Roald Dahl’s “Dirty Beasts” poems have a musical cadence which may explain why, after the success of stage versions of “Matilda” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, three of them are being set to music to introduce young people to the orchestra.
The anteater which gobbles a spoiled rich boy’s aunt, the flying toad which can turn itself into a roly-poly bird to escape frog-loving French gourmands, and the girl with a bag of sweets who sits on a porcupine and has to have quills removed by a dentist have been orchestrated by composer Benjamin Wallfisch for a February premiere atLondon’s Southbank Centre.
“In these times when kids have so many options, I was hoping with this piece aimed at people under the age of 10 to inspire them to explore the orchestra,” Wallfisch, 33, who comes from a distinguished British musical family, told Reuters in a telephone interview from his home in Los Angeles.
The premiere will take place during Southbank’s “Imagine” children’s festival, which this year features a major strand of Dahl tributes to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the publication of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”.
Luke Kelly, Dahl’s grandson who helps direct his estate and who was in London on Friday for the festival launch, said the late Welsh-born author and onetime fighter pilot had a knack for writing works that lend themselves to adaptations.
“The characters are so boiled down and the humour is so present I think it does translate to many mediums, whether it’s musical, films or operas,” Kelly, 27, told Reuters.
Wallfisch, whose enthusiasm for the Dahl project bubbles down the telephone line, would seem to be an ideal choice for setting his off-beat, dark-hued poems to music.
He has scored movies ranging from the Norse action film “Hammer of the Gods”, with an all-electronic music track, to a lush, Vaughan Williams-esque score for “Summer in February”, set in an artists’ colony in the English county of Cornwall.
Wallfisch, whose father is the renowned cellist Raphael Wallfisch and whose cello-playing grandmother survived the Auschwitz extermination camp, has been a huge enthusiast of improvising on the piano since childhood, and also was strongly influenced by family trips to the local movie theatre.
“In the 1980s there were all these amazingly great pieces of music being written for film and I tried to understand and get my head around them. After we would come back from ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Indiana Jones’ I would go to the piano and try to figure out what was going on there” in the film soundtrack.
“It does for me what music does best - it hits you hard emotionally,” Wallfisch said.
For “Dirty Beasts” he has composed what he describes as “a sort of trilogy which lasts about 20 minutes” to be performed over three concerts by the London Philharmonic starting on Feb. 16 with “The Porcupine”, followed by “The Anteater” on May 11 and “The Toad and the Snail” on Oct. 26. British television presenter Chris Jarvis will narrate the poems.
“It was an incredible chance to find a really colourful musical illustration for storytelling based on these poems that kids love and that are so outlandish,” Wallfisch said.
The trickiest of the three, he said, was the poem about the anteater, in which Dahl is having fun with the different pronunciations in America and Britain of the word “aunt”.
In America “aunt” sounds like “ant” and this prompts the starving anteater, whose spoiled owner lives in San Francisco, to gobble down the old woman - and then say to Roy: “You little squirt, I think I’ll have you for dessert.”
“There aren’t so many ways to illustrate misunderstandings so I made it a jazzy piece, I wanted to introduce these kids to the idea of America being the birthplace of jazz,” Wallfisch said.
His fondest hope is that his “Dirty Beasts” trilogy might have some of the impact on a new generation of one of his all-time favourites from childhood - Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf”, in which each character is portrayed by an instrument.
“When I was four or five I remember hearing ‘Peter and the Wolf’ and for a while I refused to answer to Benjamin, I had to be called Peter,” Wallfisch said.
“It definitely had an impact on me and it showed me that you can tell a story in music which is vivid and exciting for children…So hopefully positive things will come out of this and I hope it will have a life and inspire young kids to get involved in the orchestra by playing or going to concerts.”