Music as Travel

Before we jump into today’s rather philosophical post, I have some news.  First, I’ve had so much fun doing this series of music-themed posts that I want to do more planned out series, or thematic reviews covering multiple books, rather than rushing from review to review at break-neck pace.  That being the case, I’m going to reduce my posting schedule to Monday-Wednesday-Friday in order to allow myself more time for planning.

The bigger news is that, among other things, I will be posting a monthly retrospective, including:

  • A brief paragraph outlining what stood out to me thematically that month;
  • The three titles which struck me as being particularly special in some fashion with a brief (2-3 sentence) explanation of why;
  • A list with links of all the books reviewed that month.  I will note which ones are picture books and which are for older children.

I will also be sending this out as a newsletter (I might also include notice in there of special events, such as book giveaways or contests), so if you want to receive it, please go here or email me directly at deborah (at) childrensbookroom (dot) com [obviously replace the words with the appropriate symbols] with any questions!  If you have any questions, email me or post right here in the comments.

The first review (and newsletter, if you want to get in on the game really early) will be going live this Wednesday and will probably cover rather more ground than we will normally do here since I’m playing catch-up.  I’ll get creative with it, but next month will be more circumspect.

Now to the actual meat of the post: it’s been fun thinking about music as travel.  We had certain really broad, strong themes: instruments, instrumental music, the construction of the orchestra… in a nutshell, what is an orchestra and what can it do?  We had other aspects pop up, too: the economics of music, history of music, musical inspiration, the process and story of composing music, and, delving more deeply, the force and power music exerts by its very nature.  We got to all of that, I want to point out, by going through a series of eight children’s picture books, some classics and some fairly recent.  Am I saying it’s all explicitly discussed in those books?  Obviously not, but it’s all in there.  And that’s my answer to anyone who ever uses the word “just” before the words “children’s books.”  Unless it’s to say, “It’s just that children’s books are just like adult books, addressing similar issues in a variety of approaches and, at their very best, using the simple format of the picture book to access topics and make statements which adult literature can only struggle with getting across.  That’s just what children’s books do.”

I think music, being what it is, was one of the best media for exploring this topic.  It’s a broad, beautiful topic, and, given the limited time, I shamefully left out far too many books: I grew up with Sing Me a Story, for example, but I didn’t bring up the opera at all in this series.  I didn’t venture out of my preferred area of Classical music, and yet Candlewick recently published a fantastic book called Jazz Day, by Roxane Orgill, illustrated by Fracis Vallejo.  I didn’t go into nursery rhymes at all, and yet what is more accessible music to children than “Ring Around a Rosy” or “Jack and Jill” or, if you want to make me shudder, “The Wheels on the Bus”?  What I’m saying is that, as deeply as we went, as much breadth as we managed to cover, there’s so much more out there.  Music is an endless topic, and so is its relationship to children’s literature.

So I want to take a few minutes before we leave this series, to think about children and music and literature.  I can’t think it’s just my Changeling who’s so deeply caught by music, or else why would there be so much published for children who love music?  Why would it show up in so many books?  Why would every daycare have circle time?  Kids love music.  People love music.  We need music.  I’m sitting in Israel writing this while a saxophonist is practicing next door.  The other day it was a flutist (he was pretty good– playing Mozart).  But we mostly have our children singing songs, not listening to instrumental music.  This makes sense: they love to participate, and they can better participate in a song than in instrumental music at an early age.

I’ve mentioned this before, but I’m a medievalist.  Once upon a time, I can tell you, music wasn’t purely instrumental.  Music accompanied poetry: lyric poetry was sung to music, and music accompanied words, both religious and secular.  Then people started reading poetry as such, and music became instrumental to accompany dances, and then, gradually, instrumental music happened.  It only makes sense if children follow a similar trajectory: first singing and participating in music and then listening with pleasure as they grow older.

Except that the Changeling already likes reading about instrumental music in, for example, The Farewell Symphony, and she enjoys listening to music she hears about.  Familiarity, I think, is the key there: she knows what’s available and accessible to her and enjoys it.  But I think there’s something else.  I hesitate to make grandiose statements, but is it possible that we’re underestimating our children a bit?  Not the books– the books I showed you are wonderful, or I wouldn’t have written about them.  But aren’t our children (and I feel the need to tread lightly here) capable of more than my old nemesis Itsy Bitsy Spider?

