Stephanie Lewis - Music & Education Talks expert

Child-Inspired Music

Discover how children inspire music

In this video, Stephanie talks about how children have inspired composers to write beautiful music ranging from happy to sad. Take a minute and open your mind with this journey through children and music.

Released on May 3, 2017

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hi to everyone. I'm Stephanie, together with Virtual Sheet Music, of course. And today's video, extremely general in nature, has been essentially inspired by the brief visit of a nephew and niece, both five, who came to me from Scotland for the Easter break. Now, it was an incredible week between day trips, art creations, noisy bath sessions I wasn't in, of course, and post-bedtimes generally characterized by consuming large amounts of red wine. Now, needless to say, I had a ball. Younger kids' energy, their perspective on the world, and the things they come out with, generally hilarious, were continually surprising and left me wanting more.

Is there any surprise, therefore, that kids have been a source of much creativity for composers throughout music history? Well, following this spirit, today's video looks at a few of these child-inspired works. Though they are no means exhaustive, the links are below in the video script, so after I've briefly talked about a work, I'd personally put me and Virtual Sheet Music on hold, particularly if you don't know the piece, and immediately listen so that everything is kept in context. Let's go.

Firstly, we've got Debussy's "Golliwogg's Cakewalk," of 1908. Incidentally available for download at Virtual Sheet Music. "Golliwogg's Cakewalk" is a last of six pieces or a suite of pieces, comprising Debussy's Children's Corner. Debussy dedicated this work to his then three-year-old daughter and the English titles, rather than the French as you'd expect, are presumably in recognition of his daughter's English governess. Now, the Golliwogg doll was at the time all the rage in fashionable France, so Debussy turned to that Black American Ragtime with its typical underlying march beat and syncopated upper part and, well, basically had a ball with this musical form. I do wonder what Scott Joplin thought of it, though. And as for you, what do you think? Put me on hold and have a listen.

Boris Berman plays Debussy's Golliwog's Cakewalk:

Let's now turn to Ravel's "Pavane Pour Une Infante Defunte," which was written in 1899. "Pavane for a Dead Infant," and also available via Virtual Sheet Music. Now, I just can't resist this exquisite piece with its delicate melancholy and wistfulness. The Pavane was a slow, processional dance fashionable in Europe in the 1600 and 1700s. And in recreating times past, Ravel also referred to a past childhood, hence the reference to the dead infant. So there's nothing particularly morbid about this. In any case, at one point he is known to have said that the title had nothing to do with the composition whatsoever, presumably wanting us to decide and interpret the piece as we saw fit. So, maybe that's what we should do now. So, put me on hold and, well, interpret.

Philippe Entremont plays Ravel's Pavane Pour Une Infante Defunte

Now we're off to the Baroque period, so roughly 1600s to the middle of the 18th century, and we are going to listen to Handel's "How Willing My Paternal Love." And this is a song, an aria, that comes from the oratorio "Samson," written in 1741, with words by Newburgh Hamilton. So the oratorio is a bit like an opera in that it's a sung story. In the case of an oratorio, though, the story is always religious and is not acted out, but rather a concert work. As for Samson, well, I'm sure you remember that he's an Old Testament hero with extraordinary strength thanks to his hair. Now a particularly bad haircut, shall we say, leads to his downfall and enslavement by the Philistines who also happen to gouge out his eyes. Nice, huh? Anyhow, God gives Samson one last chance to set things right, and finding himself in a temple surrounded by evil Philistines, as you do, he pulls down the foundational pillars, killing everything as well as himself. Happy stuff, and nothing that you'd want in a million years to connect with children.

However, when thinking of children, you can't avoid the relationship between a parent and child. And in the case of Samson, adult though he may be, the oratorio has a beautiful moment where his father, Manoah, reveals his fatherly emotions. So I've interpreted child in the broadest possible sense here. And after all, we never really stop being someone's child, huh? Now the simplicity of music, those glorious heart-wretching, violent interjections, ties in with the profound simplicity of a father's love for his son. Now, as you listen to the aria, remember that Samson's been captured and blinded by the Philistines, and this explains the final line of the song. "Whilst I have eyes, he wants no light." What a dad. Put me on hold.

George Frideric Handel's Samson

Now if you thought this was bittersweet, well, it's going to get worse in the form of Mahler's song, "Wenn dein Mütterlein," translated roughly as, "When Your Little Mother." And this comes from his song cycle "Kindertotenlieder," "Songs of the Death of Children." And this was completed in 1904. The euphoria of having children is, I can only imagine, equaled by a total desolation that must accompany the loss of a child. The text of Mahler's song cycle...and by the way, a song cycle is essentially a series of songs that are presented in a specific order and as one entire unit. Now, the text comes from the famous German poet Rückert who, following the death of 2 of his children, wrote 428 poems which were never intended for publication. So presumably, it was a form of catharsis for Rückert.

