Egon Wellesz’s Prospero’s Incantations

Notes by TŌN violist Leonardo Vásquez Chacón

The Inspiration
“Now I will believe that there are unicorns,” says Sebastian, a character depicted in Shakespeare’s famous play The Tempest. His representation of the supernatural and the magical provided the inspiration for Austrian composer Egon Wellesz’s fantastic work from 1936, Prospero’s Incantations, Op. 53.

The Music
The music sets five important characters and moments from the story into individual movements. The first of these, “Prospero’s Incantation,” represents Prospero, the main character in the play, and serves as the title for the entire piece. As a man who learned the power of magic, enabling him to control the forces of nature and even bring the dead back to life, Prospero’s incantations are translated into music through slow and mysterious orchestral colors interspersed with brass fanfares. Here, Wellesz uses the most “arcane” of musical techniques, a fugue: a phrase is first presented by the low strings, followed by the other instruments playing the same phrase, which creates interweaving parts. The second movement depicts the horrible storm amidst the sea that Ariel is causing at the behest of Prospero. This frenetic scherzo is full of interjections by all the instruments of the orchestra, but at the very end we hear some calm fanfares from the first movement that take us to a soothing ending. Ariel’s song, which in the play notifies Ferdinand of his father’s death in the shipwreck and leads him to Prospero, is mostly slow and mournful, but one can also hear moments of ecstasy and sublime beauty as the movement comes to an end. The movement based on Caliban is grotesque and savage, just like the character itself. The fifth movement starts by depicting the glorious marriage of Ferdinand and Miranda. This was Prospero’s goal from the very beginning, so that he could reclaim his nobility. The work ends with Prospero’s epilogue in which he renounces the powers of sorcery and requests the audience to set him free with their applause.

A Musician’s Take
I have really enjoyed going from not knowing anything about Egon Wellesz to absolutely loving this piece. I hear hints of Bruckner and Mahler, but also a lot of Hindemith’s sound in Prospero’s Incantations, and this always keeps me interested. I think it should be noted that this work literally saved the composer’s life, as he had traveled to Amsterdam to hear it performed on the same day that the Nazis invaded Austria. Because of this, I do not think it’s crazy to think that he actually tapped into some of Prospero’s supernatural power.