John Alden Carpenter (1876–1951), although forgotten now, was one of the leading American composers of the early 20th century. Both his songs and his orchestral music were performed widely, and, at the height of his fame, he was the only American composer to be commissioned by Diaghilev for music for the Ballets Russes. His ballet, Skyscrapers, although commissioned by Diaghilev for the 1923–24 season, was never performed by his company but had its first performance at the Met in New York in 1928, and was later a success in Munich. A New York Times review of the music called it ‘raucous, sassy, and outrageous’.
Before that, however, in 1914, inspired by his baby daughter Ginny, he wrote about her day in Adventures in a Perambulator. His program notes for each movement, are written, like a cartoon, from a child’s point of view.
The morning starts with Baby in her perambulator. The limping line in the celesta comes from a defect in the wheels of baby Ginny’s perambulator.
I: En Voiture (All Aboard!)
Every morning – after my second breakfast – if the wind and the sun are favorable, I go out. I should like to go alone, but my will is overborne. My nurse is appointed to take me. She is older than I, and very powerful. While I wait for her, resigned, I hear her cheerful steps, always the same. I am wrapped in a vacuum of wool, where there are no drafts. A door opens and shuts. I am placed in my perambulator, a strap is buckled over my stomach, my Nurse stands firmly behind, and we are off!
John Alden Carpenter: Adventures in a Perambulator – No. 1. En Voiture (Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra; Eugene Ormandy, cond.)
Once outdoors, everything is about sight and sound, with Baby concluding that ‘some sounds seem like smells’. An Irish policeman comes to chat up Nurse, but their conversation is interrupted by Baby’s impatience to travel onward.
II: The Policeman
Out is wonderful! It is always different, though one seems to have been there before. I cannot fathom it all. Some sounds seem like smells. Some sights have echoes. It is confusing, but it is Life! For instance; the Policeman; an Unprecedented Man; Round like a ball; taller than my Father, Blue- fearful – fascinating! I feel him before he comes. I see him after he goes. I try to analyse his appeal. It is not buttons alone, nor belt, nor baton. I suspect it is his eye and the way he walks. He walks like Doom.
My Nurse feels it too. She becomes less firm, less powerful. My perambulator hurries, hesitates, and stops. They converse. They ask each other questions – some with answers, some without. I listen, with discretion. When I feel that they have gone far enough, I signal to my Nurse, a private signal, and the policeman resumes his Enormous Blue March. He is gone, but I feel him after he goes.
John Alden Carpenter: Adventures in a Perambulator – No. 2. The Policeman (Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra; Eugene Ormandy, cond.)
The third movement introduces ambient sound: a hurdy-gurdy player performing favourite music of the day, including opera music (the Miserere from Il trovatore), Italian songs (Eduardo Di Capua’s O Marie), and popular music (Irving Berlin’s Alexander’s Ragtime Band). After the hurdy-gurdy man has been moved on by the Policeman, Baby yearns to hear the ‘forbidden’ music again. Carpenter’s own music often incorporated jazz themes.
Ill: The Hurdy-Gurdy
Then suddenly there is something else. I think it is a sound. We approach it. My ear is tickled to excess. I find the absorbing noise comes from a box – something like my music box, only much larger, and on wheels. A dark man is turning the music out of the box with a handle, just as I do with mine. A dark lady, richly dressed, turns when the man gets tired. They both smile, I smile too, with restraint, for music is the most insidious form of noise. And such music! So gay! I tug at the strap over my stomach. I have a wild thought of dancing with my nurse and my perambulator- all three of us together. Suddenly, at the climax of our excitement, I feel the approach of a phenomenon that I remember. It is the Policeman. He has stopped the music. He has frightened away the dark man and lady with their music box. He seeks the admiration of my Nurse for his act. He walks away, his buttons shine, but far off I hear again the forbidden music. Delightful forbidden Music!
John Alden Carpenter: Adventures in a Perambulator – No. 3. The Hurdy-Gurdy (Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra; Eugene Ormandy, cond.)
