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Concert II, 2019-2020 season

Children's Tales and Cartoon Classics


Children’s concerts in America are almost as old as its orchestras. The earliest such event seems to have been given by the Germania Society in Boston as long ago as 1849, before the founding of most of our major professional orchestras. (The New York Philharmonic began in 1842. The Boston Symphony, by contrast, started in 1881.) The Germania Society was a group of German musicians who left their country in the wake of the 1848 Revolution and arrived in and toured around the US with a variety of Utopian ideas, including matinee “rehearsals” aimed at women and children. In 1852, according to musicologist Nancy Newman, they held a “Grand Musical Festival, Exclusively for Children and Schools, accompanied by their Teachers,” in Worcester, Mass.

By the second decade of the twentieth century, orchestral children’s concerts were ubiquitous. The model was typically that children would come in a school group along with their teachers, and the aim was specifically educational, though often “disguised” as entertainment. In 1926 the City of Birmingham (UK) Symphony Orchestra seems to have handed out quiz cards to its young audience, asking them to identify particular works and instruments. The results were tallied as a kind of competition between schools. This specifically educational model often demanded preparation of the children by their classroom teachers, often using materials provided by the orchestra.

The education provided by these concerts was largely devoted to teaching children to listen—to identify instruments, remember melodies, count rhythms, and so forth. Biographical details of the “great composers” were also often included. Walter Damrosch, the turn-of-the-century conductor of the New York Philharmonic describes the enthusiasm of the children for this education: “The faces of the children are aglow with interest and excitement, and when I sit down at the piano after playing an overture with the orchestra, and, repeating some melodic phrase from it, ask them “Which instrument played this melody?” their little voices ring out from all over the hall like little pistol shots, “The oboe! The oboe? The trumpet!”

One of Damrosch’s most eminent successors at the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, was perhaps the most famous exponent of children’s (or Young People’s) concerts. Beginning in 1958 and continuing until 1972, these events were delivered in Carnegie Hall on Saturday mornings to a largely youthful audience. Most importantly, they were broadcast on TV, reaching a huge and eventually international audience. Bernstein’s educational aims were very much about teaching children to listen carefully and to think about music, and he did not shy away from difficult questions. His very first lecture, “What Does Music Mean,” asserted that music was ONLY about notes, and not at all about stories or pictures, which is a sophisticated concept for kids to absorb.

Our concert today certainly builds on the long American tradition of kids’ concerts; our aims are perhaps less explicitly educational than some of our predecessors’. But like them we also like to think of ourselves as helping to build and maintain an audience for orchestral music, not only to keep ourselves in business, but also because we believe that this music is a valuable part of the huge, diverse, and readily-available musical landscape of the twenty-first century.

Despite Bernstein’s insistence that music is really only “about” its sounds, most of our program relies on the idea that, as noted in the Hartford Courant in 1955 about its youth concerts, “youngsters dearly love a story.” Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, written in the Soviet Union in 1936, perhaps partly for his sons but also in line with Soviet interest in music for children, is first and foremost a story. But it also has the educational aim of allowing particular instruments to shine, and encouraging listeners to remember melodies associated with characters in the story.

Our Looney Tunes selections are mostly not narrative in themselves (though Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” is a set piece in one of the longest musical stories in the literature—his monumental four-opera “Ring” cycle). However, listeners of many ages will probably associate them with the stories of the cartoons (all Bugs Bunny, as it happens) where the music appears. Sometimes the music is just background (as in the Bugs Bunny Rides Again use of the William Tell Overture), but in other cases, like the “Hungarian Rhapsody” and the “Ride of the Valkyrie,” the classical work is in part the explicit topic of the cartoon. These cartoons never use more than a fragment of the whole work. Rather, they pick the bits with the most “gestural immediacy,” that is, the bits that most vividly evoke a movement (like a gallop or a spear digging at the ground) and work with that. This technique is partly responsible for the “earworm” quality of many of the musical snippets.

Benjamin Britten’s A Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, written in 1945 for a BBC film about orchestral instruments, neither tells nor is associated with a story in the traditional sense. But the narration (written by Britten’s friend Eric Crozier) does point the audience’s attention to the different instruments, and the fact that the whole piece is based on a theme originally by Henry Purcell tells an implicit story—highly pertinent in 1945—about the continuity and value of British music.


© Mary Hunter 2019