The Children’s Hour: an eclectic and enlightening new disc from baritone Gareth Brynmor John

Between the dark and the daylight,
      When the night is beginning to lower,
Comes a pause in the day’s occupations,
      That is known as the Children’s Hour.

The nineteenth-century poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow has rather fallen out of fashion these days, deemed inferior to his fellow American writers, Hawthorne, Whitman, Emerson and Melville.  And yet, Longfellow is a memorable narrative poet, capable of creating persuasive characters and situations.  Any parent will recognise the ‘patter of little feet’ that the protagonist of Longfellow’s 1860 poem, ‘The Children’s Hour’, hears one evening as he works, heralding, ‘The sound of a door that is opened,/ And voices soft and sweet.’  The poet-speaker seems happy to be interrupted by the ‘blue-eyed banditti’, vowing ‘I have you fast in my fortress,/ And will not let you depart’.  And yet, the comforting tone of the poem is tempered by the intimations of transience and loss that shadow the final stanza:

And there will I keep you forever,
      Yes, forever and a day,
Till the walls shall crumble to ruin,
      And moulder in dust away!

The ‘children’s hour’ is so cherished precisely because it is ephemeral, fragile, something that Longfellow, whose life was touched by family loss, had been forced by personal experience to understand and accept.

The Children’s Hour is also the title of a new recital disc of ‘Fairy Tales, Adventures, Nursery Rhymes and Lullabies’ recorded by baritone Gareth Brynmor John and pianist William Mann, and released this month on the Champs Hill label.  Gareth is taking a break from putting the roof on his new kitchen extension when we ‘meet’ to talk about his new recording.  This must be one of the more unusual ‘lockdown projects’, I remark, especially for a singer – what about all the dust!  “Yes, it was probably a bit crazy,” says Gareth, “but during this last year there has been so much that one has had no control over, and it was frustrating making tentative plans only to have them repeatedly delayed or abandoned.  I decided that this was something that I could make happen.”

I had imagined that The Children’s Hour was another of the terrific outcomes of the rush to the recording studio that the silencing of live music seemed to engender during the past year, but Gareth explains that the programme was actually recorded two years ago.  “The editing process has taken quite a while but, in fact, we didn’t have a set ‘time scale’ in mind.”  The seeds of the project were born when Gareth and William, regular collaborators and friends, were chatting over coffee one morning.  William’s eldest son was with them, and as is so often the case when children are present, their attention was diverted and the conversation turned towards their families (at the time, both William and Gareth had two children, and Gareth now has a third).

The Children’s Hour presents music by diverse composers including Mendelssohn, Schubert, Mahler, Fauré, Britten, Warlock, Howells, Ives, Loewe and Liza Lehmann.  With a wealth of music and songs ‘for’ and ‘about’ children to choose from, how did they decide what to include?  Selecting a programme ‘for children’ opens up all sorts of possibilities, explains Gareth.  “Children are all over the place, not stuck in one narrative.  Their minds rove over lots of things at the same time, following different paths and ideas, and this allows for a great variety of music.”

The creative potential of diverse programming is something that Gareth came to value when he was studying at the Royal Academy, where he was a member of Audrey Hyland’s recital group, Songsmiths, alongsideElisabeth Watts, Nicky Spence, Jonathan Lemalu and others.  “She would curate recitals that moved beyond ‘singer-composer’ programmes, grabbing from all over, and deliberately juxtaposing contrasting items from different composers, periods and in different languages, often to construct a sort of ‘narrative’.  Of course, there’s nothing ‘wrong’ with a programme which presents the work of a single composer, but I think that the music’s own essence sometimes stands out more clearly when it is set beside something quite different.” 

Gareth Brynmor John and William Mann

I mention that as someone who – in ‘normal times’, at least – attends a lot of song recitals, sometimes three or four in one week, I’m increasingly drawn to eclectic programmes which offer intriguing discoveries and conversations.  While one never ‘tires’ of Schubert, there are only so many all-Schubert song recitals one can truly ‘hear’ in one week, before the ear settles into the groove and one stops listening so intently.  Gareth suggests that this can be the same for the singer, too: “It’s difficult to maintain the same level of concentration and alertness in a single-composer programme – to think as intently about what you are actually doing, vocally and musically, in the final songs as you did in the opening songs of the recital.”

