Carl Davis brings his choral piece about Winton’s children to Prague


The award-winning composer and conductor, Carl Davis has made his name around the world as a composer of musical scores for films and television series. Mr. Davis is also a regular visitor to Prague, appearing often at the popular Prague Proms festival and recording many of his albums with Czech orchestras. Last Monday, he conducted the season opener for the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, which featured his own piece ‘Last Train to Tomorrow’.

Carl Davis, photo: archive of Carl Davis CollectionCarl Davis, photo: archive of Carl Davis Collection The concert was dedicated to Sir Nicholas Winton, and the orchestra was accompanied by Prague’s Children’s Opera, who told the story of the Jewish children who were able to escape Nazi-occupied Europe and spend the war in Great Britain. I had a chance to speak to Carl Davis during his visit to the Czech Republic. Meeting him at a busy café in the center of Prague, I asked him how it first occurred to him to write this particular piece.

“It was started by a commission from an English orchestra called the Hallé, which is the orchestra of Manchester. And the Hallé was very proud of their own children’s choir, they have a very inspired conductor. And they began to commission new works for this particular choir and the orchestra. There were three of four before mine. And then the head of the orchestra said that he would very much like one from me.

"So I was looking for a subject and it occurred to me that when you go to most concert halls, you see raised above the orchestra is where the choir sits – in a straight line across the stage. And it occurred to me that that look of the children sitting where the choir sits is exactly the dimensions of a railway carriage. And I thought what if they were going on a journey of some kind. It would really look and feel as if it were really a railway carriage. And to me the ultimate story of children and trains is the historical story of the Kindertransport.”

The story of the Kindertransports has been told many times, on screen, in literature and on stage. In the year and a half before World War Two broke out, some 10,000 Jewish children were transported on trains from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland, in most cases with the consent of Nazi officials, to the UK, where they spent they subsequently spent the war with British foster families.

The story of the British businessman Nicholas Winton, who was able to set up the transport of around 600 children from Czechoslovakia to Great Britain, is a key element in Carl Davis’ piece. For him, the story of the Winton children and others who were saved from certain death touches on issues that are still quite pertinent today.

Nicholas Winton, photo: Czech TelevisionNicholas Winton, photo: Czech Television “I knew this story. Anyone who is in the arts in England will know people who were on these trains and saved. But then there was an extraordinary coincidence. My wife, who is an actress – her name is Jean Boht – acted in a play called Kindertransport. So naturally, I saw the play a lot and thought to myself, there is something in this story for me. There’s something that strikes a chord; I was very moved by it.

“That’s why I chose it. I thought, firstly it’s a wonderful story, both positive and negative together, but also it has a universal theme. You have to write music not only for the story, but also on the overarching theme of being separated from your family, having to go to a strange country, you don’t know much about. It is a group of children absolutely facing the unkown.

“And I thought, in today’s world, you suddenly read that there are a million Syrian children who have been separated from their families. The whole question of abandoned children, the story never ends. And I thought that it is a good thing to write about and to think about our responsibilities towards children. I can’t say I enjoyed writing it, because it is a story with a lot of pain in it. It was easier to rehearse it, and do it, than be witness to it, for me.”

The world premier of The Last Train to Tomorrow was performed by the Hallé orchestra and children’s choir in the summer of 2012. I asked Carl Davis how it came about that the piece was adapted by the Czech musicians this year.

“Well, I have an association here in Prague, with an orchestra called the Czech National Symphony Orchestra. So I told them about this. And Jan Hasenhörl, who is both principal trumpet player of the orchestra and also the chief executive of the orchestra, said – we must do it here. This was last year.

“So, he got it together and I said, well several things have to happen; You have to have a wonderful children’s choir. And he said, oh I know just the one, it’s going to be a children’s opera company. And he was right, they were absolutely brilliant with beautiful voices. Everyone looked marvelously and they really did treat it as an opera. We had costumes, staging and props. It was fully produced.

