Classical music: Ever a Dahl moment

From Little Red Riding Hood: The Video to Fantastic Mr Fox: The Opera, the late Roald Dahl is set to take over the musical world.
Angry shouts of "Doodlewangs!" or even "Hippogriffs!" may well have rent the air the day Roald Dahl returned home from narrating some of his Revolting Rhymes for a recording incorporating a musical score. "He stamped down the garden path waving his stick," recalls his widow, Felicity. "He was yelling, 'They don't understand - it was like plainchant! It's no fun... no spontaneity... no tunes!!' "

Tunes, says Felicity Dahl, he knew something about, "although we never went to concerts - he was too tall for the seats. But at home, in an armchair, he adored listening to Mozart, to Brahms and especially to Beethoven - his great passion."

Dahl would surely have endorsed his wife's decision after his death five years ago to make music a major focus of the Roald Dahl Foundation, created to raise money for providing grants in the areas of literacy, haematology and neurology. Tunes stand a better chance with her in charge.

The Christmas period brings the best opportunity yet to assess the Foundation's progress so far. Its aim is the development of a corpus of staged or semi- staged musical works based on Dahl's incomparably incorrigible stories and rhymes.

If, as a parent, you can't cope with the odd fart or the sight of frilly knickers in the new video of Paul Patterson's Little Red Riding Hood... then kindly leave the room. Julie Walters stars both as the street-wise, gun-toting Miss Hood and as her bottle-swigging Grandma in this rhapsody on one of the Revolting Rhymes. Danny DeVito lends his voice to the doomed Wolfie.

The video, already attracting substantial orders abroad, receives a BBC2 screening on New Year's Day. The shorter original (the film has been lengthened for the hour-block-conscious US market) is newly available on CD from EMI. The Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra have both staged live performances of the piece this month, while the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra presents the latest performance of a second Dahl commission, Eleanor Alberga's Snow-White and the Seven Dwarfs, at London's Barbican Hall tonight. Both works feature narrator and actor parts interwoven with an orchestral score.

Paul Patterson, composer of Little Red Riding Hood, came to his commission with a diploma in Dahl based on bedtime story-telling at home. "As Dahl knew so well, a young child's attention-span is usually short. So I continually re-assessed the effect my music was likely to have at every given moment. Rhythm and vitality are so important. Then I wanted to provide kids with lots to look at in terms of the orchestration. But I was also keen to keep adults on their toes, so there are quotations from, for example, Wagner and Beethoven - like the Fifth Symphony's fate motif when Miss Hood knocks on Grandma's door."

Both Patterson and Alberga have slipped doses of sterner stuff into their scores. In Patterson's case, there's an occasional flavour of Lutoslawski. Alberga's tunes for Snow-White may be appropriately romantic, "but the music for the wicked stepmother is rather atonal - it suits her evil and complex nature. The jockey - who represents the dwarfs - is given a 12- tone fugue, intertwined with the title-music for the show-jumping on television!"

When it comes to performing the Patterson and Alberga pieces, the Dahl Foundation offers promoters the use of costumes, plus advice on staging and lighting. But the organisation's music guru, Donald Sturrock (a freelance TV director who scripted both Red Riding Hood and Snow-White), is anxious that the works are regularly thought out afresh.

"I say to people, for heaven's sake do something different! Orchestras tend to think, 'Oh, yes, this is how we do this sort of thing,' without using any imagination. But I went to a Red Riding Hood in Freiburg which was absolutely zany, with an incredibly fat old grandmother dressed in a bathrobe, riding a motorbike - apparently very adult, but the kids adored it, because they just love anarchy and subversion. Dahl understood that. It's fascinating to see the pieces translated into different cultures." And, so far, Little Red Riding Hood has charmed her way through Scandinavia, Germany, Holland and Australia.

Felicity Dahl bewails the fact that so often adults demonstrate less spark than children. She was forced to be at her persuasive best, she recalls, to ensure the right atmosphere at Red Riding Hood's London premiere, back in 1992.

"It was a struggle getting the orchestra players to wear green waistcoats to look part of the woodland scene. Then there was a reluctance to put the house-lights down - but, immediately you do that, a child's mind is captured. A teacher said to me that she was worried the kids wouldn't be able to find their way to the loo in the dark - I said they wouldn't want to go to the loo if the lights were down."

The Dahl commissions provide a natural focus for education projects. The Bournemouth Sinfonietta presented Red Riding Hood in Aylesbury earlier this year, the players working in local schools beforehand.

"The children set their own 'revolting rhymes' to music and sang them during the actual performance," explains Martyn Kitson, headteacher of Brill village school. "Our version of Jack and the Beanstalk had the giant marrying Jack's mother and a lottery ticket in place of a goose!"

Liz Leckey, music teacher at Bierton School, says the whole exercise "released imagination in children you'd never have thought of as particularly creative. Our Red Riding Hood came out as Two Deaths and a Suicide!"

The Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra knows all about Dahl's magnetism: 14 Red Riding Hood performances scheduled for next February and March in a 1,400-seater hall were "all sold out long ago", says director Jorgen Lindvall. "The hall will become one huge mysterious forest through which the actors move - an unsafe environment, because, after all, the world can be frightening and unpredictable. Maybe there's a touch of Nordic melancholy!"

A Snozzwanger to a Doodlesniff that we're at the tip of a new Dahl iceberg. Three other commissions - all based on Dahl texts - are so far lined up, masterminded by Donald Sturrock. In prospect are a Goldilocks from Austrian composer Kurt Schwertsik (already creator of the children's opera The Wondrous Tale of Fanferlizzy Sunnyfeet), a Cinderella from the Russian Vladimir Tarnapolsky and, most ambitious of all, an opera on Fantastic Mr Fox in which the farmyard thief is subversively cast as hero. American composer Michael Torke's score is set for a Los Angeles Opera premiere in 1997. "I've gone for composers I feel can match the Dahl quirkiness," Sturrock explains. "These must be life-enhancing works, full of wit and humour. The message to each composer is simple - at all costs, don't be boring!"

Prepare not to be bored for years to come. Michael Torke's Fantastic Mr Fox promises performing styles from Gwyneth Jones and Eartha Kitt to the dulcet tones of singing tractors and diggers. Some way down the line there will be a ballet score and goodness knows what else. Forthcoming Hollywood feature films of James and the Giant Peach and Matilda will help jolly things along.

The original stories are a currency worldwide, in dozens of translations from Afrikaans to Russian. Felicity Dahl hopes the future for the music will be just as bright.

"Roald used to say that he could knock on the door of any house in the world and, as long as a child answered the door, he'd be given a cup of tea. My dream is that eventually I can knock on the same doors and discover that somewhere in the house is a recording of Dahl music."

n 'Little Red Riding Hood' will be shown on New Year's Day on BBC2 and is available on video, CD and cassette from EMI

nThe RPO plays 'Snow-White', 7.30pm tonight in the Barbican, London EC2 (0171-638 8891)