Many of the poems set by this eclectic bunch of composers are quite ‘dark’, I remark.  “Yes,” laughs Gareth.  “We did wonder whether we should put Mahler’s ‘Das Irlich’ and Britten’s ‘Little Sir William’ next to each other … but fairy and folk tales, and nursery rhymes, so often are ‘dark’, and children just accept that, they get on with it.”  Yes, I add, and children’s story-time necessitates a suspension of disbelief.  I recall Tolkien’s insistence, in his essay-lecture, ‘On Fairy Stories’, that whether the purpose of a ‘fairy-story’ is ‘satire, adventure, morality, fantasy … one thing must not be made fun of, the magic itself.  That must in that story be taken seriously, neither laughed at nor explained away.’

There were clearly some musical choices that ‘made themselves’ in a sense.  Ives’ setting of Longfellow’s poem has personal significance for Gareth.  Also, he’d performed it previously with pianist Christopher Glynn at the 2017 Bath Festival, and loves the way that Ives characterises the children, ‘Grave Alice, and laughing Allegra/ And Edith with golden hair’, ascribing to each a special harmony and rhythmic independence.

I’m always surprised to be reminded that Ives composed more than 190 songs, in characteristically diverse styles ranging from the delicately lyrical to the cerebrally atonal.  Like Longfellow, who squeezes profound meaning into a poem of seemingly small scope, in ‘The Children’s Hour’ Ives creates striking dramatic contrasts within quite limited parameters.  At the opening the piano paints a tapestry of flickering light and shadow, paradoxically still yet shifting.  Gareth’s gentle opening line, establishing time and mood, is smooth and flexible, but with the tapping of tiptoeing feet on the stairs the music becomes more mercurial, the piano’s falling gestures intimating the children’s stealthy descent.  There is a lovely broadening and warmth as the children enter, as if Edith’s golden hair casts a gleaming warmth which embraces all.  Ives sets only the first three of Longfellow’s stanzas, returning, in a short coda to the opening verse.  Gareth and William recapture the somewhat mystical mood, the harmonic irresolution of the close conveying both the transfiguring stasis of the moment and the pathos of the fleeting hour.

Gareth Brynmor John
and William Mann

Gareth and William include other songs by Ives.  I’m not familiar with ‘The Circus Band’, a rather wry song in which, Gareth observes, Ives sets everything twice.  Is he, Ives, being ironic?  “I’m not sure,” comments Gareth, “but he deliberately repeats everything which leaves the singer no room to breathe!”  The duo’s rendition reveals that Ives also indulges in some rhythmical mischief and mis-steps!  ‘Tom Sails Away’ is the third of Three Songs of War in which Ives once again spans dramatic variety and extremes.  This is a challenging song, musically rather than vocally, Gareth observes, as Ives does not use any bar-lines.  Moreover, “the piano is often playing a chord to which the vocal line does not belong, but the two parts are intricately knotted.”  Affectionate reminiscences of childhood scenes – in the garden with mother, rushing to greet father as he returns home after work – are exuberantly characterised and individualised by Ives.  Then, we are thrown into the pathos of the present: Tom has sailed away to war – an opportunity for Ives to indulge in some idiosyncratic musical borrowing, as, ever more distant, and fading, we hear the WW1 tune, ‘Over There’ and the hint of a fateful bugle call. 

