Written at the behest of his parents, There Was a Child is a profoundly impressive work that honours the life of Robert Pickering. His mother Rosemary writes in the liner-notes that “Since my childhood, music – especially choral music – has given my life meaning, so commissioning a piece to celebrate my son Robert’s life seemed cathartic …” Robert died in June 1999 while snorkelling in Thailand; he was not yet 20 years old. Richard’s father had been a part of Dove’s first opera, Flight, and both he and Rosemary felt Dove was the best choice for such a commission. One can only guess at the complicated web of emotions and concerns that Mr. Dove must have felt in completing this commission. Yet he has succeeded brilliantly, setting seven different poems with music that Rosemary says “completely captured Robert’s spirit”, and how powerfully that spirit comes across in this fabulous performance from Birmingham.
I am the Song/Birth bursts forth with a powerful fortissimo chord capped by a cymbal crash, the music propelling itself forward with boundless energy. Dove’s orchestration, features pointillist streaks of orchestral colour, and in tandem with the music’s incessant rhythmic drive, remind one of John Adams’ Harmonie lehre and Short Ride in a Fast Machine. After a brief orchestral prelude, the multiple chorus’ enter, first in unison, then in imitative polyphony, then tossing the melody between the various choral forces. Their music reaches a climax and quickly winds down for the first soprano solo. Here is found the performance slightly problematic. There is no doubting Joan Rodgers’ complete commitment to the music she sings, but her voice has a pronounced vibrato, which becomes distracting whenever she moves above the stave. This movement flows right into the next poem,Childhood, where there is a beautiful call and response between the soloists and choirs, the music now a perfect evocation of the words of calm and peace. Toby Spence sings with greater clarity of diction than Ms. Rodgers, yet he too tends to develop a large warble when singing loud. In fact, the solo voices are balanced too far forward in the sound field, which unfortunately displays and magnifies even the smallest vocal imperfection.
The next two movements, A Song About Myself and From all the Jails the Boys and Girls are light-hearted, playful settings, the former sung with fabulous diction and enthusiasm by the Children’s Chorus, while the latter again brings a kaleidoscope of orchestral colour and some virtuosic singing from the main CBSO Chorus. Over the Fence perfectly captures the impish temptation to climb the fence to taste the strawberries. I found myself smiling for the entire movement.
The next movement, All Shod with Steel, sets a different mood, perhaps expressing the change in moods one begins to experience in the teenage years, while Romance is a touching description of the beginning pangs of love and greater awareness of the world’s darkness. Again, Dove’s orchestration is masterly – complementing and enhancing the setting of the words, while never overwhelming the singers. I was often reminded of Britten’s orchestral writing in the chamber operas and War Requiem. My intent is not to suggest that Dove is mimicking Britten, but rather to suggest that Dove’s word-setting, like Britten’s, is carefully worked out and always sensitive to the emotional import of the words.
With the final movements, it becomes apparent that we are to experience not only the joyous, playful spirit of Robert, but that we must also share in his tragic loss of life. High Flight (An Airman’s Ecstasy) immediately establishes a darker, more menacing mood, building to a terrifying climax at 3:50, followed by the choir’s mournful intoning of “my tale was heard, and yet it was not told; My fruit is fall’n, and yet my leaves are green.” It is a harrowing moment, the tragedy made both overwhelmingly personal and universal at the same time. The soprano then enters, “Grief fills the room up of my absent child, lies in his bed, walks up and down with me.” The choir continues to sing the music and words of the previous section, as if the child is still trying to communicate with its grieving mother. The music grows weaker and more muted, ending with the tolling of a bell.
While the notes make no mention of this, the final movement seems very much modelled on the latter half of Britten’s War Requiem.The baritone enters unaccompanied, singing There was a child went forth every day. Here the father character creates the moment of catharsis, accepting the loss, coming to terms with it to move past it. A similar moment of catharsis happens in Britten’s work, where the baritone sings “I am the enemy you killed my friend…let us sleep now. Much like the end of Britten’s great work, here Dove has the soloists and all the choirs join together for the first time, as the music finds greater light and repose, in part by recalling the opening theme of the first movement. The work’s end is spellbinding, a sense of peaceful acceptance convincingly found.