I hasten to add that I am not suggesting that we cut those little songs out: a) they equalize beautifully between different ages and levels of kids; b) the Changeling loves them, as do all her friends; c) they’re useful.  What I’m wondering is whether we could add another level, whether at daycares or in our homes.  Some listening time, rather than just singing.  Maybe we could introduce some more complicated songs (oh, please, someone give me variety!), maybe with more of a story.  The Changeling loves some of the old Scotch songs I grew up with: “Speed Bonny Boat,” “Loch Lomond,” etc.  Those are great fun to sing and have a bit of a story to tell.

I suppose if I’m making an argument at all here it’s to say that looking at the depth and breadth of these books has made me think: if our kids are engaging with such a brilliant range of literature and enjoying it, maybe the musical side could see a little expansion as well?

 

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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!

Outside Over There

If there’s one book in this series which will really baffle you, I think it’s this one.  Well, or The Gift, but I flatter myself that I’ve entirely convinced you that The Gift is very much about the power and value of music.  This one may confuse you a little.  Maybe.  Unless you’re a folklorist or medievalist or simply a well-read person who knows that the fay and the fey and the magical and the musical all go together like iron to a magnet.  Which is to say it’s a force that both attracts and repels and is so strong that it’s almost tangible… but never is quite.  People like to call it mysterious, which is an adult way of saying it’s a thing which is very well-studied and has been closely examined over centuries, but still can’t really be fully explained.  Fairy-folk have an incredibly strong attraction to music.  They love it, but cannot resist it.  And this is explored in one of the greatest studies of the subject in our second-to-last stop on this musical journey: Outside Over There, written and illustrated by Maurice Sendak.

Outside Over There

I am, unusually for me, linking to Amazon.  Whenever I do so I feel the need to explain myself.  In this case, it’s because I had a hard time finding a hardcover copy, and the only place I could find it was Amazon.  I think this book is so powerful, such a classic, such a necessary book, that you really do need it in hardcover.  So I’m linking to a hardcover copy.  I will note that, given how often it’s read in this house, and how ardently it’s loved, I’m very glad I got the hardcover edition!

Do I need to tell the story much?  It’s a simple story, and an insanely complex one, so I’ll tell the simple lines of it quickly.  Ida’s father has gone away to sea, and her mother is crying in the arbour.  Her baby sister starts crying, and Ida plays music on her wonder horn to soothe her.  But Ida looks out the window while she plays, and no one sees the goblins come to steal away Ida’s sister, leaving a changeling of ice in her place.  When Ida sees, she grabs her horn and goes off to outside over there in pursuit.  When she finds the goblins, she plays her horn to charm them until she can find her sister and escape back home, where her mother is sitting in the arbour reading a letter from Ida’s father, which says:

I’ll be home one day, and my brave, bright little Ida must watch the baby and her Mama for her Papa, who loves her always.

The story is a creepy one for many reasons, mostly because of the questions left unanswered: Who is this father and where is he going and why?  What about the mother?  Why is she crying and leaving Ida in charge of the baby?  She sits sadly in the arbour but does she ever notice the absence of her children in her sorrow, or does that pass her by?  (I admit to ambivalence regarding this mother: I wish I knew something better of her, but, while I’m sympathetic to her sadness, I can’t help but wish that she at least noticed her crying baby.)  Ida is the one left in charge, and our big question is: Why?  Why can’t anyone but Ida defend her home against these goblin interlopers?  And, in the end, against any further danger, by her father’s request?

We don’t know why, but we do know that this is the case.  And, thus, at the same time that these questions make the story a bit uncomfortable, they also put a lot of power into the hands of our Ida.  (I can’t help but wonder if a bit of Tiffany Aching in Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men came from Ida.  She, also, is a strong-willed young woman who charges after the fairy-folk to win back her brother.)  Just look at Ida here:

Ida strong

She could take on the world.  I don’t mind telling you she reminds me strongly of Delacroix’s Liberty.  And look what’s right by her foot.  It’s her horn, the horn she tucks into the pocket of her mother’s rain cloak when she heads off in pursuit of her sister.  That horn gives her a lot of power in this story.

