Classical music bedtime stories for kids with Czech connection

Hannah Nepilová is a British classical music journalist with Czech roots who has written for Gramophone, The Times, and BBC Music Magazine, among many other well-known publications. Her passion for classical music is something she wants to pass on to the next generation and so began a side project – putting together bedtime stories for children which are narrated and accompanied by pieces of classical music. Her latest, The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, is set to music by Janáček – and she is planning more editions with Czech music or stories. I started by asking her where she got the idea for classical music bedtime stories from in the first place.

Hannah Nepilová | Photo: Archive of Hannah Nepilová

“After I had my first child, my son Joshua, which was four years ago now, I thought I’d quite like to do something on maternity leave. I began mixing together music with fairy-tales and put on a few live performances where I chose a fairy-tale or a classic children’s story and found pieces of classical music to insert at different points in it.

“We got an actor and a pianist in a church and made it into a live performance for kids. We did a few of those but then of course lockdown hit, and I thought ‘How can I adapt this so that kids can listen to it at home?’

“Around that time I got a Toniebox for Josh – they’re little audio boxes and you get little figurines and place them on top and they play different stories. So I thought maybe I could get one of those with classical music for kids. But I looked in the catalogue and there was nothing, so I thought ‘I’d better just make one myself’. I took some of those kids’ stories that we were performing live and mixed them with pieces of classical music to bring out the drama at different points and made it into an audio file and then into a YouTube video.

“I’ve been playing it to my kids – I also had a daughter a couple of years ago so I play it to both of them – and that’s my way of introducing them to fairy-tales and also to classical music at the same time.”

Your most recent one was The Snow Queen, which is a Danish fairy-tale, but you chose to set it to music by Janáček. Why is that – was there something about Janáček’s music that you felt particularly lent itself to that story?

Leoš Janáček in 1904 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  Public Domain

“Yes – that piece of music that I use in particular, the prelude to Káťa Kabanová, is a piece that I’ve loved for years and years ever since I first heard it at the Brno Janáček Festival in 2008. I’ve always thought of snowy bleak landscapes whenever I hear that piece of music, even though that’s not really what it’s about.

“I just had that in the back of my mind so when I started to work on The Snow Queen, I thought, ‘That’s my piece!’ It also has the sound of sleigh bells in it which sounds a lot like the snow queen’s sleigh and it has something very menacing about it as well. I just thought it was the obvious piece to put in there.”

You also included artwork by a contemporary Czech artist, Marie Preclíková, which was painted specifically for The Snow Queen. How did she get involved?

“Marie Preclíková is actually my aunt, who is based in Prague. So obviously I know her work and she specialises in very fairy-tale-like images. She puts together a lot of pictures of fairy-tale figures – a lot of them are on the wall in my parents’ place in London. She’s illustrated a lot of story books as well and has drawn a whole series of menacing monster-like creatures.

“So I knew that she’d do a good job of the snow queen for me – she’s a very menacing figure from a fairy-tale.”

You’re planning to cover some Czech fairy-tales too – do you have any particular ones in mind or are there any already in the pipeline?

“There are a few I’m thinking of – I’m actually thinking the next one I’ll be working on is The Three Golden Hairs. It takes the form of a journey by a young charcoal burner’s son who is sent off to collect three golden hairs from someone called Grandfather Know-It-All in exchange for the hand of the king’s daughter. It’s a little bit like The Odyssey – he goes off on this massive quest and then comes back with these three golden hairs. I don’t want to give too much else about it away.

The Three Golden Hairs | Photo: Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

“I can already think of a lot of pieces I’d like to use, for example there’s one point where the young charcoal burner’s son is ridden across the sea by a ferryman, so I thought I might bring in some of Vltava by Smetana. I’m also thinking perhaps I’ll go for The Golden Spinning Wheel which is by Erben and already has a piece of music attached, The Golden Spinning Wheel by Dvořák.

“And also one story that I was told when I was very small which is Budulínek. So those are three that I’m thinking of at the moment and there’s lots of scope for including Czech classical music in those as well.”

You alluded to it but you haven’t directly mentioned it – what’s your Czech connection? Why do you have an interest in Czech music and Czech fairy-tales?

“My dad is Czech, my mum is Slovak. They came over in 1968 during the Prague Spring just as the Russians were about to invade. My mum got stuck in the UK – she was working at Butlin’s holiday camp in Bognor Regis, so my dad came to visit while he could still get across.

“So they’ve been here for a very long time and I was brought up here, but after the Velvet Revolution in 1989 we frequently travelled to Czechoslovakia, as it was then. My grandparents were there and my aunt and uncle. So I grew up knowing quite a lot about my Czech heritage and feeling really split between Czech and British culture.

“I speak Czech even though I speak it with a very strong English accent and I make all sorts of mistakes. But my Czech connection is something that’s really important to me.”

Back to the bedtime stories – how many more of them do you plan to do? Or are you just going to keep going as long as the spirit takes you?

Hans Christian Andersen | Photo: Thora Hallager,  Museum Odense/Wikimedia Commons,  public domain

“I want to keep on going – I hope I’ll still be doing them when I’m 60, 70. By then hopefully I’ll have quite a collection, if I do a few a year.

“I’d really like to do fairy-tales from all over the world – I’d like to do Czech ones, maybe some Slovak ones, but also I’d quite like to do some from Scotland, I’d like to do more by Hans Christian Andersen.

“For me it’s quite a good way of discovering fairy-tales for myself as I go along as well, some of them I don’t know. I didn’t really know The Three Golden Hairs very much before I decided to do some fairy-tales from the Czech Republic. So it was a good way for me of being able to discover it.”

Have you heard any reactions from people who’ve either seen them live or watched the videos? What’s the feedback been like?

“It’s been good! I mean, of course people will say nice things to you but I’ve been sending them to a lot of parents who are friends of mine and they’ve been showing them to their children. So that’s been really nice to hear because that was really the purpose of them – to be able to introduce small kids to classical music and to storytelling at the same time.

“And for me it’s especially nice when I show them to my kids because they’re going to tell you if they hate something, so I’ll show one to Josh and he’ll watch it the whole way through. At the end he might not say much about the artistic quality of it, he’ll probably say something like, ‘What’s for dinner?’ But just the fact that he watches it is really gratifying in itself because he would tell me for sure if he was bored.”