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The Keys to the Secret Garden

Vladimir Horowitz often ended his bombastic piano recitals with an innocent piece from Kinderscenen (Scenes from Childhood) by Robert Schumann called Trauemerei. Horowitz, often unjustly accused of musical imbecility, realized the native power of music for children that affects each one of us elementally. In fact, Noam Chomsky has theorized that all music is a form of communication that has its roots in the first tentative attempts at language made by children. In any case, childhood is the one experience that we all have in common and many composers have used this universality to increase the emotive power of their art. Music for children can be classified into four categories. The first type is music written for children to enjoy. The second is written for children to perform (and hopefully enjoy). The third category is music written for adults which evokes the simpler times of childhood and the fourth is music written for adults which deals with the experience of parenting. The most successful music for children never talks down to them, rather it recognizes the magical experience that is the essence of childhood. In light of the shameful abdication of the public schools in America, it is perhaps useful to explore for parents some of the compositions that might appeal to their children and open a door through which they can begin to appreciate the rich universe of classical music.

To introduce young children to the joys of this art form a good place to start is Peter and the Wolf by Serge Prokofieff. This piece appeals to the younger set because there is a storyteller who relates the simple fairy tale and it is particularly instructive because each of the characters in the tale is represented by a different instrument of the orchestra. When a character is first introduced, their specific instrument plays a particular recognizable theme which is then associated with that character throughout the story. Thus Peter is represented by the strings, the duck by the oboe, the cat by the clarinet, the grandfather by the bassoon, the bird by the flute and the wolf by the horn section. The guns of the hunters are evoked by the timpani and bass drum. The story is charming and very tame. Prokofieff also wrote a version of the Ugly Duckling for soprano and orchestra. A similar concept to Peter is Camille Saint-Saens’ Carnival of the Animals, originally a piano piece but since transcribed for orchestra and revitalized with verses by Ogden Nash. Again there is a reciter who introduces each portrait of the animals in the zoo and then listens along to the clever character sketches of the composer.

A purely orchestral piece which helps to familiarize young children with the building blocks of classical music is The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra by Benjamin Britten. Actually there was an original narration which accompanied this work as it was written for a short educational film, but this text is never used in performance. The piece is a set of variations on a theme of Henry Purcell and features all of the instruments of the orchestra (including the percussion) playing the melody at different times. Britten’s piece is highly successful because it does not condescend to the young audience. “I never really worried that it was too sophisticated for kids…”, Britten wrote, “…it is difficult to be that for the little blighters!” In fact the work ends with a brilliant fugue and the optimistic D major conclusion leaves the impression that all is right with the world (a departure from the melancholy sound of much of Britten’s music). Another purely orchestral work that has the child in mind is the “Toy” Symphony supposedly by Franz Joseph Haydn. This purely Classical piece contains instruments such as birdcalls, a one-note trumpet and drum combination, a rattle and a triangle. Although Franz Joseph’s name appears on the score, the music was apparently written by Leopold Mozart (the father of Wolfgang) and the toy instruments were added by Haydn’s brother Michael. This piece is often paired with “Peter” on recordings.

In the world of opera there are several good choices for a child’s introduction. Haensel und Gretel by Englebert Humperdinck is a retelling of the classic fairy story. Most of the music is light, but the scene describing Haensel and Gretel’s fear of the witch is very frightening indeed, aptly fitting a grim fairy tale (no pun intended) but possibly too much for sensitive young viewers (although certainly no more frightening than the fire in Disney’s Bambi). Children will also learn about opera convention by attending this innocent work, as the part of Haensel is played by a woman due to the high pitched nature of the vocal line. Humperdinck also wrote Koenigskinder (The King’s Children) for a young audience, but this work is almost never performed. An extremely charming introduction to opera for children is Die Zauberfloete (The Magic Flute) by Mozart. Although the plot line will be over their heads (which is okay because very few adults can navigate its complexities), the breezy music and mythical characters are perfect for children. There is Papageno the bird catcher who is himself a bird, a magical, flying Queen of the Night, and a cardboard and comical dragon. And the music is all a delight, especially the gloeckenspiel playing of the kindly Papageno. Leos Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen uses barnyard and woodland animals as the main characters of the story. The dance of the drunken mosquito and the vixen’s dream, done as a solo ballet, are particular favorites of children.

