It’s not every day that you find a really good book about music for your daughter while you’re searching a knitting company’s website online. And the name of that niche yarn supplier is Schoolhouse Press; yes, it’s housed in an old schoolhouse. Doesn’t the name truly sound more appropriate to music education books for children than Swedish and Icelandic wool, though? And yet “Schoolhouse Press” is right for a company so devoted to education: education both for knitters (Meg Swansen assiduously seeks out the best in both classic and contemporary works for knitters) and a small but remarkable section of four books for children, one of them the book we’re discussing today: A House Filled with Music, written by Margret Rettich and illustrated by Rolf Rettich, English translation by Carola Pfau. The CD which accompanies the book includes the story as read by Meg Swansen and music by Michael Rüggeberg. Ever since I bought the book, however, I’ve had another secret thought about “Schoolhouse Press”: it sounds like the perfect place for the House Filled with Music. I wonder…
The aim and story of the book are both very simple: the aim is to introduce children to the structure of the orchestra with a simple story about making an orchestra. Once there was a man who heard lovely music in his head all the time. Unfortunately, he lived in the city and could never focus on his music; there were too many distractions. He buys a large house in the country, away from the city noises, and it’s perfect. He invites others to come live with him in a kind of musical compound: first come the String family who talk to each other with their instruments, the father on the double bass, mother on the cello, and daughters on viola and violin. So it goes with the Woodwinds, Brass, percussionists, pianist, and harpist. All play different instruments but agree in playing rather than speaking for the most part.
The only one who briefly finds himself unhappy is the man who owns the house. Everyone is playing music, but what a cacophony! “Everyone had only listened to their own instrument,” the story tells us, “and therefore had not noticed how unpleasant it sounded when everybody played different music at the same time.” Wait, an epiphany! The man becomes their conductor, whistles them a little melody, beckons each to join in, and the caterwauling ceases and merges into a beautiful harmony. Mrs. Woodwind says, “Now we know how beautiful it sounds when we all make music together,” and, working together, it becomes, truly, a house filled with music. (Or, as I think of it, “The Music Compound.”)
We’ve had two general books on music so far: Welcome to the Symphony and The Story of the Orchestra. The obvious question is: How is this one different? Well, there’s a lot that’s different between these three, so let’s first say what they have in common: an introduction to orchestral music. What’s different? Let’s break it down: a) Welcome to the Symphony uses the symphony (Beethoven’s 5th) as the starting point, The Story of the Orchestra gives more music history, and A House Filled with Music really watches how the orchestra functions; b) While Welcome to the Symphony does have a bit of a story with its little mice, both it and The Story of the Orchestra are fundamentally nonfiction whereas A House Filled with Music is fundamentally a little story, verging on the parable; c) All of the books have musical accompaniment, but whereas both of the others have snippets to illustrate a particular fact, A House Filled with Music really integrates its music into the narrative. In other words, each book really serves a distinct purpose, and it’s entirely legitimate for me to own all three of them, OK?
So what is the distinct purpose of A House Filled with Music? First of all, it really is a bit of a parable. There’s this constant nagging feeling that there’s another layer of meaning somewhere if you could just tease it out: who is “the man”? what “city” does he live in? where is this big house in the country? It has something of the feeling of a story that could be told either in the Gospels or by Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, depending on your mood. But, instead of having a deeper meaning than “if you all work together it will produce a nicer result,” the focus realigns to look at the component parts. In other words, instead of actually being a story about entering the kingdom of heaven, it is, astonishingly, really a story about making beautiful music. Perhaps you’re sceptical. I don’t blame you; it’s pretty revolutionary. But I’ll show you why I think so.
Every parable has a key, doesn’t it? One piece which, once grasped, opens up the story? Once you grasp who the princess is in a Rebbe Nachman story, for example, the whole rest of the story changes and you can figure it out, more or less. No, I’m not making any of this up and I do have a point here; in fact, remind me to share my parable with you sometime. I wrote it to prove a point: it’s a parable with no key. My theory was that you’d never, ever believe there was no key. I wrote this parable with my own hands on my own paper. I can’t stop looking for the key. So, then, what’s our key to this parable? I’d argue that it’s grossly material: the CD, beautifully read by Meg Swansen with illustrative music which fits the narrative. Why should you believe me? Because the whole story changes when you listen to it rather than read it, and that’s the function of the key to a parable. It has to turn something around so that the whole thing makes sense.
In this case, shutting up your analytical brain and listening changes the story and figures it all out: it becomes the music. All of those references to people talking to each other with their instruments? They’re honestly a little insipid on paper. On the CD? They make beautiful sense and illustrate the point that orchestral music is a conversation better than any other book I’ve seen so far. And as for that final scene where the musicians decide to invite the man to be the conductor, that truly comes together in the music. It’s exalting, and it’s very difficult for a children’s book to get across the point that music can be exalting to the spirit. You can’t say that so that it doesn’t sound nonsensical to a child and stupid to an adult; you can only show it. That’s what a parable’s for, though, so it works here.
The real success of this book, what differentiates it in the end, is that it shows, doesn’t tell. The book is cute on its own; it becomes genius with the CD. I love that it’s a truly multidimensional experience: words, images, and music. (I should have talked more about the illustrations: they’re very good and add a level of humanity to otherwise deliberately “everyman”-style characters. Also, there’s a grey cat. I love stripy grey cats.) What does it end up showing, though? As I said, it shows the development of the orchestra, how it works. All three of the general books we’ve seen show the different component parts of the orchestra, but Welcome to the Symphony and The Story of the Orchestra show it as a final product from the start. This book shows it as a work-in-progress. It’s being built. You get a chance to see how and why each element works. Is it enough just to have a lot of really good musicians with instruments? No. You need music, and someone to conduct. It’s all rather plain and practical when discussed like that, but that’s why you need the music… in the end, that’s what it’s all about!
And that, ultimately, is the point of this book: show how an orchestra is made, and why. The “why” isn’t, and can’t be, told. The “why” comes from the listening experience. And that’s why I’m really glad that Schoolhouse Press discovered this book and put it out in English: it’s distinctive, and trusts you to listen and learn.