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)

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'