Friday, 15 March 2013

16 & 17 March

Classical Break - Children and Childhood

Today's programme is an enjoyable anthology of mainly 20th Century music celebrating childhood.  Flashman, School bully, is absent with our blessing, and this savourable hour is guaranteed 0% proof, that is, Austerity- free.

 Intro:  Children laughing, singing Girls and Boys Come Out to Play. 

Hullo, this is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Mike Burrows.  Today, our subject is the portrayal of children and childhood in music.

Very probably, what we think of as childhood, a magical time of innocence, intuitive wisdom, light responsibilities and inexhaustible fantasy, has its origins more in religion or secular idealism and the wishful imagination of careworn adults than in anything we felt at the time.  With unprecedented zeal, in the face of the Industrial Revolution and hard-faced economic thinking on society, on utility, on rationalization, artists created a blessed time when man and woman could exist in a kind of Eden, where Good co-existed with the Evil and Knowledge of Evil about it, and only slowly lost its innocent vision in the face of what used to be called ‘custom’.  Custom and financial profit had nothing to do with it...  One could learn from children, one could become like a child and enter however fleetingly the earthly Heaven of living however fleetingly according to one’s nature where nothing was forced, false or pettifogging, where one could be fanciful, unaffected, free from adult narrow-mindedness, pride and material greed, philosophical in the truest, most free-spirited and visionary manner.  On the other hand, in the same age, shy dons could pursue upper-middle-class children into an ‘artistic’ state of nakedness with the camera-lens, and most employers could exploit a working-class child, body and soul, in the blackest depths of poverty and squalor, for money. 

Sir Edward Elgar (1857--1934) was one who expressed the marital and parental longing that was de rigeur in the industrial age. It was one’s duty to marry and have children, in a world where there was much still to do. One who remained a bachelor and never fathered a child was the writer Charles Lamb; he expressed his longings in an essay, Dream Children - A Reverie, in which he met the girl and boy who might have been.  Elgar, a loving husband and father, found resonances in this - he responded to dreams of romantic love and childhood - or what might have been - all his life.  He headed his two little pieces for orchestra, Dream-Children with the conclusion of the essay:  We are not of Alice, nor of thee...  We are nothing and  less than nothing, and dreams.  We are only what might have been, and must wait upon the tedious shores of Lethe millions of ages before we have existence and a name.”

Track One:  Elgar, Dream-Children, Op 43.

Alice was the middle name of Elgar’s wife.  Before concluding that he was discontented in marriage, one should bear in mind that the two pieces entitled Dream Children  were originally intended to be the middle movements of a Symphony, and thus, were a mirage of the kind of music he wished most to write Perhaps, at forty-five, two years older than male life-expectancy in Britain in Nineteen Oh-Two, he felt that he would never write that most significant and worthy of works, a Symphony.

This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM.  Stay with us as we explore music with a theme of children and childhood.

Robert Schumann, 1810-1856, was one of the family-men of music. He not only wrote music for children to play and sing, but fostered much more, as he was the first great composer to write such music with the intention of beguiling the nursery-musician.  Hitherto, piano-music for children had been mechanical, scalic, functional, designed to promote flexibility of the fingers and command of articulation, tone and dynamics.

As might be expected, Schumann was concerned to promote the poetic sensibility that expresses the soul of music.

As the father of a large family, he played with his children and made notes on their behaviour for their and his amusement - with no thoughts of creating a data--base, incidentally.  True, on one occasion in later life his extreme short--sightedness caused him to lift his lorgnette to a group of children in the street; ask them vaguely what they wanted and leave them apparently unaware that in asking them, “What is it, children?” he had been addressing his own.

Spring Song is be found at the more elementary end of the two-part Album of Childhood, a quickly-written book of pieces composed full-heartedly during a time of varied projects.           

Track Two, Schumann:  Spring Song, from Album Fur Die Jugend. 

Charles Williams was possibly the most gifted of British composers of light music in the last century, his talent cognate with that of the American, Leroy Anderson.  The Old Clock-maker was also famously used by BBC radio, as the signatune-tune for a popular series drawn from the Jennings School-books.  The sleepy, well-regulated world of Linbury Court School, the village of Linbury and town of Dunhambury, and the world-view of a quirky, happy-go-lucky schoolboy destined somehow always to derange the routine of uncomprehending adults, seem expressed perfectly in this miniature for orchestra that is, by the way, beautifully-written, its constituents so impressive that the means are never noticed for themselves.

Track Three:  Charles Williams:  The Old Clock-maker. 

Our fourth piece is by Max Steiner, from his glorious music for the film The Adventures of Mark Twain.  This is music of great sweep and also moments of comedy, humour in the truest sense and in addition - at moments of pathos connected with destiny and the passing of Halley’s comet at the author’s birth and death - intimate beauty.  It is a locus classicus of music composed in an accessible, romantic, picturesque manner that yet suggests far more than indebtedness to any model.  Mark Twain was a man who despised notions of ‘growing up’, and whose boy-characters tend to ‘light out’ at any sign of ‘sivilisation’.  To Steiner’s music one can feel a lifetime touched - for better or worse - by the genius of childhood, by a fascination with life, a love for what people are even as the absurdities - and tragedies - of life are played out.  I first listened prepared to hate Hollywood hokum. The self-congratulatory regard for funny-man-become-monument born of sentiments such as ‘only in America’, etc, etc, must have inspired tedium dotted with worse, but listening, I realized that this soundtrack, with all its genre-qualities, was a masterpiece that resounds in mind at any moment of the day or night.  The joke was on me.  The melodies and their treatment demand a big, romantic orchestra and Straussian orchestration, and get it.  It is astonishing not to have seen a film, but to see it by listening to a soundtrack composed moment to moment. 

