Books and music: how one art form can inspire another
Posted on 16th January 2023 at 15:12
Here at the Music Workshop Company, our work is driven by our love of music. But of course, music as an art form does not exist in a vacuum: throughout history, musicians and composers have been inspired by artists, writers and more – and vice versa. For younger audiences, this can provide multiple ways of accessing new stories and ideas, with new adaptations introducing children to works they may not otherwise have discovered.
This month, with World Book Day approaching, we take a look at some of our favourite stories where music takes a starring role, and some of the music that has been inspired by books.
Charlie & the Chocolate Factory
In this much-loved story from Roald Dahl, impoverished Charlie wins one of five sought-after golden tickets to visit Willy Wonka’s famous Chocolate Factory – a place that is magical and wonderful, but which holds many dangers for those who behave badly. The factory workers, the Oompa Loompas, play a role that feels reminiscent of a Greek chorus, commenting on the action – and on the various characters’ misdeeds and mishaps – through song.
The book has twice been adapted for film, and both adaptations make the most of the Oompa Loompas’ musical contributions, offering their own takes on the rather sinister songs.
Where the Wild Things Are
Maurice Sendak’s classic children's book was published 60 years ago, but its popularity still endures. The masterful tale puts readers in the shoes of its hero Max, and invites us into his uninhibited imagination as his bedroom transforms into an island full of Wild Things.
Like all the best children’s authors, Sendak sought to validate children’s emotions, and said that his books were: “variations on the same theme: how children master various feelings – danger, boredom, fear, frustration, jealousy – and manage to come to grips with the realities of their lives.”
The book has been adapted many times, including into a children’s opera that Sendak worked on with composer Oliver Knussen in the 1980s. In 2009, a film adaptation included a soundtrack from indie rock ‘supergroup’ Karen O and The Kids.
There is a huge contrast between these interpretations, but both bring the story to life by tapping into its emotional core.
The Pied Piper of Hamelin
This legend has had many retellings, and is most often associated with the Brothers Grimm, who included it in their collection of fairy tales as The Children of Hamelin. Music is key to the story, which tells of a piper who is hired by Hamelin’s mayor to rid the town of its infestation of rats. After the mayor fails to pay for the work, the piper uses his music to lure the town’s children away.
Different versions of the story have very different endings – in some, the children meet the same fate as the rats, who were drowned in the river! Other, less grizzly, endings either see the children returned home when the piper is paid, or have them settling in a new town away from their parents. But in every version, the story rests on the piper’s ability to play a mesmerising tune.
Matilda, and When I Grow Up
Roald Dahl’s tale of the precocious (and telekinetic) young Matilda Wormwood, who is faced with emotionally abusive parents and a physically abusive headteacher, has had several adaptations. Matilda the Musical, with music written by Tim Minchin, has been a West End favourite for over a decade, and is back in the public eye today with a new film adaptation.
As with all his books, Dahl doesn’t shy away from the darker side of life: headteacher Miss Trunchbull is a terrifying character who does truly awful things to the children in her care. But of course, every good story needs some darkness to be overcome, and for young readers to learn that they can have a role in fighting that darkness. As Matilda sings in When I Grow Up – a song that was itself turned into its own picture book:
Just because you find that life’s not fair
It doesn't mean that you just have to grin and bear it
The Arabian Nights stories have captured the imaginations of children and adults alike for centuries. Presented as a series of tales told over 1,001 nights by the Sultan’s wife Scheherezade – who ends on a cliffhanger each night to prevent her execution the following day – the collection offers ample inspiration for musicians.
In 1888, the composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov unveiled his symphonic suite Scheherezade, inspired by the tale. His spellbinding score immediately paints a picture of its two main characters, with an ominous brass-dominated motif in its opening bars representing the Sultan, and a delicate solo violin answering as his clever storytelling wife.
The music has since been used in many forms – for ballets, in a Fantasia by Prokofiev, as inspiration for Skip Martin’s jazz album Scheherajazz, and, of course, by our friends at The Opus Pocus as a way of introducing young children to classical music.
There are far too many books with a musical connection for us to be able to include them all in this list. We’ve focused on books for younger readers, but there are many more for an older audience that fall into this category too, including:
Wuthering Heights – Emily Brontë’s classic inspired singer Kate Bush’s debut single of the same name, with some of her lyrics drawn directly from the novel.
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe – Douglas Adams’ Hitch Hikers’ Guide to the Galaxy sequel introduced fans to Disaster Area: “not only the loudest rock band in the Galaxy, but in fact the loudest noise of any kind at all… the best sound balance is usually to be heard from within large concrete bunkers some thirty-seven miles from the stage.”
Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck’s novella was adapted into a stage musical in 1958, and the composer Carlisle Ford created an opera based on the story in 1970.
Swing Time – music plays a prominent part in Zadie Smith’s novel, which tells the story of two friends who share a love of dance, musical theatre and pop music.
Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall – Kazuo Ishiguro, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017, is best known for his novels, but this collection of short stories uses music to explore themes of love and the passage of time.
You can learn more about how The Opus Pocus is bringing Arabian Nights to life in these blogs from our archive: https://music-workshop.co.uk/resources/blog/the-opus-pocus-live-1001-arabian-nights-%E2%80%93-music-education-by-stealth/ (Sep 2022), https://music-workshop.co.uk/resources/blog/finding-the-magic-in-classical-music-through-storytelling/ (Jul 2020).
This article from Forbes explores the storytelling lessons of Where the Wild Things Are: https://www.forbes.com/sites/goldiechan/2021/03/18/3-storytelling-lessons-from-where-the-wild-things-are/
The BBC investigates the origins of the tale of the Pied Piper of Hamelin here: https://www.bbc.com/travel/article/20200902-the-grim-truth-behind-the-pied-piper
You can find the full, original Oompa Loompa ‘songbook’ at https://www.roalddahlfans.com/dahls-work/books/charlie-and-the-chocolate-factory/oompa-loompa-songbook/
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