Jonathan DOVE (b. 1959)
There Was a Child (2009)
Joan Rodgers (soprano); Toby Spence (tenor)
CBSO Chorus; CBSO Youth Chorus; CBSO Children’s Chorus
City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra/Simon Halsey
rec. live, 18 June 2011, Symphony Hall, Birmingham. DDD
English texts included
There Was a Child was commissioned by Rosemary Van Allan, widow of the distinguished bass, Richard Van Allan (1935-2008), in memory of their son, Robert, who had been drowned at the tragically young age of 19 in 1999. Poignantly, Richard Van Allan was rehearsing Jonathan Dove’s opera, Flight, at Glyndebourne when news of Robert’s death was received. However, the choice of Jonathan Dove to write this work arose because Rosemary Van Allan had previously been impressed by Dove’s theatre music and, in the 1990s, had worked with him on his first concerto commission.
Jonathan Dove has chosen a variety of texts to illustrate the life of a child from birth, through the delights - and the rough and tumble - of growing up to the sorrow - inescapable in this instance - of a young life cut short. However, very deliberately he ends not on a sombre note but, as we shall see, with some much more positive sentiments expressed by Walt Whitman. The soprano and tenor soloists represent, respectively, mother and son and as well as an adult chorus Dove deploys, very understandably, a children’s chorus. The music is very colourfully and imaginatively scored for what sounds like quite a large orchestra.
The work is in nine sections, which play continuously. The first concerns the birth of the child and sets poems by Charles Causley and Langston Hughes. The Causley poem, which acts as a kind of prelude, is for chorus and orchestra and listeners may be reminded, especially in the orchestral writing, of John Adams, particularly his Short Ride in a Fast Machine and Harmonium. The orchestral writing is busy and the choral lines are optimistic in tone: this is a very strong and positive start. The Langston Hughes setting introduces the soprano soloist who has a high-lying line against a glittering, mainly quiet orchestral background. Here, as elsewhere in the work, Joan Rodgers makes some beautiful sounds but her vibrato prevented me from hearing many of her words distinctly, even though I was following the libretto closely.
The second movement is entitled ‘Childhood’ but in fact all the movements from here up to and including movement seven address the scrapes and adventures of childhood. One of the two poems set in movement two is an excerpt from Wordsworth’s ‘The Prelude’ and this introduces the tenor. Toby Spence is in fine voice, as he is later on in the seventh movement, ‘Romance’, which is a lyrical, expressive setting of words by William J Turner (1889-1946). Spence sings this Turner solo with particular ardour.
Movement three, ‘A Song About Myself’, is a setting of John Keats and, fittingly, it’s given to the children’s chorus. The music is perky, even cheeky, and in the orchestra the bulk of the work is done by the brass and woodwinds; when the strings play they do so pizzicato. The Birmingham children put in a show-stealing performance, singing with delightful freshness and clarity. They reappear in the fifth movement, Emily Dickinson’s ‘Over the Fence’, which they sing to the same high standard. I’ve seen these young singers perform on several occasions in Symphony Hall and they never cease to delight me with their enthusiasm, discipline and excellent singing: so it is here.
With the eighth movement we come to the premature death of the child. There are several poems in this section, the longest so far. First the adult choir sings words by Thomas Traherne and once again the music put me in mind of John Adams’ Harmonium. Then Dove sets ‘High Flight (An Airman’s Ecstasy)’ by John Gillespie Magee Jr. (1922-1941). Magee was a young Spitfire pilot in the Second World War and, as you’ll guess from his dates, he didn’t survive the conflict. His poem conveys the thrill experienced by a young man when flying. It’s only a few months ago that I came across another recent setting of these same words by Bob Chilcott (review). I thought the Chilcott setting, which is an unaccompanied choral one, a most imaginative and impressive piece of writing. I mean absolutely no disrespect to Bob Chilcott when I say that Jonathan Dove seems to have captured the essence of the poem even more successfully. This is because he’s set the lines for a solo voice - the tenor - which seems most appropriate. The ecstatic vocal line and the orchestration, which I can only describe as “airborne”, seem to convey the spirit of the poem marvellously. This passage is a peak in There Was a Child and Toby Spence is excellent.
Then darker, more powerful music introduces a solemn setting for chorus of lines from a poem ‘On the Eve of his Execution’ by the Englishman, Chidiock Tichborne (1563-1586), who was executed in the gruesome manner of the day for his part in the Babington Plot against Queen Elizabeth I. There follows Constance’s speech, ‘Grief fills the room up of my absent child’ from Act III, scene 4 of Shakespeare’s King John. Naturally, this is for the soprano soloist. Miss Rodgers sings this quasi-operatic music with great emotional commitment and the sound of her voice is exciting though, once again, words are not ideally clear.
Dove was determined to finish the work on a positive note, however, and for this he turns to Walt Whitman and his poem ‘There Was a Child went Forth’ which the composer describes as “a radiant vision of a child absorbing everything around him and connecting with the whole world.” In this movement all the forces combine and Dove weaves together several strands in an often complex ensemble. Once more one is reminded of John Adams, especially from 5:01 onwards, and the tone of the music is optimistic. Even a life cut short will have contained many achievements and will have touched the lives of others.
I think this is a fine work. Jonathan Dove has approached his task with conviction and has produced a moving piece, helped by his discerning choice of texts. In fact it strikes me that There Was a Child sits very firmly in that strong British tradition of anthology choral works established by composers such as Vaughan Williams, Britten and Mathias. As for the music, I’ve indicated that it reminds me at times of John Adams and I’m sure others will detect other benign influences such as Finzi and Britten, perhaps. That’s not to denigrate the music in any way: all composers are influenced by predecessors and peers and take what they want and need from such influences and then adapt and renew it. Let no one doubt that Jonathan Dove is very much his own man. I hope that Rosemary Van Allan is pleased and moved by the outcome of her commission: I’m sure she is.
As for the performance, well one word will describe it: splendid. I’ve commented on the soloists and the children’s choir. The adult CBSO Chorus sings with the assurance and excellence that has become their stock in trade and the orchestral score, which sounds chAllanging, couldn’t be in better hands than those of the CBSO. Simon Halsey obtains a tremendously committed performance from all concerned. I’m sure that the warm applause at the end was equally for the excellence of the performance and in appreciation of the work itself. It only remains to say that the recording itself is excellent and though there’s applause at the end I couldn’t detect any other audience noise.
I’m delighted that this impressive work by one of Britain’s leading composers has made it onto disc so quickly. I hope that this first class recording will gain a wide audience for There Was a Child and that it will be taken up by other choirs and orchestras.
John Quinn
A fine recording of an impressive new work by one of Britain’s leading composers.