Composed 2008. Violin, cello, narrator, 10′. (See below for a live recording and the first page of music.) From a story compiled by the Brothers Grimm; version by K.S. Commissioned and premiered by Auricolae, 9 Jun 2008, Media Elementary School. Funded by Musicopia through a grant by the American Composers Forum, Philadelphia Chapter.
The Bremen Town Musicians (begins 19:50) on the Philadelphia Orchestra Our City, Your Orchestra series. Juliette Kang, vn, Priscilla Lee, vc, Charlotte Blake Alston, narr.
Auricolae, meaning “little ears,” is a children’s concert ensemble of violin, cello, and narrator, created by David Yang, violist, founder of the Newburyport Chamber Music Festival, and director of Chamber Music at the University of Pennsylvania. David commissioned The Bremen Town Musicians in 2008, and they performed it dozens of times, and recorded it. It has since been taken up by other ensembles across the country, and as far away as Australia and Qatar, and in the Philadelphia Orchestra “Our City, Your Orchestra” 2021 chamber music series. In 2016 the conductor Kenneth Woods, one of the first cellists to perform Bremen with Auricolae, asked me to orchestrate it for his English Symphony Orchestra. They have since performed and recorded it, narrated by Gemma Whelan. I’ve adapted the Brothers Grimm story for my libretto, changing none of the salient features of this tale of four animals who, seeking fortune in the far city of Bremen, fall among thieves, outwit them, and find their good fortune as friends together, never arriving in Bremen.
There once was a donkey, who for many long years had carried the corn-sacks back and forth to the mill without tiring. But at last his strength was going, and he was not going to be able to work much longer. He knew that his master would soon get rid of him, so before that could happen, he ran away and took the road to Bremen. “I may not be good for anything,” he thought, “but in the city I can at least be a musician. Maybe I will play the lute.”
After he had walked some distance, he met an old hound lying by the road, gasping as if he had run a long way. “What are you out of breath for, old fellow?” asked the donkey. “Ah,” replied the hound, “because I am old and weak and cannot hunt anymore, my master wanted to kill me. So I ran away. But how can I earn enough to eat now?” “Listen,” said the donkey, “I am going to Bremen, and shall be a musician there; come with me and you can be a musician, too. I believe you would make a ﬁne drummer.” The hound agreed, so the two walked on together.
Before long they came to a cat, sitting on the path, with a face as sad as three rainy days. “Hello there, old whiskers, why the sad face?” asked the donkey. “Who can be jolly when his life is in danger?” answered the cat. “I’m getting old, my teeth are worn to stumps, and I’d rather sit by the ﬁre than hunt mice. So my mistress wanted to drown me. Well, I ran away, but now I don’t know what to do. Where am I to go?” “We’re going to be musicians in Bremen and will need music to play,” said the donkey. “Everyone knows that a cat can see in the dark, and everyone knows that composers work at night, so you can stay up all night and be our composer!” The cat thought that made very good sense, so the three walked on together.
After this they came to a farm, and a rooster was sitting on the gate, crowing at the top of his lungs. “Your crowing goes right through my bones,” said the donkey. “Why all the commotion?” “Fine guests are coming over tomorrow, and the lady of the house wants the chef to make soup with me as the main ingredient,” said the rooster, “so I am crowing as loud as I can, while I can.” The donkey said, “Come with us to Bremen! You have a ﬁne voice. Being a singer there has to be better than being a bowl of chicken soup here!” The rooster agreed, so all four traveled on together.
They could not reach Bremen in one day, so in the evening when they came to a forest, they wondered where they might sleep. As they walked, they spied a little light deep in the woods. They thought that if it were a house it would be better to sleep there than in the forest. They were getting hungry, too, and maybe food and drink were there! So they made their way toward the light, and sure enough, it was a house. They crept to the window and peeked in. It was a robber’s house! There were open bags with treasure spilling out, and ﬁerce-looking men sitting around a table. But the table was covered with wonderful things to eat and drink.” “Oh, how I wish we were in there!” said the donkey. “Food!” said the hound. “Drink!” said the cat. “That’s what we could use,” said the rooster.
So they put their heads together to think how they might drive the robbers away. At last they came up with a plan. The donkey would place his front feet on the windowsill, the hound would jump on his back, the cat would leap on his back, and ﬁnally the rooster would ﬂy up and perch on the cat’s head!
When they were ready, they began to make their music! The donkey brayed, the hound barked, the cat meowed, and the rooster crowed. Then they burst through the window and into the room, scattering glass everywhere! At all these horrible noises, the robbers sprang up, thinking that the souls of the dead were shrieking for them, and ﬂed into the forest as fast as their legs could carry them.
The four musicians now sat down at the table, very happy with the food and drink that was left, and feasted to their hearts’ content. When they had ﬁnished, they put out the light, and each sought out the perfect place to sleep. The donkey laid himself down on some straw in the yard, the hound stretched out by the back door, the cat curled up on the hearth in front of the ﬁreplace, and the rooster perched on the peak of the roof; and being very tired, they soon fell asleep.
But after midnight, the robbers saw from far off that the light was no longer on in the house, and that all seemed peaceful. The chief of the gang said, “Why did we let ourselves be scared silly?,” and ordered one of the robbers to go back and look the house over.
He crept back and all was quiet. He went in to light a candle, and the cat opened his eyes. Thinking that the glowing eyes were live coals in the ﬁreplace, the robber stuck a match to them to light it. The cat did not think that was at all funny, and ﬂew in his face, scratching with all his might. The robber was dreadfully frightened, and ran to the back door, but tripped on the hound, who sprang up and bit his leg. He then ran across the yard by the straw-heap, surprising the donkey, who gave him a sharp kick with his big hind foot. The rooster, awakened from all the noise, roused himself and cried down from the roof, “Cock-a-doodle–doo! Cock-a-doodle-doo!”
So the robber stumbled and ran as fast as he could back to his chief, and said, “There…there is a horrible witch in that house, and she spat on me and scratched my face with her long sharp ﬁngers! Then there’s this man by the door with a knife, and he stabbed me in the leg! And in the yard is a huge monster who pummelled me with his wooden club! And all the while, up on the roof, sits the judge, who cried out, ‘Throw the crook in jail! Throw the crook in jail!’ So I barely got out with my life!”
From that time on, the robbers never went near the house again. But the four musicians found it so agreeable that they did not wish to leave their new home any more. And if you happen by that part of the woods, you can still hear a house ﬁlled with music, because they never did go to Bremen.
This recording, Saturday, March 29, 2014, Midtown Scholar Bookstore, Harrisburg, Pa., part of Market Square Concerts’ educational/outreach program “Soundscape.” Performers: Cary Burkett, WITF radio personality, narrator; Peter Sirotin, violin; Fiona Thompson, cello
Here’s a performance Caroline Chin gave on her faculty recital, Bowling Green State University, 3 Feb 2021 (Bremen begins at 14:20).