There Was a Child
I wasn’t familiar with Jonathan Dove before today. But I’m in Brighton for a long weekend, and today I was privileged to see his major work There Was a Child at the dome. This was the second event I’ve been to in this year’s Brighton Festival, and the first that was worth my time. It was coupled with Elgar’s Cello Concerto, but you don’t need me to tell you anything about that. Details here.
There Was a Child is a huge-scale choral-orchestral work, in the tradition of pieces like the Dream of Gerontius or the Sea Symphony. I’m not sure I’ve seen a new work on quite this scale in my life before today: composers in our time tend to be acutely aware of the practicalities of huge forces, and the barriers they put in the way of performance. But Dove, having got the commission for this work (to commemorate the life of a young man who died in an accident aged 19), evidently spared no expense in writing for the Very Big League.
So let me put in my little bit of gushing enthusiasm. Dove is indeed a master of big forces, up there with the best! I loved seeing this work, and if the chance to perform in it comes my way I won’t hesitate. Indeed, of the comparisons I suggested, I like it better than Gerontius. I hope it succeeds in entering the occasional repertoire of those choirs, orchestras and venues big enough to take it on.
Having said that, I should perhaps also add a critical note. Whilst this is fantastic music to listen to, it’s not pushing any boundaries. Easy on the ear, and while stimulating, it certainly wasn’t challenging on the mind. It could almost come from Vaughan Williams’s own pen (or some of his continental contemporaries) in the middle of last century, and you wouldn’t think Britten and Tippett came between. I sense that modern music revisiting the first half of the last century may be something of a Zeitgeist to which this belongs. This is a very fine work, but I’d’ve liked to witness something more distinctive to call it unreservedly great.
Do listen to it if you get a chance. You won’t be disappointed!