The songs are organised into four ‘categories’ which, Gareth explains, “just presented themselves in that way”: ‘Fairy tales and Cautionary tales’, ‘Nursery Rhymes’ and ‘Lullabies and Bedtime’, and ‘Days Out and Adventures’ to which these last two Ives songs belong. “Children glorify danger,” says Gareth, and so it’s fitting that the section begins with Stanford’s rousing setting of Henry Newbold’s poem, ‘Drake’s Drum’ – an allusion to the snare drum that Sir Francis Drake took with him when he circumnavigated the world.  Warlock’s ‘Captain Stratton’s Fancy’, setting John Masefield, is no less rumbustious, but Gareth and William give the Captain a wit and wisdom that belie his fondness for rum, shaping his ruminations on the finer pleasures in which some delight – the rose and the lily, the music that ‘lilt[s] upon the tongue’, and ‘red lips and pretty lasses’ eyes’ – with wry elegance and gentility.

‘Nursery Rhymes’ comprises Richard Rodney Bennett’s Songs Before Sleep which, like the eponymous song by Ives was a ‘given’ from the start.  “I heard Roderick Williams sing these songs at the Ludlow English Song Weekend in 2017.  The line that Rodney Bennett treads between the light and the musically profound is wonderful,” says Gareth, “though we transposed the songs up one semitone – which was a real labour of love!”  Bennett turns the recognisable melodies into something much more sophisticated, and Gareth and William enjoy both their playfulness and their poignancy.  ‘The mouse and the bumblebee’ brings rodent, insect and feline into close and uncomfortable company, and the music ripples with restless prancing, buzzing and flinching.  The fiery triplet snatches and repressed accents in the piano part of ‘Baby, Baby, Naughty Boy’ complement Gareth’s crisp diction and sprung melodic line: the nurse’s impotent frustration is palpable!   In ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ the even crotchets of the vocal line and the fluid temporal units create a mood of awe, one that builds to radiant reverence, as the piano’s sparkles expand to evoke the infinite universe.  This is music at once both effortless and erudite.  Gareth comments that this song, and the fifth of Rodney Bennett’s nursery rhymes, ‘As I walked by myself’, epitomise for him the “sheer enjoyment of singing”.

The disc opens with some fairy tales and cautionary tales, or perhaps that should be cautionary fairy tales.  The pairing of Loewe’s ‘Tom der Reimer’ – a tongue-in-cheek take on the archetypal tale of the beautiful and dangerous seductress temptress – and Schubert’s ‘Erlkönig’ is both inevitable and chilling.  Liza Lehmann’s ‘Henry King’ (setting text from Belloc’s Four Cautionary Tales And A Moral is simply bizarre – Henry’s ‘chief defect’ is chewing ‘little bits of string’ and he is ‘early cut off in dreadful agonies’: Gareth seems to hold the tale in tongs, at one remove, capturing the snivelling quiver of the melodramatic narrator’s voice – with a few self-indulgent sobs(!) –  while William enjoys the grotesque details, such as the ugly ‘knots’ into which Henry’s innards are tied!

Britten’s ‘Little Sir William’ trips along like a jolly English folk song, Gareth’s baritone debonair and buoyant; but the song, and its protagonist take a nasty turn for the worse, and the duo capture the plaintive sobriety of the close, which relates, with directness and sincerity, the boy’s instructions for his own funeral.

The final ‘Lullabies and Bedtime’ sequence includes a song by Mendelssohn, ‘Nachtlied’, which Gareth describes as “exquisite – the perfect song”.  There are also some vivid settings of Walter de la Mare by Herbert Howells – ‘Tired Tim’ and ‘Full Moon’ (a third song from Howells’ Peacock Pie, ‘Andy Battle’, adds to the earlier adventures).  The disc closes with Ives’ ‘Cradle Song’ which sets a text by Augusta L. Ives (a distant ancestor).  This is a song both wonderfully serene and terribly ambivalent.  As Gareth and William fade in the closing bars we wonder whether if it is indeed true that ‘Peacefully flows the river;/ So shall love flow forever.’

At the start of our conversation, Gareth had remarked that, “These songs and the stories that they tell speak across diverse cultures”, and that their very diversity meets the needs of children “whose attention needs constant feeding.”  One might add, and adults too.

‘The Children’s Hour’ is released by Champs Hill Records on 16th April 2021.

Claire Seymour