There Was a Child (2009)

For Solo Voices, Adult and Children's Choruses and Orchestra   50 minutes

From an early age music gave my life meaning, especially choral music, so commissioning a piece to celebrate my son Robert’s life seemed an obvious thing to do – if a bit rash!   I worked in music and knew it was possible.  Jonathan Dove was the obvious choice of composer for me, I was first struck by hearing his music in the theatre years ago and subsequently worked with him on his first concerto commission. His strong feeling for community connected with my need for the piece to be universal. Robert’s father, Richard Van Allan, was rehearsing Jonathan’s first main-stage opera, Flight, at Glyndebourne in the summer of 1999.

Robert, aged 19, drowned while snorkelling in Thailand on June 21st 1999. Jonathan never knew him but we spent much time talking about him and There Was a Child has surpassed all my expectations. Jonathan has completely captured Robert’s spirit in this modern oratorio which traces a young life, from birth through childhood to young manhood, through a sequence of poems. Robert was a thoughtful, warm, happy, fun-loving, fearless person with great compassion and love of mankind; he grabbed every opportunity that came his way and his adventurous spirit has inspired all of us who knew and loved him – he would have been delighted to have had such a joyous piece of music written to celebrate his life and the lives of all young people taken from us too soon.

Rosemary Pickering

When Rosemary Pickering asked me to write a piece to celebrate the life of her son, I think we both immediately felt it should involve singing.  Singing with other people is one of the most joyful activities I know, so this had to be a choral work. And music celebrating young life should include the sound of children’s voices.  The idea of mother and son suggested two soloists, soprano and tenor.  Accompanying these different voices would be all the colours of the symphony orchestra. The Norfolk and Norwich Festival and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra joined in this commission to create a large-scale piece of communal music-making.

I started looking for words for all these voices to sing.  I found poems by Charles Causley and Langston Hughes describing the wonder of birth; by Wordsworth, Keats, Traherne and Emily Dickinson conjuring up different aspects of childhood – naughtiness, carefree playfulness, youthful adventures. My choices were informed by stories Rosie and Richard had told me about their son Robert – absolutely particular stories about a unique individual, but which also conjured up archetypal images of youthful liveliness, mischief and outdoor escapades.

Most of the texts are celebratory, but there is no avoiding the terrible moment when a young life is cut short in the midst of adventure.  Shakespeare evokes the grief of a mother for her child and Tichborne sings of death coming too soon.  I didn’t want the piece to end here, and it was important to Rosie to remember all the joy her son’s short life brought her.  Walt Whitman’s poem There was a Child went Forth is a radiant vision of a child absorbing everything around him and connecting with the whole world.

Jonathan Dove

Commissioned by Rosemary Pickering, the Norfolk & Norwich Festival, and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra

First performance: 2nd May 2009, CBSO, Norfolk and Norwich Festival Chorus and Children’s Choir, conducted by David Parry, St. Andrew's Hall, Norwich.

Instrumentation

S.T Soli—Adult Chorus—Children’s Chorus—2.Picc.2.2.2—4.3.3.1—Timp—3Perc—Hp—Str