The recording itself is very fine, although I would prefer a greater depth and presence to the bass. This is a large soundstage, with excellent front-to-back perspective. Full texts are provided, and the liner-notes also include a brief but articulate note by the composer. As stated at the beginning of this review, this is a significant work, one of the most important works I have heard in the last decade. I was very touched by the music and the performance. Signum is to be thanked for taking the initiative to record this performance.
Andrew McGregor [AM]: Well next we’ve got music by Jonathan Dove. This is a single work, There was a Child. It’s a celebration, also a commemoration, Caroline.
Caroline Gill [CG]: It is, it’s a memorial to Robert van Allen who was the son of bass-baritone Richard van Allen and Rosemary Pickering who died tragically very young on holiday in 1999. Both Richard van Allen and Rosemary Pickering had very strong ties to Jonathan at the time their son died so Rosemary Pickering went to Jonathan to ask him to write a piece for her son.
[AM]: Well that’s a huge ask for any composer, it’s a potentially very difficult commission. What’s Jonathan Dove done? What do we have?
[CG]: He’s taken a mixture of texts, enormously varied ones from Wordsworth to Traherne to Charles Causley and placed them in order following the life of a young man from birth to young manhood. It’s an oratorio, but it has quite a strong feel about it similar to the church cantatas of Benjamin Britten – it’s quite like Saint Nicolas in some ways.
[AM]: And Britten in Saint Nicolas writes incredibly well, especially for children’s voices. Is that something that Jonathan Dove does as well?
[CG]: Absolutely, and he does it in a very similar way. He’s able to write music for children that makes them sing in a completely different way to that singing that you hear from them in controlled environments, say Cathedral Evensong. It’s more like hearing a joyful and finessed version of that shouting you can hear in playgrounds (well maybe playgrounds in the 1950s anyway) and Dove really does bring that out in the children’s choruses. They sound beautiful and really do justice to the enormous spirit of community which sums up Jonathan’s whole ethos of a composer so well.
[AM]: And what shall we hear, what have you chosen for us? [CG]: I’ve chosen a movement from the middle of the oratorio called All Shod With Steel.
[AM]: All Shod with Steel, words from Wordsworth’s The Prelude, music by Jonathan Dove from his cantata or oratorio, it’s a bit of both really, There was a Child and we didn’t mention the forces, huge forces here, Caroline.
[CG]: Enormous, there are three choirs and an orchestra there, yet you can still hear every word which I think is to do with the extraordinary control of Simon Halsey. He manages to control the multiple forces here to the extent that you can hear every consonant crisply and tightly right through to the middle of the texture and it’s a really virtuous combination of controlling the conducting and controlling the writing. Jonathan Dove also knows exactly where to pull the texture, speed and momentum right back so that the forces he’s writing for don’t run away with it.
[AM]: Well, it’s impressive isn’t it? City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the CBSO Chorus, Youth Chorus and Children’s Chorus. Impressive results. It’s from Signum Classics.
This is a live recording of an astonishingly assured performance. There are a very few intrusive noises, which do not disturb, and applause is retained at the end. All the words are provided, as well as a short essay from Rosemary Pickering, who commissioned the work, another from the composer, mercifully direct and non-technical, and information about the performers. The recording has been well managed; it is clear and immediate, the listener placed quite close to the platform, and with a wide sound-stage.
