The Farewell Symphony

I’ve made some pretty serious confessions here before.  I’ve confessed to being a fangirl, I’ve confessed to the state of my house during a stomach flu, I’ve even confessed to loathing the Itsy Bitsy Spider (my most controversial post to date).  It’s time for another soul-baring confession: I regularly crush on historical figures.  When I was in high school, I had a major crush on Alexander the Great (don’t tell anyone, but I retain a fondness for him).  As I got older, I crushed on Berlioz.  I also crushed on Shakespeare, Marvell and Donne among most everyone apart from Milton in the 17th C (not that I don’t adore Milton’s work; I just found him too intimidating to crush on), and that’s only the beginning of my crushes.  There’s also Ada Lovelace and William Blake, and I’ve only mentioned Berlioz so far for music.  I crush easily and often on dead people, and Haydn is one of my crushes.  Well, sort of– he’s not the kind of crush I had on Alexander the Great, which I seem to recall was full of imagined arguments about how he should just stop being such a damned nuisance.  Haydn was one of my first sensible crushes: I liked him and basically just wanted to hang out and talk about music and life.  If we want to go all psychoanalytical, I guess you could say I wanted more friends who loved music, and thought, “Oh, man, wouldn’t it be great if I could just hang out with Haydn?”

Let’s cut the psychoanalysis, though: the fact is that if I read something or listen to music and my heart bursts from it, I’m in love.  (Fun fact: I’m listening to Schubert right now.  Total crush.)  If there’s an interesting story or good gossip to go with it, that’s when we hit the really enduring crush.  (I’m thinking about Berlioz and Liszt and half the 19th C.)  But every once in a while, there’s a more reassuring story, a gentler personality, a kinder mentor who pops up.  Bach is one, and Haydn, of course, is another.  That’s why I was so thrilled to find The Farewell Symphony, written by Anna Harwell Celenza and illustrated by JoAnn E. Kitchel at my favourite Children’s Book Shop in Brookline.

Haydn's Farewell Sym300.jpg

As with all of my Charlesbridge purchases, it seems, this one started with me saying, “My daughter loves a given topic, and I need something more for her.”  I don’t normally gush about publishers here, but let me just say that Charlesbridge seems to be really good at that “something more” parents so often look for.  (And my bookstore is great at leading me to the right place.)  The Changeling loves birds?  No problem– here’s Feathers.  In this case, I was looking for more music books.  Charlesbridge has them in spades in their excellent Once Upon a Masterpiece series.

Given my crush on Haydn, I admit to starting from a place of joint suspicion and excitement: on the one hand, Haydn for kids sounded like a great idea, and on the other hand I really didn’t want them to screw this up.  Fortunately, it was both a great idea and beautifully done.  Anna Harwell Celenza found a great way to merge music history with narrative through the story behind Haydn’s Farewell Symphony, and the bold, sensitive, and expressive illustrations of JoAnn E. Kitchell highlight the key emotional passages from the story.

The story goes as follows: Papa Haydn (as he’s affectionately called) and his twenty-two musicians accompany Prince Nicholas from Eisenstadt to his summer estate in Esterháza.  As the weeks and then months go by, they get homesick and wish to see their families.  The prince refuses to let them send for their wives and children and continually delays their return to Eisenstadt.  Finally, Papa Haydn devises a symphony to express his musicians’ feelings to the prince in a medium which won’t anger him and will explain their views– and allow a gentle way to suggest that it’s time to go home.  He succeeds, and the prince plans the departure for Eisenstadt.

I’m an academic, and unfortunately this means that my first instinct is always to say, “But, well, how accurate is this?”  If you’re of the same sad mindset, well, first: my sympathies.  It can be a nuisance, can’t it?  Second, I have bad news and good news.  The bad news is I’m no music historian and can’t provide a careful peer review report.  The good news is that the author, Anna Celenza, is a musicologist and anticipates our questions.  In her Author’s Note she gives a fairly careful account of where she got her material and how she built the story.  To sum it up: the facts of who’s where when, the requests the prince turns down, the general context of the composition– all of these are true.  What she does is to provide narrative structure and emotions.  In other words, it’s an early introduction to the best sort of historical fiction: the research is solid, but it’s lovingly brought to life by a smart author with a functioning heart and imagination.

As I generally find to be the case with the best historical fiction, it accomplishes three goals: a) It’s fun to read; b) It really makes you think about the lives of the people in the story; c) It makes you want to go and find out more.  In other words, it functions both as a story in its own right and as lens onto a particular moment in history.  The two together give you something new to think about; in this case, “Oh, wow, what must it have been like to be a musician in service of a prince in the 18th C?”  You may have known some of the facts before, but the lived experience probably escaped you; now you’re thinking about it.  How’s that for a kid’s book?

Well, you might reply, is it good for a kid’s book?  I am pleased to answer that, yes, it is good.  The story, as I summarized it above, is simple enough even for my toddler to follow: “I want to go home, but I’m not allowed to yet.”  Any child in daycare can sympathize.  And, on top of that, the illustrations are striking and engaging.  The dramatic faces immediately caught the Changeling’s eye: “He looks so, so angry!  Is he sad?  Oh no, he wants his mummy!”  (Pretty close, kiddo.  Wife, not mummy, but almost there.)  The bold ink lines and intense watercolours are really captivating for any age, however.  The colours reminded me of Edward Hopper in the blocky intensity carefully shaded at the edges and key points in the landscape.  As for the faces– for crying out loud, let me know who you’re thinking of, because it’s been bugging me for weeks.  I love the striking lines of the nose and shapes of the eyes for the faces, but I cannot call to mind whose work I’m thinking of.  The point is, though: the illustrations are wonderful in their own right, and also capture children’s attention.

Altogether, I think this is a fantastic introduction to the stories behind composers and even behind instrumental music for children.  It’s also simply good storytelling.  And it’s a lovely and fitting farewell to our musical theme while I’ve been away.  I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did!

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