Child’s play

One of Naxos’s new releases continues the label’s commitment to producing educational resources for children and parents to enjoy together, exploring the world of classical music that will hopefully have a lasting and beneficial effect on youngsters. The booklet and CDs that make up My First Orchestra Album (Naxos 8.578253) build on previous issues in the series that have included introductions to major composers, including Mozart, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky.

The image of parents and children discovering classical music together on the sofa is one thing; but how about adults and youngsters actually st-albans-cathedral-choirsperforming music together on the stage, and on equal terms? In some areas of the art, the practice goes back centuries: to the choirs that performed daily in religious establishments, for example. Men and boys (church music was unwelcoming to girls back then) were immersed in demanding masterpieces that required a uniform level of musicianship from the youngest to the oldest singer. The performances often took place amid the awe-inspiring architecture of ancient cathedrals, where musical standards had to match the physical surrounds.

The boy choristers of the St Thomas Church in Leipzig (Accentus Music ACC-20212) had the additional privilege – or maybe pressure – of having Johann Sebastian Bach as their choirmaster. That responsibility continues to the present day in their role as guardians of the treasure trove of cantatas (ROP4039 ) and motets (Naxos 8.553823) that Bach wrote specifically for use in the church’s weekly services.

la-famille-de-saltimbanquesThere are examples of other activities where adults and children take equal responsibility. The circus is one, as exemplified by today’s Chinese acrobatic shows, or in Pablo Picasso’s famous 1905 painting, La famille de saltimbanques (The Family of Street Acrobats). Centuries ago, the distinction between children and adults was blurred until the advent of the printing press, when the skill of reading dictated that part of the process of becoming an adult was to become literate. Musical literacy gave equal status to young singers in church choirs centuries ago, but has that sense of equality since been developed and extended to other parts of the music industry, both instrumentally and vocally?

There are examples of parts for children in a number of operas: De Falla’s Master Peter’s Puppet Show (Naxos 8.553499) has a role for a boy (or a woman will do if she can reproduce the roughness of a boy’s shouting in the street!). Then there’s the role of The Child in Schoenberg’s one-act comic opera, Von heute auf morgen, the first 12-tone opera that pulled back from over-taxing the young performer by giving him a speaking part. The boy enjoys the limelight of wrapping up the work with his intriguing, concluding line: “Mummy. What are up-to-date people?” A very good question.

Benjamin Britten had a lot more faith in the capabilities of young stage artists, casting two significant roles in his opera The Turn of the Screw (Naxos noyes-fludde8.660109-10) for young voices. Miles and Flora, the brother and sister central to the dark plot, play important dramatic as well as vocal parts. But the scale of amateur children actually outnumbering the professional adults was achieved in Britten’s operatic extravaganza Noye’s Fludde, both on instruments and in voice, transforming the notion of a performance into a community exercise.

Mahler specifies a boys’ choir for the fifth movement of his Symphony No. 3 (Naxos 8.550525-26) in which they imitate the sound of bells, and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana (Naxos 8.570033) similarly uses a boy’s chorus as a cherry on the cake. In a more demanding league, however, is Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms (Naxos 8.557504). Scored for orchestra and mixed chorus, the top two lines are usually taken by female voices, although Stravinsky’s stated preference was for them to be taken by the more dispassionate sound of children, something that didn’t happen at the first performance.

ncogbIn the Symphony of Psalms, Stravinsky set out to achieve an equal balance and importance between his choral and instrumental forces. Maybe there’s a niche for composers to fill by producing new works that similarly balance adult and children’s forces, both vocal and instrumental, that would reflect the enormous strides in performance standards made by young students in recent decades.

It might also provide a useful social service by acknowledging differences in age, but removing the generation gap.