The Story of the Orchestra

On our musical trip so far we’ve talked about a number of things: fact and fiction, the symphony as a whole, the violin in particular, and, well, we’ve even talked about the economics of music!  When I pause to think about the breadth and depth you can get into with children’s books, I find it completely logical because children’s are just small people, and as interested in the world as any adult.  Which is why I have no compunction in recommending this next book for anyone of any age who wants a quick background in orchestral music.  The book is The Story of the Orchestra, by Robert Levine, illustrations by Meredith Hamilton.  (Side note: this is the only book on this blog I actually found through Amazon, so I’m rewarding it by linking to Amazon.  They actually got something right!  Good job!)

The Story of the Orchestra

This book is a cross between an encyclopedia and a story.  On the one hand, it’s organized cleverly to have enough narrative structure to maintain interest, but, on the other hand, it’s a good “looking things up” sort of book– it even has an excellent index.  My proof that it’s got good narrative grab is that, even though it’s clearly aimed at an older audience, my daughter enjoyed listening to me read it at age two-and-a-half.  And this is what I can deduce from those readings: kids like hearing about people first, and this book starts with the composers.  The Changeling is too young to appreciate certain aspects of the structure (the chronological history of Western music is a bit beyond a toddler), but getting people first and then instruments is definitely an attraction.

This was fascinating to me because, coming from an adult perspective, I would absolutely have switched the organization: first describe the orchestra and the instruments of the orchestra, and then detail key music and composers.  But doing it the other way around has multiple advantages for a slim, concise book of this kind.  First of all, it gets across a lot of history of the orchestra first.  Since the orchestra developed over time, arranging his work by the historical period lets Robert Levine detail the development from relatively small groups of instruments to much more developed ones before describing those instruments in detail.  So, when going into the instrumental section of the book you already have a fair bit of background.

Second, as I mentioned, you get all of that history through characters in a story.  One person after another tells you a bit more and a bit more about the story: Vivaldi and Bach have their own types of stories, then Haydn and Mozart, and so on and so forth.  Each person has something engaging to tell the reader, from little tidbits like Vivaldi’s red hair to touching stories: “Haydn was nicknamed ‘Papa Joe’ because he was a kind, gentle and father-like figure to his music students.”  There are even more modern anecdotes about various composers and their music: Oscar Levant apparently explained to a highway patrol officer that “You can’t possibly hear the last movement of Beethoven’s Seventh and go slow.”  (I wonder whether he got off?)  It’s history, and good history at that, but all of these little tidbits make it like reading a New Yorker profile rather than a dreary article in an encyclopedia: you feel like you’re making Haydn’s acquaintance, or Beethoven’s.

I’m going to shock and astonish you: I have a complaint to register.  Not a complaint about the book– it does a great job.  I have a compliment to the book and a complaint against Western history.  There’s not a single female composer in that brief survey of composers of orchestral music.  Now, there’s nothing else the book can do, given that history is what it is and the most significant composers of orchestral music in the West were all men, but it’s a fact that stands out starkly when you flip through a concise, well-organized book of this kind, and, if you’re like me, it makes you want to grab a pen and get composing!  Or at least I hope this book reaches a few young ladies who have a similar reaction, because I can no more compose orchestral music than I can sequence genes or track the development of o-stem Old Irish nouns, more’s the pity.  Sorry for the break in character, but it really does irk me to see such a blatant gender gap.

My mini-rant over, let’s turn to the rest of the book.  As I mentioned, the second half of the book is dedicated to the orchestra itself: instruments and the conductor.  The instruments are described by family (strings, woodwinds, brass, and percussion), as makes sense, accompanied by a little graph of the orchestra seating to make sure everything is clear.  And it definitely is clear.  The thing is, let’s be honest: it’s not hard to tell Beethoven’s story and make it engaging for any age.  Oh, I’m not saying that good, clear writing is ever easy, but that Beethoven isn’t the most demanding material to work with.  The violin, by contrast, is a bit more difficult to encapsulate in a gripping, page-turning fashion.  And yet the narrative does keep going, and the book does remain engaging.

One of the aspects of this section of the book which really comes into its own in the second half is the sidebar or text bubble.  The main text does remain interesting and engaging, yes, but to describe an instrument and what makes it cool is better done in snippets than in continuous text, and this book really masters the clever illustrations and layout to make that possible.  For the violin, for example, there are three paragraphs of main text describing the historical development of the violin.  The entire remainder of the two-page spread is devoted to bubbles and sidebars describing various aspects of the violin: the bow, Antonio Stradivari, the shape and function of the parts of the violin, etc.  One sidebar does side-by-side comparisons of the bows for each member of the string family: the violin, viola, cello, and double bass.  This leads nicely to the rest of the section, tying the whole family together.  Is it thrilling and suspenseful?  No.  But is it far more engaging than the Encyclopedia Britannica?  Much as I adore and revere the Encyclopedia Britannica… yes, by a long shot.

This is a useful book, not a sentimental or romantic one, but it’s a clever, thoughtful, and engaging useful book.  It’s laid out sensibly, it’s put together in a clear, common-sense, and precise fashion.  As I said at the beginning, it’s like a beginner’s encyclopedia.  And yet, I’ve used it to look up a date in a pinch (Tchaikovsky: 1840-1893), and I’m no beginner.  It’s the sort of book that’s a useful introduction to Classical music– not a useful introduction to Classical music for children.  Sure, the intended audience is a child audience.  Sure, it’s excellent for children.  But who says that the information stops being the same or stops being useful after age 10, or whatever arbitrary cutoff you choose?  I recommend this for anyone, ages 2 and up, who wants a methodical, basic overview of Western orchestral music.

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