A modern master of opera for children is the British composer Oliver Knussen. His Where the Wild Things Are (1980) is a wonderful vision of childhood with a libretto by the original creator of the surrealistic world of Max, Maurice Sendak. The opera is a faithful retelling of the book’s evocation of the world of a child’s imagination. Max is sent to bed without supper and imagines an entire South Sea island world of fabulous and vaguely phantasmagoric creatures who make him their king. The “wild rumpus” scene is very exciting and we end up back in Max’s room where he can smell hot soup cooking. Knussen has also written another children’s opera entitled Higglety-Piggledy-Pop. His operatic world resembles that of Maurice Ravel, who created L’Enfant et les Sortileges (The Child and the Magic) in 1926. In L’Enfant a child is confined to his room as punishment for a small transgression and embarks on a destructive rampage. He breaks everything in the room and then has to endure the furniture coming to life in its now infirm state. He is ashamed as he witnesses the actions of the broken cups and the mutilated grandfather clock, the armchair and the teapot (it’s easy to see the connection to Disney’s Beauty and the Beast). The animals come in and seem happy in their world, but the child is not admitted to their circle. He is being punished by his own conscience. However, the animals do finally accept him and help him to restore order and happiness in his life with a final cry of “Maman”. Another good choice for children is Prokofieff’s The Love for Three Oranges with its playing card characters ruled by the King of Clubs.

Older children, particularly boys, respond well to Richard Wagner’s Siegfried. Although the music is difficult, it is tremendously exciting and the story of the natural hero who slays the dragon and pursues the golden ring which embodies all power is very appealing to the young male imagination. The story and its mythological characters are echoed in Tolkien and also in the Star Wars movies. Girls will be enchanted with Cinderella, which exists in three versions. The opera by Giacchino Rossini, La Cenerentola, is an earthy retelling of the classic tale while its equivalent by Jules Massenet, Cendrillon, is more appealing for its sense of the fairy princess world of Cinderella at the ball. Once again, Prokofieff holds the key to the world of childhood. The composer who composed operas as a child fashioned an enchanting ballet out of the Cinderella legend. Prokofieff includes all of the charm necessary to capture a young girl’s imagination but also develops an ominous undercurrent in the music which defines the evil stepsisters and stepmother. The dance itself becomes a character of evil when Cinderella is caught staying too long at the party. The waltz at the ball, introduced by the bass tuba and written as a sinister and ultimately devilish dance, is the highlight of this beautiful full-length ballet. Prokofieff uses this dance as the anchor piece in his famous Waltz Suite for orchestra and, in typical sardonic style, entitles the excerpt “Cinderella’s Happiness Theme”.

Another ballet which fascinates children is Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker. Briefly, it tells the story of Clara, a little girl who goes to bed on Christmas Eve only to awaken to a land of mice, an owl, a growing Christmas tree and tin soldiers. The mice do battle with the soldiers and eat some of their gingerbread equivalents. Clara kills the mouse king with her slipper and the nutcracker turns into a handsome prince. His parents then take Clara to their Kingdom of Sweets, where they are welcomed by the Sugar-Plum Fairy. Tchaikovsky strangely coupled The Nutcracker with his opera Iolanta, a definite piece of adult fare. He also wrote the fairy tale ballet The Sleeping Beauty and the enchanting Swan Lake, whose elegance is universally appealing.

There are many lullabies written to sing to children. The Brahms lullaby or Wiegenlied is the most famous but there are also examples by Schubert, Cornelius, Grieg and Hugo Wolf. One particularly beautiful set of songs is Gullebarn’s Lullabies by the Swedish composer Wilhelm Petersson-Berger and is available on a CD featuring the silken voiced Swedish mezzo-soprano Anne Sophie von Otter. Many lullabies were also written as piano pieces including those of Chopin, Dvorak, Balakirev and Moeran.

Music written for children to perform need not be of the monotonous scale and exercise variety. Shinichi Suzuki invented a method for teaching stringed instruments which did not rely on the reading of printed notes. Very young children with quarter-sized violins can be taught music of Bach and Schumann without a great deal of intellectual or manual preparation. Zoltan Kodaly also experimented with a children’s method. His friend and sometime collaborator, Bela Bartok, wrote several piano pieces for youthful study and published them as the collection For Children. Bartok also completed a six-book cycle of piano music intended for instruction entitled Mikrokosmos. The pieces range in difficulty from easy to very hard and are a good way to keep children interested in the musical quality of the pieces while instructing them in their basic rudiments. Erno von Dohnanyi wrote Variations on a Nursery Tune for Piano and Orchestra as a concert piece for an advanced child performer. The tune, “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” (actually composed by Mozart), goes through many permutations and is a concert favorite among the young.

