5 Jun 2018

The Wind in the Willows


5 Jun


In June, we present a new musical adaptation of Kenneth Grahame's timeless classic The Wind in the Willows, by composer and member of our cello section, Richard Birchall. Starring narrator Simon Callow, get to know our friends Ratty, Mole, wise old Mr Badger and, of course, the irrepressible Toad of Toad Hall, in our two afternoon performances on Sunday 17 June at Kings Place - perfect for a family day out (suitable for ages 5+)

In this blog post, Richard Birchall takes you behind the scenes into the world of a composer, and reveals how The Wind in the Willows came to life.

Music has always been a powerful storyteller, and composers throughout history have found inspiration in tales old and new - either preserving the text (as in opera & song) or purely as descriptive, 'programmatic' music. But the combination of spoken text with illustrative music is surprisingly underused. Prokofiev's Peter & The Wolf is the obvious masterly example; also Poulenc's Babar The Elephant and a handful of more recent works, but the list is relatively thin given the format's popularity with listeners. As a composer, and a lover of both words and music, I found the idea of partnering fresh music to a classic story quite irresistible.

Richard at a Philharmonia rehearsal © Camilla Greenwell

Irresistible, but not without its challenges! The choice of story is of course very important; The Wind in the Willows has the remarkable quality that it retains a genuine appeal for all age-groups, and it features a selection of unforgettable animal characters who lend themselves beautifully to musical description. (As in Peter & The Wolf, each character has its own identifiable theme.) The book itself is of course far too long, so one of the hardest parts was to reduce the story coherently to a manageable size, and to maintain a satisfying balance between the amounts of text and music. The music itself plays different roles though the piece: sometimes taking a supportive role, as the story continues across it; sometimes taking over the narrative. For example the fourth movement, The Wild Wood, is a purely musical description and replaces the text entirely.

Clip of the original eight-cello version of The Wind in the Willows

Once it was clear in my head how the structure of the piece would work, and how much music was required and where, there was the small matter of writing it all... but despite the hard graft it was really good fun! I feel I got to know all those characters - Ratty, Mole, Toad, Badger, the weasels and everyone - and spent a huge amount of happy time with them (even if we argued occasionally.) The Wind in the Willows was originally written for the unusual ensemble of eight cellos and performed by the octet Cellophony (as a partner piece to Alice in Wonderland, which I had written for them the previous year); the Philharmonia's performances at Kings Place on June 17th will be the premiere of this new orchestral version. It's a real privilege to have my music played by such a wonderful orchestra - though there is nothing more daunting than putting my music in front of my colleagues and friends! - and also a joy to work again with the incomparable Simon Callow, for whom the piece was originally written.

Richard's original sketches for The Wind in the Willows

My aim has been to write in a contemporary but accessible musical style, to reflect the truly universal appeal of the story. It was enormous fun to write, and I very much hope it will prove enjoyable and engaging for performers and listeners alike.


© Richard Birchall 2018

Get to know Richard and his work - read his player profile here.