While we’re on the subject both of music and her father, there’s a rather strange passage where we’re told “she makes a serious mistake,” climbing backwards out the window into outside over there so that she doesn’t see the thieves.  She then hears “from off the sea her Sailor Papa’s song” telling her to turn around so that she can see the goblins, and to use music to captivate them.  It’s a kind of musical augury or oracle: some kind of mystical help transferred by ear.  (As for the advice– well, why else did she bring her horn, I can’t help but wonder.  The directional advice is well-taken, however.)  Well.  I admit freely and cheerfully to being stumped, and we’ll come back in a little bit to why I don’t care about not understanding the whole thing fully.

The rest of the book takes us further into musical territory, perhaps somewhat more familiar to us.  Ida charms “them with a captivating tune,” forcing them to dance against their will, faster and faster until they’re entirely breathless, but, merciless, she drives them on and on until she dances them straight into a dancing stream which stalls them until she can reach her sister, who is “crooning and clapping as a baby should.”  What happens to the goblins in the stream we don’t know.  Folklore has many possibilities for us– water is what’s called a “liminal space,” meaning a threshold between worlds.  Perhaps they’re stuck in their world and Ida’s crossed over with her sister.  Perhaps their power was broken by the water.  Perhaps they were drowned in the water.  We honestly don’t know.  Ida and her sister then follow the path of the stream (the illustration shows a man playing some instrument in his house by the stream, so there’s something going on with music and this stream), and the stream takes them up the “ringed-round hill” (I’m not even going to start on that one) to her mother and the letter from her father.

Look, it’s a strange book, and there’s no doubt about that.  I still refuse to call it “mysterious.”  If you want, I think I can choke out the word “mystical,” but I might spit over it.  The only “mystic” element is that part where Ida somehow hears a kind of “helper song” from her father while she’s floating off in search of her sister.  But if you want to know what I really think, it’s that this music is our key to not-fully-understanding the book.

I want to digress a bit into a discussion of the senses and why music and sound are different.  Touch is, well, tangible.  You have to make physical contact with a Thing to experience touch.  Taste is the same way.  Sight requires you to make eye-contact with a person or object.  Smell is also produced by a physical object of some sort.  Sometimes you’re stumped by what’s producing the smell, but it still comes from somewhere.  Music is a bit more tenuous.  The music might come from speakers, but the music was produced long ago in a concert hall in Vienna.  Or you might be in that concert hall in Vienna, but the music was written centuries back by a composer in Venice.  Perhaps you’re saying, “But what about instruments?”  To which I say, “Please show me the music they make.  Take a Stradivarius and grind it to pieces.  Produce a single atom of music and show it to me.”  (And, no, I wasn’t able to type that sentence without shuddering.  Please do not harm any violins.  I would be very upset.)  And yet… you sit in that concert hall and your spirit is exalted; you sit at home listening and your house feels less lonely; you sing to your child and both of you laugh.

What’s my point?  My point is that the force or power we’re dealing with here is strong, incredibly strong, but in no way tangible.  Iron and magnet.  It can attract or repel but you can’t see it.  And don’t you see that the book is the same way?  I don’t want to try to explain the logical progression of song from Sailor Papa to Ida’s ears.  I know what it’s doing, and that’s enough for me: music cuts through to Ida, somehow.  She’s responsive to it.  She uses it against the goblins.  She and her father use it to get her on her way.  Music is her power.  The story is strongly evocative, in other words, just like music is.  It has an emotional impact, without always requiring tangible, logical explanations.  We can understand these connections to work without having everything explained.  It feels like it’s been around for years, like it’s as old as anything which turns up in Grimm’s or Andrew Lang’s collections.  And yet, it’s odder, stranger– maybe more likely to have popped up in Joseph Jacobs’ books.  But it’s not.  It’s greater still: an original story straight from the heart, brain, guts, and hands of Maurice Sendak, a gift to the world we may yet come to merit one of these days.