I almost hope never to watch the film for which this music was composed.  If one heard it in a concert and billed as a Symphonic Poem, it would send one home thinking many art-composers of the greatest reputation outdone.

Here is The Toy-shop.

Track Four, Max Steiner:  from The Adventures of Mark Twain 

Next, we come to Debbie Wiseman’s music for a more recent movie, Tom’s Midnight Garden.  The story of a boy who goes to live in an old house, steps back in time at the grandfather clock’s striking thirteen, and befriends a young Victorian girl, is very touchingly treated - free--wheeling piano and clarinet give way to dark tones of woodwind, low strings and brass that represent the mystery of the gloomy old house and Time passing, and nothing is quite the same again...  Here is the first movement of a three movement suite, the orchestra conducted by the composer...

Track Five:  Debbie Wiseman:  Music for Tom’s Midnight Garden            

Time No Longer.

One has to move on – and up.

The great enemies of childhood will always include utilitarian talk of how to overcome the idleness of the work-force, and of how to train children up most cheaply and quickly to serve capital.  

All the same, some say that school grants one the happiest days of one’s life.  Our next piece is a part-song by Sibelius.  Kouluti, The Way To School.  The words, by the Finnish poet, Koskenniemi, paint one a picture of the path the poet took to school, which he sees in his dreams to this day; the girl with whom he fell in love and for whom he wrote his first poem.  He remembers his headmaster, who strode always with his head held high.  He will never forget that path till the day he dies, perhaps because back then, he thought that
 ‘Somewhere far off
    A wonderful life is waiting for me...’  

Track Six, Sibelius:  Kouluti  

Our seventh piece is by Gabriel Fauré 1845-192-4, taken from his Dolly Suite.  Written for piano duet and the children of a friend, it was later orchestrated by his pupil, Henri  Rabaud.  The Berceuse is well-known, owing to its use in piano-duet arrangement on BBC Radio as the signature tune for Listen With Mother.  It is hard to say whether it works better as a piano-duet or orchestral piece.  Possibly, familiarity with the style of orchestration used causes the Rabaud confection to seem too smooth, the mixed scoring blending in fatal rhythmical  and harmonic indeterminateness.  Or nostalgia makes me prefer the piano-duet.

Track Seven, Fauré:  Berceuse from Dolly Suite 

Now, I know of only one composer who also wrote a manual on the use of grenades.  George Dyson was born in Halifax in 1883 and died in 1964.  A fellow of the Royal College of Organists from the age of sixteen, he was taught by Stanford at the Royal College of Music and held posts at Rugby, Marlborough and Winchester before becoming director of the College in 1937.  He wrote much choral, instrumental and orchestral music in a style that owes most to Parry, Richard Strauss, Delius, and what Vaughan Williams in connection with his own music referred to as ‘French polish’.  The Children’s Suite, After Walter De La Mare, was probably written in about 1920, four years after Dyson had been invalided home as a shell-shock case from France.  There are four movements, of which we shall hear the last, Whirligig:  Di Ballo.  The outright carefreeness of this piece expresses something of the exultancy of childhood - having momentum, a good tune wrapped in folds of brass and strings à la Strauss or D’Indy, some Edward German in the working-out and more than a touch of Fauré and Dolly in the pathos-laden moments before the brisk close.  Dyson was more at home with large-scale choral and orchestral writing, but here shows a gift for the miniature.

Track 8, Dyson:  The Children’s Suite, Movt lV, Whirligig:  Di Ballo 

Now, we turn to the composer of a fine requiem and many film-scores, Zbigniew Preisner.  He wrote a magical work in his music for Fairy-Tale:  A True Story, a film based loosely on events that occurred in the Yorkshire mill-town of Cottingley, on the outskirts of Leeds:  when two young girls photographed fairies by the beck near their cottage, to the excitement, when they saw the unfakable photographic record, of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Psychical Research Society luminary, Edward Gardner.  Conan Doyle was moved to write a book, The Coming of The Fairies.  For many decades, Elsie Wright and Frances Griffiths insisted that they had captured the likenesses of fairy-folk with a Box-Brownie, and it became nationally important to the wisest of adults as to well-meaning cranks that they had done...  Preisner captures the magic of childhood in fine webs of gossamer-sound.  The edge of modern dissonance and unmasked use of  bare timbres of instruments within the orchestra accompany a primitive order of melody that possesses a certain quality of naive art in addition.

Children are not fools and only the more skilful composer can express with an appearance of truth how they feel and think in a world that only reveals more of its unaccountable mysteries of reality and justice as one’s stock of knowledge and experience and,  in turn, ability to judge, increase.  Let’s hear Preisner’s treatment of how Frances first meets Yorkshire fairies down by the wooded beck on a bright afternoon, after School.

Track 9, Preisner:  Fairy-tale, A True Story - Number 7, The Beck

A programme with a guarded reference to shy dons at the outset ought to make mention of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, or Alice Through The Looking-glass - and The Rev Charles Dodgson, aka, Lewis Carroll. 

Here to end our concert is a piece connected with the latter book.  Jabberwocky is based on a grimly edifying ballad that has been translated into German amongst other languages, and tells the tale of a youth who goes forth on a quest, meets a terrifying monster and overcomes it, to return home to his proud Father with its head...

Jabberwocky, as portrayed with orchestra for a theatre-production by the Liverpool-born composer, Alfred Reynolds. 

Don’t believe anyone who tells you that only a child can wield a vorpal sword!                   

We hope you enjoyed your Classical Break on Somer Valley FM.

This is Mike Burrows saying, see you again soon!

Track Ten, Alfred Reynolds:  Alice Through The Looking-glass, Jabberwocky.