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?