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Living Toys was commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain for the London Sinfonietta and premiered on February 11, 1994 at Barbican Hall, with Oliver Knussen conducting. The composer has provided the following epigraph and note:
“When the men asked him what he wanted to be, the child did not name any of their own occupations, as they had hoped he would, but replied: ‘I am going to be a hero, and dance with angels and bulls, and fight with bulls and soldiers, and die a hero in outer space, and be buried a hero.’ Seeing him standing there, the men felt small, understanding that they were not heroes, and that their lives were less substantial than the dreams which surrounded the child like toys.” (Anon., from the Spanish)
“The child/hero’s dream-adventures form the five ‘figurative’ sections, offset by three more volatile, dynamic paragraphs: painting versus film, perhaps.
“First, Angels, a long horn solo haloed with gongs and little trumpets. Then with a change in tempo and the first bass note (a ‘B’), into the ring charges an Aurochs (the extinct European bison). He is whipped and goaded by the brutal, elegant matador-kid until his bellows of defeat (horn again) metamorphose into the first appearance of the ‘hero’s theme.’ This rolling, square tune makes three appearances, immediately preceding each of the three unnumbered sections (BALETT, etc.). In these there is a reordering of shared material (hence anagrammatical titles): three-voice descending chords, each voice restricted to a single interval. Recurring in BATTLE and dominating TABLET, this material evolved in BALETT from a fragment of the bullfight out of which it flies: descending in E-D-C (horn, inversion of the start of the hero’s theme), combined with the angelic horn solo (trombone, this time).
“The BALETT cadences abruptly on a menacing octave ‘B’ where the little hero has a bad dream — a grotesque army, led by a pair of virtuosi (one is a maniacal drummer, the other has a nightmarish talking bugle), advances on him to the point when — it being forbidden to dream one’s own death — he switches dreams. He is in a film, in deepest space, dismantling a great computer, whose vast intelligence dwindles to a wilting Vicwardian music-hall waltz (contrabassoon and double bass). It is the gentlest of executions, and the little astronaut whistles his tune like the sweet fifing of a tiny recorder.
“There follows an unstoppable, suffocating BATTLE, in which the monstrous militiamen reappear and (E-minor climax) finish their fell work. Our hero dreams himself a full military funeral, with muffled drums and tear-blurred mass humming of his tune; a TABLET is erected, and there is a three-gun salute, or three cheers, or three rockets, or three big puffs of dust as the story book is slammed shut and he drifts off to join his first adversaries.”