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The Golden Key



          Once in the wintertime when the snow was very deep, a poor boy had to go out and fetch wood on a sled. After he had gathered it together and loaded it, he did not want to go straight home, because he was so frozen, but instead to make a fire and warm himself a little first. So he scraped the snow away, and while he was thus clearing the ground he found a small golden key. Now he believed that where there was a key, there must also be a lock, so he dug in the ground and found a little iron chest. "If only the key fits!" he thought. "Certainly there are valuable things in the chest." He looked, but there was no keyhole. Finally he found one, but so small that it could scarcely be seen. He tried the key, and fortunately it fitted. Then he turned it once, and now we must wait until he has finished unlocking it and has opened the lid. Then we shall find out what kind of wonderful things there were in the little chest.

          The Story was added to the collection of folk-tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm as no. 161 (the final tale) of their second edition (1819). Their immediate source was a Hessian story told to them by a family friend Marie Hassenpflug. From the second edition onward this story has occupied the last position in the collection (excluding the appendix of ten Children's Legends). By closing their collection with this enigmatic tale without an end, the Grimms seem to be saying that folktales, too, are endless. There is no final word.

Der goldene Schlüssel, Kinder- und Hausmärchen, no. 200. Translated by D. L. Ashliman. © 1999.


          Brief: Write a short song that develops some of the themes suggested by the story and/or the short commentary above in terms of lyric, melody and harmony. Avoid any literal retelling of the story.

In The Snow



          As someone who usually writes very narratively, receiving written stimulus that then asks to avoid retelling the story is always a challenge. So, in receiving this brief, I made the conscious decision to leave lyrics until the very end, and instead tried to compose a piece that told that story musically. I knew I wanted to approach it in three parts – one establishing the cold; two indicating discovery and urgent wonder; and three providing a final note of enigma – and therefore chose to score it, as I felt that would provide me with the largest array of musical tools. I also wanted to portray a sense of winter throughout, as well as a growing anxiety that I myself felt whilst reading the stimulus.

          I quickly settled on a lone piano, underscored subtly by an atmospheric synth, to bookmark the piece, as I felt this sound worked well for both part one and three. Furthermore, I decided to keep the same melody and harmony throughout, only building on it in part two, as whilst I wanted the piece to build in apprehension, the original story never actually goes anywhere so I wanted to the piece to feel contained in the same manner.

After scoring the instrumental, I approached the vocal line knowing I wanted it to be something simple and perhaps childlike, in keeping with the fairytale stimulus. The lyrics therefore consist of only the lines “What was lost you’ll find, you’ll find it in the snow / When it thaws, it thaws to leave a tender glow”. These lyrics, whilst also nodding to the original story, provide a sentiment vague enough that it can be both delighted and foreboding, as well providing that same enigma of the story in refusing to tell what has been found.

          I recorded all the vocals myself, then pitched the main vocal down and lengthened the throat (as I had always imagined the vocal as masculine), and ended up quite liking the slightly demonic sound as it felt reminiscent of line between fairytale and horror the Grimm brothers often walked. I also pitched up some of the additional vocals that eventually join him and shortened their throat lengths (as I had always imagined them as children). I did this as I really liked the contrast between an adult male and infant female vocals, and think that adds something a little menacing over the existing eeriness.

          I was given really useful feedback on this piece from Jenn on how I could expand the song, that I've unfortunately not had the drive to act on yet (or indeed time, but it's felt more like an inspiration issue). However, I do think I will approach it at a later date - and indeed possibly challenge myself to write a series of songs based on different folktales from a variety of cultures, e.g. Akan lore of Anansi the spider god, the Bolivian story 'The Song of the Armadillo', and the traditional Japanese children's book 'The Tears of a Dragon' by Hirosuke Hamada. 

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