British Children’s Authors and Light Music by Philip Scowcroft

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by Philip L. Scowcroft

For JIM, I have previously traced the connections between light music and Beatrix Potter , Lewis Carroll and J.M.Barrie’s "Peter Pan". But there are many more British authors for young people who have inspired music, usually of the lighter sort and this article is an attempt at a "sweeping up exercise" in that direction.

Several of our authors flourished in the 19th Century. A particularly notable one was R.L.Stevenson, author of those rousing boys’ adventure stories Treasure Island and Kidnapped. Both have been adapted for the stage and screen. The former’s stage versions were in 1973 at the Mermaid Theatre with music by Cyril Ornadel and 1984 at the Birmingham Rep. (music by Denis King), its screen adaptations appeared in 1934,1950,1971,1990 and 1991, by far the most distinguished musically being 1950 – Clifton Parker’s attractive score has been recorded recently. Kidnapped’s stage version (1972) was a folk opera setting with music by the group Steeleye Span ; it had three large screen adaptations, two of them British, in 1959 and 1971, with music by Cedric Thorpe Davie and Roy Budd respectively.

Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verse was set by, among others, Frederick Nicholls and Sir Malcolm Williamson; his From a Railway Cottage ("faster than fairies, faster than witches….") has been put to music many times, twice by cathedral organists (Henry Ley and Francis Jackson), and at least twice by composers celebrated for their music for children (Alec Rowley and Carol Barratt)

Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies was another children’s book to be adapted for stage and screen, the former’s versions including ones by Frederick Rosse (1902) and John Taylor (1973), the large screen Water Babies (1978) had music by Phil Coulter, better known for his song Congratulations.

W.M. Thackeray was one of the earliest British writers specifically for children and his The Rose and the Ring was at least four times the subject of a Christmas season stage musical, in 1890 (music by Walter Slaughter), 1923 ( Robert Cox), 1928 (Christabel Marillier; Malcolm Sargent conducted) and 1964 (John Dalby). Edward Lear’s nonsense poetry, long popular with children, has been set to music many times, especially The Owl and the Pussy Cat. One setting, by the American born Reginald de Koven, was for years a party piece for the Thurnscoe Harmonic Male Voice Choir (South Yorks) and other choral settings of it were made by those giants of light music Haydn Wood and Montague Phillips, and by more serious composers, not least of them Igor Stravinsky! Lear made the musical stage in 1968 with The Owl and the Pussy Cat Went to See… (music by David Wood and Sheila Ruskin) which had enormous success in various productions both provincially and in London.

Rudyard Kipling’s work was by no means entirely for children, but The Jungle Book and Just So Stories undoubtedly are. The latter inspired six songs by Edward German and more recently a children’s operetta and a radio musical. "The Jungle Book"has had a wider influence. Best known of its film adaptations was the 1967 Disney version with a score by the brothers Richard and Robert Sherman though others set some of the songs. Miklos Rossa supplied music in 1942, Basil Poledouris in 1994 and John Scott in 1997. Percy Grainger set much of The Jungle Book as songs and found it rewarding and there were instrumental spin-offs from Cyril Scott and the Frenchman Charles Koechlin. Much of Kipling’s poetry, like the Barrack Room Ballads, was not for children but Elgar set his Big Steamers for unison voices, presumably child ones.

In my article on Beatrix Potter (JIM 167) I stressed the charm of music inspired by her work. The same is at least as true of the music which grew out of the work of Kenneth Grahame and A.A.Milne. The two indeed were associated in the musical play "Toad of Toad Hall", Milne’s adaptation of Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows which opened at London’s Lyric Theatre in December 1930 and was subsequently revived seasonally, even into the 1980’s, and also on T.V. The music was by Harold Fraser-Simson whose slender but nevertheless real, talent was ideally suited to music for children. He set some of the poems in the Alice books and many more of Milne’s children’s poetry,about sixty songs in all – Hums of Pooh, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six. Others, like Henry Walford Davies, tried their hands at Milne but never approached the charm of Fraser-Simson. Later versions of Pooh had music by the Sherman brothers, already noted and Julian Slade; latterday music includes that by John Gould for Pooh audiobooks and the Grade 1 Associated Board piano piece Eeyore’s March by Timothy Jackson.

