Given that this programme was to be an exploration of childhood, the obvious place to start is with birth. Richard Wagner wrote his Siegfried Idyll as a birthday present for his wife, Cosima, just after the birth of their son, Siegfried. Nowhere else in music is there so tender an evocation of those fragile, precious and fraught first days and weeks of life.
Engelbert Humperdinck’s great children’s opera, Hänsel und Gretel, a quasi-Wagnerian setting of the classic Brothers Grimm fairy tale, tells the story of two children in peril. The opera was composed in 1891-2. The two selections I have adapted come from Act II, Scene 2.
“Die Forelle” (“The Trout”) is one of Schubert’s simplest and most popular songs, composed in 1817, when Schubert was just 20, to words by Christian Friedrich Daniel Schubart. I have combined the three verses of the song with several, but not all, of the variations in the Trout Quintet, choosing to alternate strophes of the song with variations from the quintet that I thought suited the mood of the lyrics.
Gustav Mahler’s 100-minute Third symphony and his Fourth grew out of the musical material in the short, beautiful song which forms the final movement of the Fourth Symphony, “Das himmlische Leben” (“The Heavenly Life,”), and which concludes these Visions of Childhood. First, however, we hear his song “The Earthly Life” (“Das irdische Leben”) which forms a sort of bleak mirror image to that song. As with the Humperdinck, I have essentially stuck as closely as possible to Mahler’s own orchestration, which is a model of clarity and economy, but also full of extreme, even grotesque, colours.
Finally, we come to another combination of song and variations by Schubert, both known as “Der Tod und das Mädchen” (“Death and the Maiden”). The song is based on a poem by Matthias Claudius and was written in 1817, the same year as “The Trout.” It has only two verses – one in which the Maiden pleads with Death to pass her by, and one in which Death assures her that he is a friend.
In 1948, composer Richard Strauss returned to a poem by Joseph von Eichendorff called Im Abendrot (At Sunset) which he felt a particular affinity with and had wanted to set to music for nearly a decade. He then quickly composed three more songs on texts by Hermann Hesse, “Frühling” (Spring), “September”, “Beim Schlafengehen” (When Falling Asleep), each of which, like Im Abentrot, explores themes of farewell, fulfilment, lifelong love, and death. The set was to be Strauss’s final masterwork, Four Last Songs. This iconic song cycle has been a speciality of the ESO’s Affiliate Artist April Fredrick for several years, and it was the last piece she performed before the Covid-19 lockdown in 2020. She was to have performed the work with the ESO at Malvern Priory in June of that year.