Suffer the Children

Young people can be inspirational in the audience, problematic on stage

After my dyspeptic middle-aged rant last month about the hegemony of pop music and its teenage values (Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells my wife called it, but I stand by every word), it was nice to perform Don Giovanni to a Royal Opera House full of children and teenagers a few Thursdays ago, and to find it the most enlivening and inspiring experience. Instead of the normal general rehearsal in the morning – more or less thickly populated by relatives, friends of the house and so on – we played to a seething, cheering, booing, gobsmacked crowd of schoolchildren from 68 different schools who filled the red-plush house to its rafters. Or so it seemed to me. That they should be amazed by the display of sophisticated pyrotechnics which Francesco Zambello’s production conjures up for Don Giovanni’s descent into hell was hardly surprising. That a sentimental (in the best sense) and understated masterpiece of stillness like the aria Dalla sua pace would be attentively listened to and enthusiastically received was, however, reinvigorating.

The innocence of an audience of children is at the same time a little threatening and an opportunity. Art is artifice, contrived, artificial, mannered and, very often, an acquired taste. Performing something as apparently highfalutin’ as a Mozart opera, a canonical work if ever there was one, you are protected by the reverence which it holds around itself as an aura.

And the worry with an audience which doesn’t have that reverence is that the Emperor will be found to have no clothes. Every sung performance in my experience has that quality of the best stand-up comedy – of teetering on the edge, of daring to be almost but not quite ridiculous – and children will not be too polite to laugh or yawn or fidget. Grown-ups, as concert- and opera-goers well know, tend to cough instead: mostly just as evident a sign of boredom and drifting attention, but one which is (on the whole) graciously afforded a viral alibi.

At the same time, the children who come to schools’ matinées at the Royal Opera House are well-prepared by their teachers – something we’d all love to do when we go to a show, but which we often forgo for lack of time – and they don’t come with the negative baggage of thinking that “something Great is something Boring”. They take it as it is, and if everyone singing and playing gives of their best, and gives generously and authentically, they will be drawn into unselfconscious enjoyment.

Children as audiences of sophisticated artworks are one thing. The aesthetic use of the child, and of childish innocence, within complex works of art, is something which can make us uncomfortable, especially when, as in the performing arts, the children in question are actually present.

There is a sort of two-track process going on when rehearsing a piece like Britten’s operatic masterpiece, The Turn of the Screw, a consciousness among the adult performers that while they themselves are engaging with intimations of depravity, the children have to be shielded from too much sense of what is going on. The same is surely true in the final scene of Berg’s Wozzeck, in which a small child hears the news of his mother’s death from a group of his friends – to the accompaniment of obscenely mocking woodwind – who then run off to view the body while he remains innocently playing. “Hop, hop,” he sings.

Britten learnt more from Wozzeck than any other single piece – it informs the whole premise of Peter Grimes, the shocking focus on a poetic brute, and saturates The Turn of the Screw throughout. His deployment of the child’s perspective throughout his oeuvre owes a huge amount to this devastating final scene, a far more interesting way of looking at Britten’s artistic practice than shamefaced imputations of paedophilic scandal. In his War Requiem, a work as much about death itself as about war, we confront the implacability of death through the voices of children, who in their rough simplicity (singing low in the voice, somewhat gruffly) ask all too unknowingly, hence almost callously, for the souls of the faithful to be delivered from the pains of hell, the bottomless pit, the jaw of the lion. “Ne absorbeat eas tartarus, ne cadant in obscurum” (“neither let them be swallowed up by Hell nor fall into darkness”). Adult concerns voiced in childish innocence, a potent device.

Last things in art are something I’ve been thinking about more than usual over the past few months, performing in recital and recording in the studio Schubert’s last song-cycle, Schwanengesang (Swansong) – his publisher’s posthumous title. It’s rather a mystery piece, with two groups of songs: seven settings of Ludwig Rellstab and six of Heinrich Heine, apparently disconnected but which the composer chose to write out as a single sequence in manuscript. In performance, despite all the theories of musicologists over the years, the manuscript order and single span of 13 songs seem to make a sublime (if difficult to pin down) aesthetic unit.

But Schwanengesang as printed in 1828 consists of 14, rather than 13, songs, and not just because the publisher Tobias Haslinger was superstitious. He added, as a postscript or envoi, Schubert’s very last song: the charming, lilting “Die Taubenpost” (The Pigeon-Post), a poem by Johann Gabriel Seidl. In doing so, he offered us a vision of two sorts of sublimity. Late works, as John Updike has put it, “exist, as do last words, where life edges into death, and perhaps have something uncanny to tell us”. Just as children offer a prospect of authenticity, so too do those at the end of life. Everything Schubert wrote after 1823, when he was diagnosed with syphilis and faced the prospect of insanity and death, constitutes late work.

The Heine settings of Schwanengesang, in their awful simplicity and starkness, in their radical abandonment, for the most part, of the melodic impulse, offer one approach to encroaching finality. They still shock and they seem to reach far beyond the poems of lost love upon which they hang.

Yet Schubert’s hauntingly melodic and wistful “Taubenpost” seems to encompass a pulling-back from pessimism, cosmic or otherwise, and an embrace of life’s rich if melancholy dance.

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