This week, we’re exploring our inner child. It’s a look at music originally written for young performers, a show we’re calling “Kid Stuff.”
Let’s jump in the fountain of youth as we explore this juvenile playlist:
- Georges Bizet (1838–1875), Carmen, Act III, Scene II: “Les voici! Voici la quadrille” – Children’s choruses show up all over the opera world. You can find them in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier, Puccini’s Tosca and La Boheme, Berg’s Wozzeck, Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and in Georges Bizet’s famous opera Carmen. The children in Carmen appear in the final act, introducing the entrance of the bullfighters into the arena, including the toreador Escamillo. Escamillo has won the affections of the gypsy Carmen, angering the young soldier Don José, who has lost everything to be with her. The children singing are the last bit of innocence in the opera. After the bullfighters’ grand entrance, Carmen spurns Don José’s advancements one more time. As Escamillo victoriously kills the bulls in the arena, José tragically kills Carmen out of jealousy.
- Robert Schumann (1810–1856), Album for the Young, Op. 68 – Students of the Suzuki method likely know several of these tunes.“The Happy Farmer” for example, is a repertoire staple for most young musicians. It comes from Schumann’s collection of 43 character pieces titled Album for the Young. The pentatonic scale that makes up the Happy Farmer melody is reminiscent of the German folk songs that Schumann probably heard in his own youth, growing up at the foot of the Erzgebirge mountains. Schumann wrote this collection for his three young daughters—in fact, Schumann composed a number of works with children in mind. Years later, he wrote several more piano suites for children including his Three Sonatas For The Young, Op. 118, Album Leaves, Op. 124, and Children’s Ball, Op. 130. His earlier work Kinderszenen or “Scenes From Childhood” could also fall into this category, but for the most part these piano pieces are written about youth rather than for youth.
- Engelbert Humperdinck (1854–1921), Hänsel und Gretel, Act III: Finale – In this scene, the children that were once turned into confections by the witch are finally set free. Traditionally, the titular roles of Humperdinck’s Hansel und Gretel are not performed by children, but rather by two adult mezzo-sopranos. However, when Humperdinck first began composing music for the opera, it was with much younger singers in mind. In April 1890, Humperdinck’s sister gave him four songs from Grimm’s fairy tale Hänsel und Gretel, and asked the composer to provide music for them for her children to sing. Humperdinck was looking for a libretto for a comic opera, and expanded the songs into a Singspiel. In December 1890, he became engaged to Hedwig Taxer, and on Christmas he gave her the Singspiel version of Hänsel und Gretel as an engagement present. Soon he considered turning the piece into a full-fledged opera. For next year’s Christmas present, he gave Hedwig a draft score of the opera. The first performance of the final version of Hänsel und Gretel took place on December 23, 1893.
- Carl Orff (1895–1982), Carmina Burana: III. Cour d’amours: “Amor volat undique” and “Tempus est iocundum” – Despite being originally written for the stage, Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana has become one of the most celebrated pieces of twentieth-century concert music. Its famous “O Fortuna” opening has been featured in movies, commercials, sporting events, you name it. We just listened to portions of the work that feature a children’s choir to accompany the adult soloists. In the score, Orff indicates a 50-part boys choir, in addition to a mixed adult choir and gigantic symphony orchestra. Orff included a children’s choir as part of his experimentation with color and timbre throughout the Carmina Burana. The score is peppered with various mixtures of voices and instruments. One aria even features a tenor soloist singing entirely in falsetto. The use of children’s choirs is also a traditional characteristic of German classical music. Bach, Telemann, and Mendelssohn are among many who include youth choirs in their large-scale works.
- Benjamin Britten (1913–1976), Saint Nicolas, Op. 42 – The “boy treble” singer has been part of the British church music tradition for centuries, combining the sound of a child’s voice with the tenors and basses of the choir, and that’s the tradition in which composer Benjamin Britten was raised. As a result, much of his music has incorporated that traditional “boy treble” sound. His operas Noye’s Fludde and The Turn of the Screw, as well as his Spring Symphony and War Requiem all feature a prominent children’s choir or child soloists. Britten worked closely with several specific “boy treble” singers in his day, notably Michael Crawford and David Hemmings. Hemmings was the original soloist in the first performance of Saint Nicolas at the Aldeburgh Festival and he also starred in Britten’s opera The Turn Of The Screw. Both children went on to become successful actors in adulthood (you might know Crawford as the original Phantom in The Phantom Of The Opera on Broadway!). Britten’s relationship with these boys also caused lots of troublesome speculation about possible abuse, which was the topic of a 2006 book entitled Britten’s Children.
- Claude Debussy (1862–1918), Pelléas et Mélisande, Act III, Scene IV – Although it shares some similarities with Wagnerian opera, Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande defies traditional opera standards in almost every other way. Keeping with this week’s theme, one of those differences is the amount of responsibility Debussy gives to the opera’s child character, Yniold. After Prince Golaud begins to suspect that his betrothed Melisande is romantically involved with his brother Pelleas, he enlisted the help of his young son Yniold to spy on the couple. Traditionally, children in opera appear in short choruses so that the young cast members don’t get bored or have stage fright, but Yniold is expected to sing a tonally-challenging solo and duet with Golaud that lasts an entire scene. He also spends part of that scene perched on Golaud’s shoulders so that he can see Pelleas and Melisande through a tower window. For these reasons, Yniold is considered one of the most difficult child roles in all opera—it’s often even performed by an adult soprano instead!
- Aulis Sallinen (b. 1935), The Iron Age Suite (Rauta-aika sarja), VII: Lemminki and the Maidens of the Island, I and II – Like many Finnish composers, contemporary Finnish composer Aulis Sallinen lives in the shadow of Finland’s favorite son Jean Sibelius. For one, Sallinen received his musical education at the Sibelius Academy, and his work The Iron Age Suite is based upon the same set of Finnish folklore than inspired a dozen pieces by Sibelius, the epic poem called Kalevala. The Kalevala is sort of like Finland’s version of the Odyssey, and even inspired parts of Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings. (In fact, both Sibelius and Sallinen wrote works based on it that were named Kullvero—Sibelius’s Kullvero was a tone poem and Sallinen’s was an opera.) Sallinen’s Iron Age Suite was written for a TV film about the epic tale, describing in part the trials of the Kalevala’s hero Lemminki. In this section, Sallinen has chosen a children’s choir to act as a kind of Greek chorus, describing Lemminki’s arrival at an island full of women.
- Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” – The doo-wop group The Teenagers are one of the youngest groups to ever have a pop single on the Billboard chart. As their name implies, they were all teenagers when their song “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” hit the charts in 1956, and their lead singer, Frankie Lymon, was only 13 when he recorded the song! The group didn’t last long—once they started to be billed as “Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers,” the infighting began, causing Lymon to go solo by 1957. Around that same time, Lymon followed the unfortunate path of many child stars when he discovered drugs. He struggled with a heroin addiction for the remainder of his short life, overdosing and dying at only age 25. It’s a sad tale that’s unfortunately plagued a number of child performers, proving that the spotlight maybe shouldn’t be “kid stuff” after all.