BEATRIX POTTER IN MUSIC
By Philip Scowcroft
Beatrix Potter is remembered, in a literary sense (for
she was also a keen sheep farmer and deeply interested in the work of
the National Trust) for her charming tales for children, now coming
up to their centenaries and, perhaps at least as much so, for the equally
delightful watercolours she provided to illustrate them. It follows
that music inspired by her writings should also have charm and by and
large this has been the case.
The largest Potter inspired score is the ballet music
for the EMI film Tales of Beatrix Potter (1971), revived on stage
at Covent Garden in 1992): a delicious confection, for this is a superbly
scored compilation of memorable tunes – and the period from which they
were taken was a notably tuneful one, in Britain at least – adapted
by John Lanchbery (1923-) from mainly relatively obscure 19th
Century British composers. These have the charm we have said is requisite
and so does the pretty music composed by Colin Towns for the
TV adaptations of recent years of several of the best loved stories.
So, I recall, did the simple songs written to accompany adaptations
of some stories for the gramophone in the 1960s and whose composer I
cannot now remember.
Philip Stott composed in 1984 a book of twelve
pieces for descant recorder entitled the Peter Rabbit Recorder Book.
This was published for Frederick Warne, Beatrix Potter's publishers,
and was illustrated by her own illustrations, but in black and white.
The composer most attracted to Potter was Christopher Kaye le Fleming
(1908-85), school teacher, writer and railway enthusiast and a miniaturist
composer who should enjoy a better reputation than in fact he does.
The earliest of his Potter works are the Peter Rabbit Piano Books:
Vol 1, dating from 1935, features Mrs Tiggy Winkle, Squirrel Nutkin,
Jemima Puddle-Duck, Tom Kitten and Ginger and Pickles as well as Peter
Rabbit in its six short movements. Book 2 was for piano duet again in
six movements (the Flopsy Bunnies, Jeremy Fisher, Two Bad Mice, Jemima
Puddle-Duck, Mrs Tittlemouse and Samuel Whiskers).
In 1967 le Fleming brought out a musical Squirrel
Nutkin, an adaptation by Potter herself from the story of that name,
the music being arranged from traditional melodies. Finally there was
le Fleming's suite in six brief movements for woodwind quintet (flute,
oboe, two clarinets and bassoon) entitled Homage to Beatrix Potter.
In this suite charm is once again the keynote; but Beatrix Potter seems
to have inspired this in all the composers who have sought to interpret
her writings in music.
P L Scowcroft