The Lake, inspired by Wisconsin’s Lake Geneva, gives the opportunity for a very European kind of sound painting. The waves come and go, the land is replaced by water, and the sun dances on the water.
IV: The Lake
Almost satiated with adventure, my Nurse firmly pushes me on, and almost before I recover my balance I am face to face with new sensation. The land comes to an end, and there at my feet is The Lake. All my other sensations are joined in one. I see, I hear, I feel, the quiver of the little waves as they escape from the big ones and come rushing up over the sand. Their fear is pretended. They know the big waves are amiable, for they can see a thousand sunbeams dancing with impunity on their very backs. Waves and sunbeams! Waves and sunbeams! Blue water – white clouds – dancing, swinging! A white seagull in the air. This is My Lake!
John Alden Carpenter: Adventures in a Perambulator – No. 4. The Lake (Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra; Eugene Ormandy, cond.)
The perambulator rolls on….Baby thinks here can be nothing greater in the world than what she has already seen and experienced….and then she meets Dogs! As she notes, she meets every kind of dog in the world and they all are there to entertain her. The music barks and jumps, and even swings in circles chasing its tail. Carpenter again gives us opposite music for the doggy meeting, quoting both Septimus Winner’s ‘Oh Where, Oh Where Has My Little Dog Gone’ and the German ‘Ach du and Ach, du lieber Augustin’.
We pass on. Probably there is nothing more in the World. If there is, it is superfluous. There IS. It is Dogs! We come upon them without warning. Not one of them – all of them. First, one by one; then in pairs; then in societies. Little dogs, with sisters; big dogs, with aged parents. Kind dogs, brigand dogs, sad dogs and gay. They laugh, they fight, they flirt, they run. And at last, in order to hold my interest, the very littlest brigand starts a game of “Follow the Leader”, followed by all the others. It is tremendous!
John Alden Carpenter: Adventures in a Perambulator – No. 5. Dogs (Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra; Eugene Ormandy, cond.)
Just as quickly as they have appeared, the Dogs are gone. Baby falls asleep thinking of the tremendous discoveries of the day: the difference between Mother and Nurse (Mother is more charming), the big Policeman, the music maker, and, finally, Dogs! The movement closes with Mother singing a lullaby.
Those dogs have gone! It is confusing, but it is life! My mind grows numb. My cup is too full. I have a sudden conviction that it is well that I am not alone. The firm step behind reassures me. The wheels of my perambulator make a sound that quiets my nerves. I lie very still. I am quite content. In order to think more clearly, I close my eyes. My thoughts are absorbing. I deliberate upon my Mother. Most of the time my mother and my nurse have but one identity in my mind, but at night or when I close my eyes, I can easily tell them apart, for my Mother has the greater charm. I hear her voice quite plainly now and feel the touch of her hand. It is pleasant to live over again the adventures of the day – the long blue waves curling in the sun, the Policeman who is bigger than my Father, the music box and my friends, the Dogs. It is pleasant to lie quite still and close my eyes, and listen to the wheels of my perambulator. “How very large the world is. How many things there are!”
John Alden Carpenter: Adventures in a Perambulator – No. 6. Dreams (Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra; Eugene Ormandy, cond.)
As a wealthy businessman, Carpenter fell outside the usual circle of composers. His base of operations was Chicago, not New York, and, along with his wife, Rue Winterbotham, he promoted arts in Chicago, with a circle of friends ranging from Picasso and Stravinsky to Cole Porter and the dancer Irene Castle.
The work was composed for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and has remained one of the most familiar of Carpenter’s works. In this, his first orchestral work, we see many of the other traits he would continue to employ, including the insertion of popular music in his own pieces. Its mix of melancholy and humour would become a trademark of Carpenter’s style.
Adventures in a Perambulator was one of the works that Walt Disney chose to be part of the 1941 edition of Fantasia. Because of the war and the disappointing reception of the original Fantasia, those plans never came to fruition but were forever shelved.