Many have had a go at stage versions of The Wind in the Willows. Apart from Toad of Toad Hall these have mostly come since 1980, by Michael Howlett, David Raksin, Derek Taverner, Denis King, John Rutter, Piers Chater Robinson, Jeremy Sams, Pam Hilton and Peter Lawson (there may be others). Individual songs have been set down the years, like Michael Head’s Carol of the Field Mice and also Duck’s Ditty, set many times but most notably by Barbara Reynolds, wife of Alfred, Colin Hand and Norman Gilbert. There was a Wind in the Willows Recorder Book by Philip Stott and a "tone poem" by Laurie Johnson.

When I think back to my childhood reading, I remember in no particular order, W.E.Johns’ Biggles, Arthur Ransome, Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda, Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, Worzel Gummidge, Barbara Euphan Todd’s scarecrow and Enid Blyton. All have had music associated with their work. Biggles was adapted for the large screen in 1986, (one critic said that if one was in an undemanding mood it was daft enough to be enjoyable) its music was by "Stanislas" which Alan Bunting’s Dictionary of Musical Pseudonyms helpfully identifies as Stanislas Syrewicz.

Arthur Ransome’s film version of Swallows and Amazons (1974), his most famous story, had a score by Wilfred Josephs, one of many by him; however I associate Waldteufel’s Skaters Waltz with this as it introduced a radio adaptation in the 1940’s. The Prisoner of Zenda was twice filmed in America in 1952 and 1979 with two Hollywood greats supplying the music, Alfred Newman and Henry Mancini.

For Black Beauty’s translation to the large screen, Dimitri Tiomkin obliged in 1946, Lionel Bart and John Cameron in 1971, but the tune most associated with it is Denis King’s delicious Galloping Home, from a TV adaptation in 1972. King it was also who provided the music for Worzel Gummidge’s stage appearance at the Birmingham Rep in 1980.

Enid Blyton’s most famous character made a stage musical appearance too, with "Noddy in Toyland"at the Stoll in 1954, Philip Green composing the music and for TV’s Noddy Miles McNaught wrote music; among those who set her songs were Cecil Sharman (Miss Nan Nockabout) and in 1965 for very young children, her nephew Carey Blyton.

I read only a few of Richmal Crompton’s books about Just William but these generally seem to have had some notable musical connections. In my mind’s ear I can still hear the catchy tune –by Leighton Lucas- which introduced radio adaptations of the 1940’s.Three large screen versions appeared either side of the last war and two, Just William’s Luck (1947) and William Comes To Town (also known as William At The Circus) (1948) had scores by none other than Bob Farnon. For William’s more recent TV appearances, Nigel Hess composed some wonderful music redolent of the popular idiom of the 1930’s.

I did not read Edith Nesbit’s The Railway Children until I was an adult, no doubt on account of the film version of 1970 which had that wonderful score by Johnny Douglas, still much enjoyed; Simon Lacey did well with music for the TV remake of 2000, considering what an act he had to follow. Back in the seventies, the Welshman, Alun Hoddinott composed a ballet version and Peter Durrent a stage musical in 1981. John Halford and Eric Thiman are among those who set Nesbit’s children’s poems.

Over the last half-century or so there have been many children’s classics most of them enhanced by music. Howard Shore’s for the three Lord of the Rings movies for example, and Ian Fleming’s story Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, first as a film with music by the Sherman brothers, now a stage musical. C.S.Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe was turned into a musical in 1984 and put on for the Christmas season in Newcastle conducted by Brendan Healy who wrote the songs.

And finally we come to Harry Potter; seven books, four of them filmed so far as I write. The great John Williams has been the composer for most of the series up to now though Patrick Doyle is credited with music for Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Williams seems to have signed off Potter.Unsurprisingly, Harry Potter music is popular in concert versions for orchestras and concert bands. Indeed many of the musical pieces I have mentioned in this article and my earlier ones, could add up to a satisfying and varied concert programme or programmes whether live or on CD.

This article first appeared in ‘Journal Into Melody’ June 2006.

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