One way in which composers evoke the innocence of childhood is through the children’s chorus. Gustav Mahler wrote the fifth movement of his Symphony #3 for alto, boy’s choir, women’s chorus and orchestra. The song Es Sungen Drei Engel (three angels were singing) is begun by the boys as they intone “bimm, bamm”, imitating the sound of church bells. The movement is the most life affirming-music in the entire Mahlerian repertoire. In Georges Bizet’s Carmen, the children mock the soldiers by putting on their own parade and put the machismo of the plot into gentle perspective. In Otello by Guiseppe Verdi, the innocent Desdemona is accompanied by a children’s chorus which underscores her purity. In the legendary Toscanini recording of this opera the children sometime sing out of tune and this somehow makes the performance more charming and magical.

Youthful characters in opera always command great audience sympathy. The astounding scene in the nursery from Modest Moussorgsky’s Boris Goudonov is a prime example. The opera is about the murder of a child and the nursery tableau is a prelude to the mad scene where Boris sees the murdered child in the corner of the room (the audience does not). Moussorgsky also wrote a wonderfully evocative set of songs entitled In the Nursery. In Wozzeck by Alban Berg, the son of the prostitute, Marie, is the recipient of his mother’s lullaby and is the central character of the opera’s heart-wrenching conclusion. The little boy plays with his small hobby-horse unaware that his father, Wozzeck, has gone insane and killed his mother and then drowned himself. The other children play ring around the rosie until one boy comes in and informs them of the crime. He tells the little boy that his mother is dead. The boy continues to play, singing “hop, hop” to his horse. The children all run off and, as the music indicates, snow begins to fall. The little child follows after them. It is an unforgettable moment both musically and theatrically and a marvelous ending to one of the truly great works of the twentieth century.

For the piano, there is the Children’s Corner Suite of Claude Debussy. Oliver Knussen has acknowledged that this was the inspiration for his “Wild Things” opera. Debussy dedicated these six piano pieces to his daughter Chouchou. The first is Dr. Gradus ad Parnassum, a description of a child struggling over some pedantic piano exercises. The second is Jimbo’s Lullaby and is an homage to Chouchou’s velvet elephant. The third piece is Serenade for the Doll and the fourth The Snow is Dancing. The fifth is The Little Shepherd and describes a figure from a creche. The last and most famous piece is Golliwog’s Cakewalk, a highly complex rhythmic piece that evokes the turn of the century minstrel show. Sadly, Chouchou (actually named Claude-Emma) died at the age of 14, only a year after her father. The Brazilian composer, Heitor Villa-Lobos, composed a similar set of piano pieces describing various dolls entitled Prole do Bebe. Robert Schumann crafted the remarkably poetic Kinderscenen which contains 13 short pieces of charming nostalgia. He later wrote an Album for Young People which was meant for youthful pianists, but the Kinderscenen requires great adult sensitivity to do justice to these delicate recollections of a lost age of paradise. Schumann, who was haunted by mental illness all of his life, also wrote the Maerchenerzaehlungen (Fairy Tales) for clarinet, viola and piano (which also includes an optional part for violin improvisation) as an expression of his longing for the simpler times of childhood. Olivier Messiaen wrote his Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant Jesu (20 aspects of the baby Jesus) for piano as a combination of religious meditation and childhood innocence, and Nicolai Medtner also composed a set of charming Fairy Tales for piano solo.

Some pieces are written about children but are really written only for parents. Charles Ives’ song The Children’s Hour is a gentle evocation of a parent’s reflections on the joys of family. Gustav Mahler’s poignant Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) with words by Freidrich Rueckert is a devastating cycle of songs expressing a father’s grief and gnawing guilt over the loss of his beloved progeny (ironically, one of Mahler’s daughters, Putzi, died soon after the composition of this vocal masterpiece). And Alexander Zemlinsky’s opera Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) is a retelling of the adult fairy tale The Birthday of The Infanta by Oscar Wilde. In the story a spoiled child is given a live human being, the dwarf, to play with. She soon tires of him, however, and allows him to die like all of the other neglected toys on the scrap heap. This is not a story for children but rather a tale about them at their worst.

All of us are a potential audience for the music of children. When young we are in tune with this world of the imagination and as we get older we fall victim to feelings of melancholy and nostalgia and long for a simpler time. Those of us who become parents see childhood in a whole new light and this new vision affects our worldview. What is common to all music for children is a certain magic, the shared experience at the heart of all imaginative literature, art and music.

Frederick L. Kirshnit



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