Who loves a good story? Everyone, it seems. We love to tell each other stories of all kinds, from memories of life experiences to imaginary tales with fantastical elements, and always have. These days they are told through books, plays, films, and an enormous selection of podcasts, but traditionally stories were told orally by memory, spoken into life in small villages throughout the world. Many fairy tales we know have ancient roots. They speak to us across time, telling us about the often mysterious and mystical nature of life in the middle ages when nights in the countryside and forests were very, very, dark, and the light of wide-spread scientific knowledge was yet to come. If these stories, handed down from generation to generation, had not been written down they would have almost certainly disappeared. But many of them were recorded, and in Germany the most famous keepers of that culture’s folk and fairy tales were two brothers named Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm.
Collecting and cataloging was a very popular activity in the 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment. It was an era of scientific discovery, philosophy, and reason. Dictionaries and encyclopedias were compiled and published for the first time, in an effort to broadly document human activity and achievement. It was into that world that the Grimm brothers were born, Jacob in 1785, and Wilhelm in 1786. They were close in age, and remained close friends throughout their entire lives. Both brothers studied law, and Jacob became particularly interested in language, eventually making a career for himself as a philologist (someone who studies not only linguistics, but the uses and history of language within a culture), and discovering what is now known as “Grimm’s law,” regarding sound shifts in Germanic languages over time.
When the brothers published their collection of German folk and fairy tales in 1812 they were joining this Enlightenment cataloging project by providing an organized, written record of traditional stories. Kinder und Hausmärchen (“Children’s and Household Tales”) would become known to English readers simply as Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and was published in two volumes. In the first volume is where we find Town Musicians of Bremen, along with Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella, Rapunzel, and Little Snow White, which are arguably the most famous selections that have endured and gained popularity as operas, ballets, and films. There was another reason why the Grimm brothers might have been interested in preserving the folktales of German culture: they had a front row seat to the French invasion and occupation of Germany during the Napoleonic Wars. Living in the region where Napoleon Bonaparte had carved out and invented the Kingdom of Westphalia, Jacob found employment as head of the private library for Jérôme I, King of Westphalia (and Napoleon’s younger brother). Preservation takes on a sense of urgency in the face of potential destruction. After the end of the wars, the brothers kept working on similar projects, including an in-depth study by Jacob of Germanic mythologies.
The work of the Grimm brothers was influential to other folklore collectors. Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, born in 1810, was inspired by their work and started gathering stories and legends from peasants in the region that is now Bavaria. Where Schönwerth and the Grimms differed was largely on the question of modification. Though the Grimm brothers did help maintain traditional Germanic story culture throughout the uncertainty of revolution and war, they edited the stories—a lot, in some cases—for two main reasons: to fit within their current societal values, and to streamline for the page the meandering, embellished, nature of oral storytelling. In other words, they made them literature. Schönwerth’s versions provide an interesting contrast to the Grimms’, with largely unedited tales. His collection of 500 fairytales and legends had spent 150 years forgotten in an archive before being rediscovered in 2012.
By nature of telling and re-telling over time and in different places, multiple versions of folk and fairy tales exist. Miller Theatre’s The Bremen Town Band is a twist on the Grimms’ Town Musicians of Bremen. Lake Simons designed and directed this production, drawing inspiration from the silhouette animations of Lotte Reiniger and the vibrantly colorful cut-outs of Henri Matisse. Composer and pianist Courtney Bryan has assembled an all-star band that brings this production to life.
And if your travels ever take you to northern Germany, be sure to stop in the town of Bremen and visit the bronze statue of the donkey, dog, cat, and rooster from the tale. Legend has it if you touch the donkey’s front hooves, your wishes will come true.
Program Notes by Kathryn J. Allwine Bacasmot