In June 1999, Robert, the 19-year-old son of Pickering and the bass Richard Van Allan, drowned in a snorkelling accident in Thailand. His mother commissioned this work, as she writes, ‘to celebrate’ his life. The composer explains how he decided that the work was to involve singing. with both adult and children’s voices; also ‘The idea of a mother and son suggested two soloists: soprano and tenor.’ (The wording is important here: the soloists do not in any real sense act out the roles of mother and son.) He then chose a series of literary texts from a wide range of authors. The work begins with ‘the wonder of birth’, going on to explore ‘different aspects of childhood – naughtiness, carefree playfulness, youthful adventures’. The subject of ‘young life … cut short in the middle of adventure’ was unavoidable, but the composer ‘did not want the piece to end here, and … Wait Whitman’s poem ‘There Was a Child went Forth’ is a radiant vision of a child absorbing everything around him and connecting with the whole world’.
The work bursts into life with Charles Causley’s ‘I am the son’, set to music that evokes John Adams in ‘Short Ride in a Fast Machine’ mode. There are many felicitous touches throughout this highly accessible work. A delicious figure for oboes in the second section introduces Whitman’s line ‘Beneath the sky, as if I had been born / On Indian plains’, and in the third, ‘A Song About Myself’, the humour to be found in Keats’s lines – a rare enough occurrence – is beautifully rendered by doubling the children, who sing beautifully, with bassoon. The setting of Emily Dickinson’s ‘From all the Jails the Boys and Girls’ confirms that this work, in spite of its subject, is to be full of energy and high spirits. The composer’s attention to the detail of the text is particularly evident here, and in the following Wordsworth setting we admire how successful he is at suggesting hunting and riding without resorting to tired old gestures.
One might have preferred a less operatic voice than that of Joan Rodgers in this work, but this fine singer’s performance is nonetheless a most affecting one. Toby Spence has more to do, and he is ardent and passionate, whether evoking the magic of travel to distant lands or the heaven-bound, wide-eyed wonder of a warplane pilot. The heart of the work deals with death, and it could have been the ‘dark heart’, but the composer is too skilful and too human for that. The pilot climbs to ‘Where never lark nor even eagle flew’, and later puts out his hand to touch ‘the face of God’, and all this to an orchestral accompaniment brilliantly and economically conjuring up the excitement and adventure of flight. Anger and defiance are the emotions evoked in a setting of some remarkable lines by Chidiock Tichborne, and the chorus continues with this, sotto voce, to support the soprano in six lines from Shakespeare’s ‘King John’, unforgettably expressing a mother’s grief.
The setting of Whitman that closes the work is perhaps the most remarkable passage of all. Like most of Whitman, the poem is a list, a long list of those things a child encounters as it goes about its day, and which become part of the child’s life and personality. Reading about the work before hearing it I expected this passage to be slow and richly sonorous, conveying solace and resigned acceptance. In fact it is festive, exuberant and full of a kind of joy. The composer – who hardly puts a foot wrong: I regret only the bells in the Tennyson setting – has thus achieved the near-impossible: a work that commemorates an event which is surely every parent’s darkest fear but which at the same time truly and positively fulfils the commissioner’s brief, ‘to celebrate’ this young, short life.
Commissioned to write a piece of music in memory of a teenager who drowned while snorkelling in Thailand, Jonathan Dove has turned a negative into a positive: There Was a Child is joyous, vibrant, passionate.
Recorded live at its premiere in Birmingham in June 2011, the 50-minute oratorio uses a sequence of poems – by Keats, Wordsworth, Emily Dickinson, Charles Causley and others – to trace a young life from childhood to early manhood. The idiom may be unashamedly traditional – Britten, Vaughan Williams and Tippett come to mind, as well as soft minimalism – but Dove handles his brief with belief and inspiration, as if intent on communicating a child’s vitality and openness to the world.
Although there are solo parts for soprano and tenor (Joan Rodgers and Toby Spence), both of them unashamedly emotional and soul-baring, the lion’s share falls to the choruses, with radiant contributions from the CBSO’s various youth affiliates – all corralled by Simon Halsey, the orchestra’s longstanding chorus director.
There Was a Child is a major addition to the choral repertoire. Easy on the ear as well as uplifting, it deserves to be taken up by orchestras and choral societies on both sides of the Atlantic.