And these poems examine his grief, his attempts to, in a certain sense, resuscitate, in words, those two children and also aspects such as the quiet peace that eventually comes with acceptance. Now, Mahler took five of these poems and set them to music, finishing in 1904, two months after the birth of his second child. Naturally, he incurred the wrath of his wife, who felt that Mahler was simply tempting fate. And indeed he was, for four years later, that very child died. "Wenn dein Mütterlein" is agonizingly beautiful music set to words of equal beauty. The translation of which you'll find below in the script. Put me on hold. Get that translation. Listen and grab a packet of tissues.

Mahler's Wenn dein Mütterlein

Now, before I present the last piece to you, please remember to drop me your thoughts. Because if you don't, I'll just be lonely. I'd love your comments and, indeed, some of your own musical suggestions to today's theme at Virtual Sheet Music because, presumably, your suggestions are going to be better than me so get writing. And in the meantime, here's my last suggestion, Stockhausen's, "Gesang der Jünglinge," "Song of the Youths." I had to include this piece here because it's just so, well, fascinatingly weird. Now, whether you like it or not, this 1955, 1956 piece was doing things with tape and voice that the rest of the world only caught up with much later. Using the distinctive voice of a boy soprano, here's the child connectioner, Stockhausen exploited 1950s technology which, with our 21st-century sophistication, we can now only scoff at. And yet, the music remains somehow futuristic. Enjoy the final link below and please, do get in touch. Bye.

Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

paul.plak * VSM MEMBER * on May 28, 2017 @4:25 am PST
Hi Stephanie, I've been busy, hence I only looked at your video nearly one month later.

You could of course have chosen many other pieces like Kindersinfonie (Toy symphony attributed to Leopold Mozart or Haydn, but later to Angerer), or Tchaikovsky 's Nutcracker suite. I don't know if they were child inspired, yet I associate them with stories for children.

Answering your request for exchange on this video is a time consuming task. While I know some of the pieces, listening to them (again or as a new discovery) requires some time sitting in front of the PC. Actually only Stockhausen was a new discovery, but I've never looked at the deeper content of the other pieces, so this was an occasion to do that.

That's probably why you got so few answers so far.

Debussy really captures some of the energy and activity children can bring around.
Ravel is the piece I knew best, I like the calm pace at which it uncovers it's harmony.
I did not listen to Samson, as your link went to the full oratorio, and I did not know what piece to look for.
Mahler I knew well too, and I looked the text up in german and french. It happens that I just heard 10 days ago an interview with parents that have lost children, and they talked about the long process of acceptance, and the recognition they needed. One of them actually asked for the word "twinkle star parent" (bad translation of "sterrenouders" in Dutch), referring to their feeling of having their child somewhere up in the sky, still so much their child and no longer present on earth and daily life. That relates more to the first piece of Mahler, but your choice was also very explicit.
Stockhausen, well is just Stockhausen. It's real hard to attach feelings to these sound assemblies, they did include child voices, but what can we really do to enjoy these pieces and want to listen to them again ? It's a bit of a jigsaw puzzle, and it seems we have to enjoy the pieces only without ever seeing them put together in a logical assembly. Of course it is art, but not the kind you can easily want to hang on the wall, if you could do that with music.

Thanks for posting this. However, you might want to think again about reducing the content of you video's to a smaller timeframe, I feel this medium works better if you can follow them up in 3-9 mins.
Stephanie Lewis - host, on June 7, 2017 @3:00 am PST
Hey Paul, I am sooo sorry not to have replied sooner. Life does seem to get in the way of things! Yep, you're right about long videos. Future films of mine that refer to repertoire will be limited to three pieces only! I loved your reflection re: bereaved parents - have tears in my eyes just thinking of them! Re: your Stockhausen comment, I think we have to be careful about making our own personal expectations of music part of a collective expectation. As far as I understand things, there is no rule to suggest that music be attached to emotions or that 'enjoyment' be a prerequisite. Even if there was, attempting a generic description to embrace mankind's idea of emotions/enjoyment is simply impossible without the difficulty of also translating said idea into music. Your jigsaw analogy is quite right though I would have thought there is as much of a logical assembly in 'Gesang' as in any simple song or sonata form. Our capacity to grasp musical logic is assisted by 'in your face' repetition, a unifying factor in music. The more subtle this is, the more difficulty we have. Really looking forward to hearing from you again! Cheers for now, Steph
Fulvia * VSM MEMBER * on May 3, 2017 @7:41 am PST
Hi Stephanie, I liked all the pieces you presented, with Cakewalk being my favorite. Not sure about the Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge, certainly unusual !
Stephanie Lewis - host, on May 4, 2017 @5:22 am PST
Fulvia, ciao di nuovo! Isn't it interesting that you refer to the piece you that you're 'not sure about'? That makes me think that, just maybe, there's more of a connection than you think. In any case, these types of works go against not only the traditional view of music as a form of entertainment but against the idea of composer/musicians providing for their 'consuming' audiences. I won't go into the philosophical details - I'm way too unqualified!! - but these kinds of thoughts are always worth having if only to liberate the arts, stimulate new approaches and create curiosity in the listener too! I look forward to hearing from you again! Steph
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