The Fantastic Mr Dahl

100 years on from his birth, we celebrate the classical music inspired by the great children's author. 

Roald Dahl (Getty Images)

100 years ago, on 13 September 1916, renowned children’s author Roald Dahl was born. Writer of some of the most popular children’s books ever written, his genius gave us instantly recognisable characters such as the BFG or Fantastic Mr Fox, and scrumdiddlyumptious new phrases, some of which were recently entered into the Oxford English Dictionary. To celebrate the life of this gobblefunking human bean, we take a look at some of the musical works inspired by his stories.

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The Golden Ticket – Peter Ash

Based on Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, this opera was written by librettist Donald Sturrock and composer Peter Ash. Premiered at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis in 2010, it follows Dahl’s 1964 story of a young boy who wins a golden ticket that takes him on an adventure round Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. The bizzare orchestration and harmonies used by Ash perfectly portray Wonka's weird and wonderful world.

Fantastic Mr. Fox – Tobias Picker

Published in 1970, Dahl’s famous tale of a clever fox and his family is a beloved story of trial and success. Picker’s opera was premiered to great acclaim in Los Angeles in 1998. The score is an unorthodox one, with a small collection of instruments playing many offbeat rhythms, and the darkness of the stage setting conveys the atmosphere of the foxhole.

Dirty Beasts – Martin Butler

‘No animal is half as vile, as Crocky-wock, the crocodile’. Gleefully menacing, this famous line from Dahl’s Dirty Beasts is just one part of a collection of poems narrating children’s encounters with different animals. Three of these poems – ‘The Pig’, ‘The Tummy Beast’ and ‘The Crocodile’ – are narrated in Martin Butler’s work for chamber orchestra and narrator, which was recently recorded by Simon Callow and the New London Chamber Ensemble. Humorous snuffling sounds from a bass clarinet represent ‘The Pig’, while ‘The Crocodile’ snaps and bites. This is a piece to savour in all its witty glory.

The Minpins – Sibelius, arr. Peter Ash

Published posthumously in 1991, The Minpins is Dahl’s last story. In it, Little Billy defies his mother by exploring the forbidden Forest of Sin, and befriends a group of tiny people who live in the trees called the Minpins. There he devises a plan to kill the Gruncher – a fire-breathing monster who terrorises the forest. The magical fable harks back to Dahl’s Scandinavian roots, the perfect match for Sibelius’s mystical sound. Peter Ash’s all-Sibelius accompaniment builds up to Sibelius’s own final masterpiece, Tapiola. Like Dahl’s Minpins, it too is set in an enchanted forest.

Revolting Rhymes

Dahl’s cleverly twisted fairy tale parodies have inspired countless musical interpretations…

Little Red Riding Hood – Paul Patterson

Patterson’s setting of this classic tale was recorded in 2006 with the London Philharmonic. But Dahl’s take on it is a classic with a twist: Little Red Riding Hood shoots the wolf with a pistol. Extremely atmospheric music follows a brief, excited description of the forest in Little Red Riding Hood. The musical style is quite brass-heavy to give an idea of the dangers encountered in the forest. Patterson’s timbre illustrates the sounds of the stories very well; you can almost hear the drop of leaves and unexpected gusts of wind in the forest.

The Three Little Pigs – Paul Patterson

Thia tale is told as in the original… until the wolf tries to blow the third house up with dynamite. But Little Red Riding Hood saves the day, by shooting a second wolf and gaining another wolf skin. Patterson’s setting has joyful bursts of high melody and rhythm in the percussion, woodwind and strings. These playful features are an excellent musical representation of a child’s excitement and wonder.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves – Eleanor Alberga

Snow White leaves her fairy-tale life before taking a job as a maid in the city. The first performance took place in London in 1994. Alberga’s energetic composition brings all the adventure of the original tale to life. Rich strings, occasionally heavy percussion and piercing brass all fuse to produce an imaginative accompaniment to this famous story.

Jack and the Beanstalk – Georgs Pelecis

Though the giant eats his mother, Jack manages to escape by having a bath so he doesn’t smell. Premiered to a packed audience at the Royal Albert Hall in 1996, the well-placed brass conveys the void in appeal between the characters of Jack and his mother.

Goldilocks and the Three Bears – Kurt Schwertsik

Though fairly close to the original, Dahl’s narrator points out Goldilocks’s despicable rudeness in barging into the bear’s house and eating their porridge. Schwertsik’s music is full of scurrying strings and fluttering woodwind that brings out the comedic effects of Dahl’s poetry. The piece was premiered by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in 1997.

Cinderella – Vladimir Tarnopolski

One of the ugly stepsisters switches her shoe with Cinderella’s, but when the prince sees that the shoe fits one of the stepsisters, he decapitates her. With ascending string flurries accompanied by fast percussion, Tarnopolski’s score was ‘a resounding success’ when it was premiered in 2003.

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Words by Edward Christian-Hare, Elinor Cooper, & Jeremy Pound