Music for children of all ages

Image of Harry Eyres

At the Wigmore Hall in London you are more likely to spot a wheelchair – and this is not to be ageist, or prejudiced, in any way – than a pushchair. So seeing the sober hallway of perhaps the world’s most august chamber music venue turned into a park for baby-buggies was something of a shock. And it wasn’t just that parents were using the space for parking while they carried babes-in-arms into neighbouring boutiques or cafés with limited space; no, the hall itself, normally hushed except for the finest chamber music and the occasional whine of an ill-tuned hearing aid, was crawling (literally) and alive with the sounds of happy infants.

I had come, as the godfather, not father of a baby, to attend a concert in the Wigmore’s occasional 11am programme for new parents and babies called For Crying Out Loud, which is part of a wider outreach programme aimed at young children. You sometimes worry at Wigmore concerts that certain people among the knowledgeable audience of grey- or white-haired music-lovers might not make it through the evening, so it was heartening to witness the emergence of a cohort at the other extreme of age. In the event I found this not only one of the more enjoyable concerts I have attended recently, but also one that suggested the possibility of a new approach to concert-going and concert etiquette. Could it be that babes have something to teach us oldies about how to enjoy music?

As I waited for my companions, the first strains of the opening Allegro non troppo of Brahms’s E minor cello sonata floated through the closed doors. Now this is one of my all-time favourite pieces of music, but not something I would expect to be especially suitable for babies; in terms of dark and moody passion, this is X-rated stuff. After a few bars, greatly impressed by the sounds I was hearing from the young Icelandic-German Duo Isold, I snuck into the hall (another advantage of baby concerts: you can come and go as you please).

Brahms was holding his own. A baby in front of me turned around and made funny faces, used the back of the seat for some gentle percussion, and then tried eating the programme – but all in the best of spirits and without the suggestion of a wail. Some mothers took their infants into the aisles and swayed rhythmically to the music. Play mats were available but I didn’t see them in use.

The Duo Isold played not just with musicality but also with appropriate professional pride at performing on such a great stage. There was no sense of them using the musical equivalent of baby-talk. Apparently it is not “baby music” that goes down best with babies. “The groups who audition for these concerts generally programme lullabies,” an usher told me. “But the music the babies respond best to is vigorous, upbeat music.”

The babies kept remarkably quiet through the Brahms and the next piece, the nervy second movement of Shostakovich’s D minor cello sonata; they were a little noisier in the very quiet Adagio from Sonata No 1, Illusions, commissioned by the Duo Isold from the contemporary composer Carter Callison who studies with them at the Royal Academy, and then really quite vociferous in a piece entitled Le Grand Tango. That could have been a combination of excitement and tiredness. But above all the atmosphere was joyful and relaxed, not two adjectives always applicable to classical concerts.

One thing that militates against joy and relaxation is excessive self-consciousness. Babies up to the age of one are not really self-conscious, and that rubs off on the adults. For the ebullient Kazakh violinist Aisha Orazbayeva, who performed in a For Crying Out Loud concert earlier this year, this raises interesting questions: “What if we always stayed like babies and did exactly what we wanted to do?” Might that not bring about a “very genuine and honest response to music”?

Though aimed at very young listeners, the Wigmore’s children’s programmes are not about using music as a means to an end, but about the benefit of “music for music’s sake”. Just after the babies’ concert, I returned to the Wigmore to hear the Tokyo String Quartet, in their farewell season, play Haydn and Bartok. The slow movement of Haydn’s late Rider quartet, played with several lifetimes’ worth of experience and depth, was sublime enough to bring tears to this adult’s eyes, and perhaps open a baby’s ears.

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