From tomorrow, every primary-school pupil in England will have the chance to experience 100 pieces of classical music on an app backed by the radio presenter and former child singer Aled Jones.
The 100 pieces, which include favourites by Beethoven, Mozart and Britten, will act as a “gateway” for children to learn more about classical works and inspire them to play the music themselves.
On his show this morning on Classic FM, Jones will devote an hour to the new app and the push to encourage children to love classical music from a very young age.
“Classical music can be the richest and most emotionally fulfilling thing in the world for many people, and it is important that children can hear and explore it in imaginative ways from an early age,” says Jones.
The idea for the app came from the schools minister, Nick Gibb, a lover of classical music who also plays the piano. The hope is to win over young children to love great works before they adopt the prevailing prejudice of teenagers that classical is “not cool”.
The selected pieces, aimed mainly at those aged 7-11, span 900 years of music. The earliest is by the 12th-century Hildegard of Bingen, a German Benedictine abbess, whose O Euchari is charmingly haunting, while the most recent is Eliza’s Aria by Elena Kats-Chernin from her 2003 ballet Wild Swans.
However, the work of only one other female composer has been chosen: that of the German Clara Schumann, whose husband, Robert, also has one work on the app.
Why so few women? Well, in defence of the team at the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music (ABRSM) who made the selection, there were not many female composers in the past. “We hope that by highlighting the three women on the app, it will inspire the kids to find out more about other female British composers,” says Lincoln Abbotts of the ABRSM. These include Judith Weir, Tansy Davies and Jocelyn Pook.
“However,” says Gibb, who recently visited St Charles Catholic Primary School in west London to see a try-out of the app, “this is not a prescriptive list.”
Asked to listen to a handful of the chosen works, children at St Charles gave some imaginative responses. Beethoven’s 5th was called “powerful and film music”, while Verdi’s Grand March was like “people marching in a field”.
The web-based app, which will be available for pupils in England but may be rolled out across the UK later, features 11 British composers, with two, Elgar and Vaughan Williams (who wrote The Lark Ascending), represented by three works apiece. Mozart has most works with five, followed by four each by Bach and Beethoven.
One arguably surprising choice is Mattachins by the British composer Peter Warlock, who was father of the late art critic Brian Sewell and notorious for his hedonism and interest in the occult. Abbotts defends the choice, saying: “It’s a catchy piece, so there is this appeal for kids.”
A couple of pieces of what many would consider non-classical have also slipped in — the Mambo dance from Bernstein’s West Side Story and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
Contemporary composers include the Americans John Adams and Steve Reich as well as the Britons John Rutter and Graham Fitkin — the last easier for youngsters to appreciate because he also works on rock and ensemble pieces. “We want to get over to children that not all composers are dead,” says Abbotts.
Quite a few of the works may be known to children even if they could not name the composers and may not think of them as classical. These include Rimsky-Korsakov’s Flight of the Bumblebee, Tchaikovsky’s Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, the Clog Dance from the ballet La Fille Mal Gardée, and Paul Dukas’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which featured in the Disney film Fantasia.
As well as using the app in music lessons, teachers will be encouraged to use certain pieces as backdrops for story-telling to younger pupils, in movement and dance classes, and in history lessons where, for example, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture could complement a lesson on Napoleon.
When many schools return from half-term tomorrow, head teachers will find a letter from Gibb telling them about the Classical 100 app and how to register for the free service.