Serious Music

I have been wondering, ever since I heard last year’s Family Prom, why the choice of orchestral music for children is so limited. I think I found the answer when I read a few days ago that Saint-Saens would not allow Carnival of the Animals to be published in his lifetime because he thought it would detract from his image as a serious composer. His publishers persuaded him to make an exception for The Swan because it was so popular, but none of the other fourteen movements was published until after his death.

Perhaps he was right.  A.A.Milne famously regretted that, after Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh, he was never taken seriously again as a writer, only as a children’s writer. The lack-of-seriousness-by-association is less of a problem for children’s authors now, but it seems that it still is for composers.

The repertoire is very small.  The top three are Carnival of the Animals, Peter and the Wolf and The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Then there’s Fauré’s Dolly Suite (the Berceuse known better to some of us as the signature tune to Listen With Mother) and Elgar’s Nursery Suite.  The latter was written for the young princesses Margaret and Elizabeth, the former for the daughter of the composer’s mistress (he was French, after all). The pieces by Britten and Prokoviev were both commissions, Britten’s as the soundtrack to an educational documentary, Prokoviev’s for the Central Children’s Theatre in Moscow. That was in 1936. How many such commissions have there been since?

In last year’s Family Prom we heard Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Debussy’s Clair de Lune, an extract from Shostakovich’s Symphony No.4 and a new piece called My Concerto in Ee Lad, supposedly composed by Grommet. The concert ended with a screening of the latest Wallace and Grommet film, the soundtrack for which was played live by the orchestra. The programme was typical of most family concerts in that it consisted, to quote from the BBC Proms website, of ‘classical favourites for all the family’.

It’s not so long since books for children were similarly limited to classical favourites – nineteenth century classics ‘re-told for children’, abbreviated versions of Oliver Twist and Gulliver’s Travels, Pilgrim’s Progress and Robinson Crusoe. It was only when writers like A.A.Milne, J.M.Barrie, Richmal Crompton and the like, all of whom wrote books for grown-ups, made the fatal mistake of writing something for children too, that children began to reap the benefits, publishers to discover the market and authors to suffer the consequences.

Nothing like the riches of contemporary children’s literature is to be found in the concert hall, only the three staples of family concerts (Prokoviev, Saint-Saens, Britten), popular classics and excerpts from longer works.

Is it that concert halls are not suitable places for children? I once attended a concert given by a chamber orchestra on a tour of secondary schools which began, not with music, but with the conductor explaining to the parents and children in the audience when they should applaud and when not. That was twenty years ago, but just the other day orchestras were accused by the head of one of the major record labels of putting off young audiences by their stuffy adherence to old-fashioned conventions, such as not applauding between movements.

Is it that music for children is seen as essentially different from music for grown-ups in a way that literature for children is not? There is a continuum of reading experience from childhood to old age in which what you read and how old you are matters less than the act of reading itself. But this does not seem to be true of music.

Is it a class thing?

Or is it just that composers are afraid of not being taken seriously?

Neil Rathmell

Serious Music

4 thoughts on “Serious Music

  • 31st January 2013 at 4:42 am

    Isn’t it a shame. My introduction to music (except for the few 78rpm records that we had at home) was via schools’ concerts on Leeds especially arranged by the (now long defunct) Yorkshire Symphony Orchestra. Pieces like Fingal’s Cave and Midsummer Nights Dream and the Pastoral Symphony. WIth some explanation so we knew what we were listening for. My children had Ann Rachlin conerts on the Thames – with the Water Music – and Atarah BenTovim and her band. The Prom programmers could have been much more inventive!

  • 1st February 2013 at 2:58 am

    Indeed. I commissioned a new score from Prof Robert Orledge for Krazy Kat Theatre’s ‘Petrushka and the Mysterious Magician’, a family show, in 2007. The children who heard it were delighted: he used counter tenor vocal to great magic effect, and structured the scoring carefully within the ‘child friendly’ brief. It was a delight to tour, a joy to create and an unforgettable experience for the audiences throught the UK who attended. HOWEVER: not a jot of interest in this major commission was shown by any of the mainstream music venues, music promoters or music critics. And, to be honest, the same disintetest was shown by the theatre cartel. What can one do but continue to create in the face of this ennui and trust the children to keep us focussed.

  • 4th February 2013 at 6:22 am

    Music is still written for children but usually not on an orchestral scale. Family concerts given by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra have included compositions by, for example, Ian Stephens,who whilst writing modern classical music, has written pieces for children which have a wide appeal. I believe that one of the issues is of appropriate funding. A successful book for children brings in an income, in contrast to a piece of music which may only have local publicity. One area of new music writing which focuses on children is in choral writing specifically with their voice ranges in mind. Children’s choirs are increasingly popular and the standards are very high.

  • 5th February 2013 at 12:34 pm

    I realise that you’re maybe discussing orchestral works rather than opera, but the latter can introduce children to classical music, therefore, I thought I’d let you know about a project in which I was involved. In 2008 Welsh National Opera commissioned Helen Woods (composer) and I (librettist/director) to write a new opera for 4-6 year olds. “A Real Princess” based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Princess and the Pea was scored for soprano, baritone, viola, bassoon, marimba and vibraphone. The production toured to schools and theatres across England and Wales (with an accompanying workshop & education resources) in 2010 and again to theatres in 2011 . Children’s delight in seeing & hearing these marvellous instruments played with such skill by members of the orchestra of WNO and words and music sung with such beauty by members of WNO Chorus was palpable … and audible, as they left the theatre or school hall singing!

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