“The Pied Piper of Hamelin”

Concerto for Flute, Narrator, and String Orchestra

Music by Stephen Frost, using verses from the poem by Robert Browning

Why “The Pied Piper of Hamelin”? There is certainly nothing original about using the
story as a basis for music or drama. There are numerous examples of the legend being
put to musical, poetic or theatrical use: a poem by Goethe, set to music by Franz
Schubert and Hugo Wolf among others; a novel by Nevil Shute; a play by Carl
Zuckmayer; an opera by Michael Ende; a countless number of cantatas, ballets,
musical plays, and pantomimes; two silent films from 1911 and 1916 and several
subsequent versions with sound; an animation; symphonic works by the American
composers James Kilcran and John Corigliano; to mention but a few. No, the story
holds a strange magnetism over us and we need to look a little deeper into its history
to find some of the reasons why.

The legend’s popularity today is due for the most part to two notable sources. Firstly,
in 1816, the hot breath of historical Chinese-whispers condensed upon the pages of
the Brothers Grimm, where, in a version from a book about German legends, there
appears the first successful attempt to unify all the disparate themes and variations
that had until then only served to fragment the story of the Pied Piper. A Luneburg
manuscript dated 1384 is the first to mention a flautist; a 1557 chronicler added the
rats; in 1605 Richard Verstegan, an English travel writer, coined the term Pied Piper
("pied" refers to markings of two or more colours). All these components that are
familiar to us today are actually additions to the original legend and come together for
the first time under the Grimm quill. Further narrative embellishments from the
Brothers include the blind child who could not follow the piper and was left behind, to
the deaf child who could not hear the piper’s mesmerising tune, to one shirt-sleeved
boy who turned back to fetch his jacket, as well as to the idea that the children entered
an underground passage that leads to Transylvania. Although none of these ideas were
new, the Grimm’s account brings them all together for the first time. The myth was
becoming a fairy-story, for better or for worse.

The second significant adaptation, clearly based on the Grimms' version, was Robert
Browning’s children’s poem "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" published in 1849, which
brought the story to the attention of the English-speaking world and, in terms of
pacing, wit and drama, is perhaps the most successful version. In Browning’s
narrative the afflicted child is lame, and unable to keep up with his “playmates”; and
perhaps more poignantly he is the only child left behind.

But these crucial moments in the development of both the legend and its popularity
also represent the beginning of the end for the evolution of  Pied Piper’s story, which
has remained more or less fossilised ever since. Today, several hundred re-prints and
re-writes later, he nestles all too comfortably on the bookshelf between Lewis Caroll
and Hans Christian Andersen, in the library of bedtime reading; a children’s classic, a
fairy story.

And yet something did happen in the German town of medieval Hameln, something
that subsequent generations have inadvertently done their best to obscure with
embellishment and fantasy. As we have heard, the piper was added a century later,
and the rats didn’t make an appearance for a further two, but all accounts are reasonably
consistent about two things: the date, and the number of children who disappeared.
There are reports of a glass picture in the church of Hameln dating from before 1300,
depicting the exodus of the children, but did the picture ever really exist? It is said
that the window was replaced in 1660, but that seems a curious thing for the residents
of Hameln to do without in some way preserving the original (although it is true that
our museums and galleries would be very much the richer if it were not for the
thieving hands of greed, madness, and sheer incompetence that have taken from us
countless artefacts of priceless historical importance!) There are reconstructions of a
rhyme included in this picture reporting that:

“In the year of 1284, on John's and Paul's day the 26th of June
By a piper, dressed in all kinds of colours,
130 children born in Hamelin were seduced
and lost at the calvarie near the koppen”

- but this cannot be dated any earlier than the Luneberg manuscript of 1384.

Perhaps we are more convinced, curiously enough, by the sheer banality of specific
dates, places and numbers. We know not when Arthur drew the sword from the stone;
we can but dream of visiting Olympia and Atlantis. The mundane trivia, the nuts and
bolts that hold together our own world, fall by the wayside in the stuff of legends and
disappear behind a misty ambiguity. But the glass picture pins down the piper to noon
on the 26th June 1284, the day when 130 children disappeared; and Hameln is an
actual place where in certain streets the playing of music is still banned out of respect
for the long-lost “kinder”. The smoke leaves such tantalisingly little evidence about
the nature of the fire, but we feel an honest presence from history, on the cusp
between waking and dreams. And if we could see into the fire, what would we find
behind the flames? No doubt we would give it a dull, scientific, 21st Century spin -
religious mania, mass hysteria, or simply the migration of a people - but since we
cannot be sure, we pick through the embers and prefer to see strangeness in the dust.
Are we also drawn to the unusual twists in the tale because we recognise something of
our own lives in them? The plot doesn't seem to follow the usual prescriptions of
children's stories. Where is the happy ending? What is the Aesopian moral? Who is
the bad guy and who the hero? The piper, the ratcatcher, an ambiguous character,
sinister and foreign, charmed and mystical, appears to be both. And furthermore,
whatever happened to the children? Their reappearance in Transylvania was one of
the later additions, and if it were a novel we would accuse the author of losing
courage at the denouement. If we burn away the hard crust built up through centuries
of elaboration and conjecture we are left with the soft heart of the story, of an image
as tragic as it is contemporary and real – parents weeping for their dead children.

Perhaps the moral of the story is “Beware of strangers”; perhaps it is “Always pay
your debts”. Or perhaps it is simply a reflection of the tragedy of the human
condition: some people leave, and some stay behind to remember their leaving.