“And then, of course, it was quite interesting, because I asked are they going to learn it in English. And they said it’s not a problem, but we would really like to have it in Czech. So, the wonderful libretto that an English writer Hiawyn Oram wrote for me was translated.

The Prague performance of 'Last Train to Tomorrow' Photo: Czech TelevisionThe Prague performance of 'Last Train to Tomorrow' Photo: Czech Television “Except for one area. So, somehow, through the research that we did, we picked up a lot of incidences from people’s memoires, diaries, and poems they wrote about it, where they said that when the train left Prague everyone spontaneously sang the Czech national anthem. So, I said we’ve got to do that. The Hallé kids gave up on me and I said, you can la-la-la the anthem. But here, of course, they sang it. And that is when the entire audience broke down. It was a breaking point for everyone emotionally. The survivors who were here for the concert said that they were quite able to deal with it until we got to the anthem, but then it was useless.”

In addition to working with a libretto in a different language, Carl Davis also worked with a very different group of singers. I wondered if it was different to re-create this piece in Prague, after his experience in Manchester.

“In England, the Manchester choir were kids who were used to appearing with an orchestra. There experience was all from the musical point of view. So, I had to, in a sense, get them to be a little more theatrical. Now, the children here, in Prague, were part of an opera company, so the acting out of a story for them was what they do. So there was no problem with that at all, they were fully inside it.

“One wonderful thing was when we got to the anthem, they sang it to me very enthusiastically. And I said, well look [laughs] it’s not the president’s birthday. What I’m using it for is that they are saying goodbye to this country, and they thought they may never see it again, and so they sang it to make them feel better, and sang it quietly.”

In writing the music, Carl Davis tried to convey not only the emotional ups and downs that the children must have gone through, but also wanted to fit the piece into the regional setting. This was reflected both by the type of melodies he used – including a number of traditional Jewish and Central European tunes – and the instruments he selected from the full orchestra.

“I decided that I would be very economic. I didn’t want it to sound too glamorous or too overblown, so I eliminated from my orchestration the brass instruments and the woodwind instruments. I decided I would do it on strings, a piano and percussion. So, it’s sort of like a black and white movie rather than brilliantly colored.

“And then, I began thinking about who are these children and what were their backgrounds. And we had was children from those countries – Austria, Germany, Czechoslovakia – and basically city kids who would be brought up with a high regard for culture, for classical culture. They would know classical music, they would have played piano at home. And I was very keen that it would sound like a piece of chamber music and something they would have experienced in their houses. So, I was listening to Schubert, Brahms and then we could bring in the more threatening and ominous things in a more contemporary style with percussion as the story gets more ominous and more tense.

“I was also very alert to the way the steam locomotive has a particular wail almost, a particular cry that sort of droops at the end as the steam is released. So, that became a sort of leitmotif.”

Czech audiences who did not have a chance to attend the Czech premiere at Prague’s Municipal House will most likely be able to hear and see the ‘Last Train to Tomorrow’ on Czech Television, which tapped the performance. And next year, international audiences can look forward to a recording of the original English version of the piece, for which, paradoxically, Carl Davis will be coming back to Prague.

“I, with my own company, will make an English language recording. And it was funny, because I was thinking, well who is going to sing it, and then the people from the [Prague Children’s Opera] chorus said, you know, we sing in English; we sing in German, we sing in Italian, we’re expected to sing in different languages. So I’m going to record the English version with my Czech choir.

“My next objective is to perform the work in London, somewhere near Liverpool Street station, where children disembarked from the train. And it is a special year coming up. In December 2013, we have the 75th anniversary of the first train in 1938, and then in August 2014 it will be the 75th anniversary of the last train, which is very tragic, because after war was declared in September 1939 the borders were closed. And sitting in Prague station were over 200 children and the train never left the station. So, it’s a very important date and I hope somewhere around that date that I will have the London premier.”