list of composers and drawing of an elephant

Inspiration for classical music comes in endless forms. Here’s a look at five classical music pieces inspired by young people.

Johann Sebastian Bach was surrounded by children for most of his life. In addition to fathering more than twenty (!) kids, he also taught choirboys at the St. Thomas School in Leipzig from 1723 to the end of his life. We know he cared about education because he composed beautiful, rewarding music for students, including the 48 preludes and fugues of his Well-Tempered Clavier. In the work’s preface, Bach says that the Well-Tempered Clavier is for young people, but also for grownups who need a bit of fun: “for the use and improvement of musical youth eager to learn, and for the particular delight of those already skilled in this discipline.”

Among the countless “musical youth” to benefit from Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier were precocious musical siblings Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn. Fanny Mendelssohn, the elder of the two, was able to perform all 48 preludes and fugues from memory at the age of 12. Her brother Felix went on to compose his own music inspired by children. In 1842 Felix visited London and stayed with his wife’s relatives, the Benecke family. The Beneckes had seven children, with whom Felix enjoyed frolicking in the family garden. One day Felix found himself babysitting these kids alone while he was trying to work on some of his Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words). The little ones wanted his attention and kept playfully yanking his hands off the keyboard, a tease which reportedly inspired the frequent clipped-off notes in the piece he was writing: the famous Frühlingslied (Spring Song), Op.62 no.6.

Amy Marcy Beach was one of the first American women to become an internationally celebrated composer. She was a virtuoso pianist who debuted with the Boston Symphony Orchestra when she was 18, and her Gaelic Symphony (1896) became the first internationally acclaimed symphony by an American woman. In addition to her large-scale compositions, Beach composed a number of delightful works for children, including music for children’s chorus and suites for children studying the piano. Her Children’s Carnival, Op.25, was published in 1894, and it includes this charming movement entitled “Columbine.”

In 1905, Claude Debussy and his lover Emma Bardac had a daughter, whom they named Claude-Emma (Chouchou for short). Debussy was overjoyed to be a father: at Chouchou’s birth, he wrote to his friend Louis Laloy, “This joy has quote bowled me over and still bewilders me!” Debussy composed his Children’s Corner, a suite for piano, between 1906 and 1908, while Chouchou was a toddler, and dedicated the work to her: “To my beloved little Chouchou, with tender excuses from her father for what follows.” The set offers musical pictures of Chouchou’s playtime and her favorite toys, including a lullaby for her lumbering little velvet elephant Jumbo – whose name Debussy, possibly as a joke, misspelled as “Jimbo.”

Chicagoan John Alden Carpenter was another composer inspired by the antics of a baby daughter. He was very close to his daughter Ginny: “inseparable,” in fact, according to Ginny’s governess, who wrote of the composer and his little daughter playing games and taking walks together. Carpenter’s orchestral suite Adventures in a Perambulator (1914) comes with copious program notes from the point of view of the heroine of the piece: a baby. In the fifth movement, “Dogs,” the Baby is overjoyed to encounter raucously barking pups during her perambulator ride:

“…It is Dogs! We come upon them without warning. Not one of them—all of them. First, one by one; then in pairs; then in societies. Little dogs, with sisters; big dogs, with aged parents. Kind dogs, brigand dogs, sad dogs and gay. They laugh, they fight, they flirt, they run. And at last, in order to hold my interest, the very littlest brigand starts a game of ‘Follow the Leader,’ followed by the others. It is tremendous!”

For more music for children, tune in to ICAN, our International Children’s Arts Network! You can listen at KQAC HD-2 in Portland, 89.9, or stream anywhere in the world at icanradio.org.

Photo: Emma Riggle

Emma Riggle

Music Researcher & Archivist

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