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Good Friday
Choir & Organ

Good Friday

Posted Friday, October 21, 2016   |   1476 views   |   Music How did an initiative to keep a restless class of children engaged at the end of a school week end up involving thousands of children at an international level? Helen Cocks reports

As any teacher knows, Friday afternoons are not a good time for book work. Recognising this, one Robert Britten, 1950s headmaster of Clive House Prep School, found that the refreshing, renewing atmosphere of a group singing class was just the thing for this tricky time slot. But Mr Britten had a secret weapon: his younger brother was one of the 20th century’s greatest composers.

Benjamin Britten’s Friday Afternoons, which is dedicated to Clive House pupils, is a set of 12 songs for children written for just the kind of group singing his brother was leading. They set lively poetry to easyto- learn melodies that are fun to sing and beloved of many a primary school singing leader to this day.

On Friday 22 November 2013, 100 years to the day since Benjamin Britten’s birth, hundreds of Suffolk schoolchildren at Britten’s Snape Maltings Concert Hall were united with thousands more young singers by YouTube and Skype from further afield for The Big Sing, a massed celebration of Britten’s life and of children’s singing today. The event has since become an annual tradition, with 80,000 participants so far from Truro to the Isle of Skye, and even a few groups from as far afield as Thailand.

Since the performances of Britten’s songs in 2013, each year the project now commissions a new set of children’s songs for massed performance on the Friday afternoon closest to Britten’s birthday, 22 November. In 2014 a number of composers contributed, including Gwyneth Herbert and Sally Beamish, while last year Nico Muhly wrote a set of eight songs. For the 2016 project it is the turn of Jonathan Dove. ‘I’ve known of the project since its beginnings, but it’s only been this year that I have been able to participate,’ says Dove; ‘It’s a great initiative.’

Known for his operas, Dove has also written extensively for the concert platform and for children’s voices, reflecting an early enthusiasm for storytelling through song. He remembers being in his church choir and even singing ‘Old Abram Brown’ from the Friday Afternoons cycle with his sister. He has written several major operas and dozens more choral, solo and ensemble works for voices, but works for children’s and community groups remain close to Dove’s heart. ‘I’ve done quite a few projects before that have involved children: I wrote some songs for 1,000 children to sing in the 2010 Mayor’s Thames Festival and I loved seeing how much they enjoyed it, how enthusiastic they were. I was also pleased to find I had pitched the songs at the right level to maintain the children’s interest while still being achievable to learn!’

Dove’s knowledge of the specific demands of children’s songs has stood him in good stead for this Friday Afternoons project. The young singers for the project are mainly aged 8-13, but have widely differing experience in singing, including some who have previously done very little. ‘I have added some elements of sophistication to some of the songs which should keep the more able singers stimulated,’ says Dove, ‘but I’ve been careful that the core of all the songs can be performed by any group.’ Simple but effective techniques such as a canon or round, he explains, often work well for less experienced singers;however, there are some unexpected pitfalls when  working with children in particular: ‘It’s interesting that singing harmony in thirds is often the most difficult thing for children. You see adults doing it quite spontaneously, but it seems to be a skill that comes a bit later in development. I know, in the pieces I have written before, that these are the sections when one of the parts tends to disappear!’

With the intention that any school or youth group should be able to take part, the Friday Afternoons Music project is supported with downloadable teaching resources including excellent recordings of the piano accompaniments. This meant that Dove’s piano wr

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