, but this one with baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau takes my heart.
Franz Liszt’s Liebesträume (“Dreams of Love”) is a set of three art songs published in 1850, in versions for both voice and piano and solo piano, based on three different German poems about love. The poems each describe a different form of love, but instead of hitting you with the message, Liszt chose to describe love as if a person were dreaming about love. While pianists do play all three pieces in concerts, I’ve mostly heard them choose one to play one as an encore piece. Of the three, the most well-known is the third, based on a poem which talks about long-lasting love. Here’s Khatia Buniatishvili.
Gabriel Fauré wrote three piano pieces between 1870 and 1877 that he hadn’t planned as a set. His publisher issued them as Trois melodies, Op. 7. The first of the three, “Après un rêve” (“After a dream”), was based on an anonymous Italian poem and is the best known. In the text, the sleeper awakens from a lovely dream where he and his lover take flight into the night, and while he adjusts to the harshness of day, he can’t wait to get back to the dream. Versions of this have been published for the original solo piano, and for voice, violin, even clarinet. I think this is a very romantic version with cellist Gautier Capuçon joined by the (off screen) Chamber Orchestra of Paris.
Edward Elgar had a different approach to the word “dream.” His Dream of Gerontius is a choral work that many consider his best. Like many of the pieces mentioned here, Elgar’s was also based on a poem. John Henry Newman’s poem tells the story of one man’s soul, from deathbed to judgement before God. Here’s a 3-minute segment, “Softly and gently,” with mezzo Anna Larsson, and the Berlin Philharmonic and Berlin Radio Choir, Daniel Barenboim conducting.
And finally, Paraguayan composer and virtuoso guitarist Augustín Barrios wrote a dream piece titled Un sueño en la floresta (“A Dream in the Forest,” sometimes translated as “A Dream in a Magic Forest”). The piece is considered to have the most difficult tremolo ever written for guitar. It takes a master’s touch to play it well. Here’s David Russell doing the honors.
CODA: One of the most powerful scenes ever in a Broadway musical comes from 1965’s Man of La Mancha, which was based on Miguel de Cervantes’ 1605 novel El ingenioso hidalgo don Quixote de la Mancha. The down-beaten old knight who lives in a fantasy of a perfect world brings down the house with the song, “The Impossible Dream.” In the Broadway show, Quixote (here portrayed by Brian Stokes-Mitchell) sings to Aldonza why he continues to imagine a better world even though everyone else seems to be making fun of him.