The Argus: Brighton Festival ThumbNineteen-year-old Robert Van Allen died whilst snorkelling in Thailand in the summer of 1999.

Prolific composer Jonathan Dove was working with Robert’s father, the late opera singer Richard Van Allen, on his production of Flight at Glyndebourne when they heard the news.

Ten years later, as the anniversary of his death approached, Robert’s mother Rosemary Pickering wanted to mark the day with a specially-commissioned choral piece.

Dove seemed to be the obvious choice.

“I never met the boy but I obviously knew his parents very well and they told me lots of stories about him. He was a very joyful person so Rosemary didn’t want a requiem. She wanted quite the opposite – it was to be a celebration of his life,” says Dove.

“He had a wonderful childhood – he was clearly a high-spirited, slightly mischievous, adventurous chap who got into all sorts of scrapes, but butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth. I wasn’t that kind of child – I was more of an indoor bookish type – so it was interesting to write and think about this different character.”

The piece itself is comprised of sung poems and passages about childhood, written by a variety of well-known literary figures. Each tells of a chronological stage throughout the archetypal journey of infancy to young manhood.

Beginning with I Am The Song by Charles Causley and Langston Hughes’s Birth, Dove incorporates sections of Wordsworth’s The Prelude, Emily Dickinson poems and Thomas Traherne’s On Leaping Over The Moon to highlight the joys of being young and the excitement and endless opportunities that an outdoor world presents.

“Eventually you have to come to the moment of death – it’s the final adventure that goes wrong. There’s a piece by John Gillespie Magee called High Flight (An Airman’s Ecstasy), which describes flying above the clouds to touch the face of God – which sounds glorious but could mean you’ve taken that step too far.

"I couple that with a poem by Chidiock Tichborne about life being cut down too soon,” Dove explains.

“However, I didn’t want to end the piece with his death. The last poem, written by Walt Whitman from which the title There Was A Child comes from, is basically a celebration of life. The idea is that as he goes out in the world, everything he sees becomes a part of him.”

Backed by colourful orchestration from the City Of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the choral work features the Brighton Festival Chorus and two soloists – a soprano and tenor, representing the mother and the young man – alongside the Brighton Festival Youth Choir, whose vocals add power to the recounted odes of childhood adventures.

Programmed with Elgar’s Cello Concerto – considered by many as one of the foundations to the solo cello repertoire – the partnership is a nod to Robert’s fondness for playing the classical instrument and a tribute to Elgar’s forays into composed choral works such as The Dream Of Gerontius.

Dove certainly has no qualms about the juxtaposing of his modern piece of classical music alongside such a well known arrangement.

“I think people are always nervous about contemporary music nowadays but they have to discover for themselves that they’re not going to have a horrible time and that it’s safe to come in, the water’s lovely!” he laughs.

“If you only write to please other people, you’re just going to disappear – you can never know what’s going on in someone else’s head.

"The only person you reliably know about is yourself, so in the end you write the music you want to hear and hope that it’s going to mean something to other people. If I do that, at least one of us is going to have a good time!”

* 3pm, tickets £10-£30, call 01273 709709.