Let me sum this up again so I can try to make sense for you all: I’m arguing that this story reflects the same kind of force music has within the story.  The force is invisible, and works according to its own rules– rules which aren’t always explained.  It’s a powerful force, both attracting and repelling the goblin-creatures of the tale.  The story, likewise, is a powerfully attractive kind of story, but has chilling elements which trouble us.  It’s a powerful story, with powerful events and connections, but those connections don’t always seem to make “sense,” as we understand it.  They trouble us.  They’re problematic.  They’re right there, if you know what I mean… if you give me a moment I’m sure I can explain… but you never will.  You aren’t supposed to.

In very short form: this book feels like music sounds.  And I have no greater compliment to pay it.

A House Filled With Music

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…

A House Filled with Music

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.

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.

The Gift

… for books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as the soul was whose progeny they are…

Milton’s Areopagitica (pp. 239-40 in the Oxford Major Works edition, if you’re like me and are reaching to find the context).

Sometimes you’re thinking a thought and the only one who’s said it properly is Milton.  Well, quite often, really.  The point here is that sometimes a book seems to have preferences.  They really want to tell you something they care about.  The author put the ingredients in a pot, and the ingredients bubble away, making a delicious stew, but I think even the author may be a little surprised by what, to mix metaphors, becomes the basso continuo, where a bit of ritornello crops up, and what becomes the glossy ornamentation dancing along in a series of trilling high notes.  Maybe the author even thinks she’s writing a metaphor about cooking and stew but the words whisper, “Hey, author-person?  We’re in music territory here– drop your wooden cooking spoon and take up your conductor’s baton!”

My point is that I sometimes wonder, when I think I’m reading a book about one thing, but it whispers to me that it’s about something else entirely, what the author thought the book was about.  In this case, did Aliana Brodmann think she was writing a book about music when she wrote The Gift, illustrated by Anthony Carnabuci, or is that only what the book is telling me?

 

The Gift

In an unusual move for me, I did some reading around online to see what others had to say about this book before choosing whether to add it to my music-themed series here or whether to write about it at Chanukkah, or just at any random time during the year.  I read people who thought it was a great Chanukkah story, people who thought it was about the meaning of giving at any time of year.  They’re all right, but my contrary side came to the foreground: books are not absolutely dead things, and I was sure that mine was telling me something else here, something about music, so I blithely ignored all of them and am doing what I want.  So much for research, eh?

But let’s tell the story and see what you think: A young girl’s father gives her a five-mark piece for Hanukkah one year.  She felt extraordinarily rich, and thought and thought about what she might buy.  Then comes the theme and ritornello: she goes from store to store to see what she might buy.  There are many beautiful things: fountain pens, perfumes, toys, hats, kittens– all come to life in Anthony Carnabuci’s glowing paintings.  His skill is the lovely ornamentation on top; it’s particularly wonderful in the play of shadow and light.  The folds of fabric, the shade behind a basket, the depth of kittens piled on top of each other in a basket, all of these come right out of the page.

But our nameless girl hesitates, again and again.  She comes up to the same theme of loveliness, fun, temptation in infinite slight variations, and always walks away.  Then she hears a new theme, and this theme is actual music, if you were starting to wonder when that was going to turn up:

I was thinking about names for the kittens when I heard a beautiful tune.  It came from an accordion player who was sitting among a pile of blankets in front of the grocery market. […] I don’t know how long I stood in front of the musician, listening to his lovely music.  [The town closes for the evening.]  Only the musician’s tune continued soft and slow through the busy evening.

Our girl stands, listening to the music until you know what happens, of course: she quickly and quietly tosses the five-mark piece into his hat.  But do you expect the next variation?  He invites her for a music lesson, then and there.  She sits with him and he teaches her to play.  Together they play, on and on.  People stop to listen and toss coins into his hat.  And the girl wishes the evening could stretch on forever as she makes music.

So, yes, absolutely, this is a Chanukkah story: a story set at the right season of the year and, in its consideration of what “gift” seems to mean, and its underlying charitable message, it sort of fits the religious message: This is a season of gift-giving, and we should give unto others in need.

Only, and forgive me for being crass here, I don’t think that’s really what’s at stake in this story.  She’s not being charitable– I mean, she is but she’s not.  But she never says he’s a homeless man begging.  She sees him as a musician and a teacher.  He’s not a broken person in need and she’s not a prissy little thing giving him the wherewithal to live another day in some revolting Victorian Christmas story (sorry, some of those are awful).  He has his hat out, and she, of all the people in the town, appreciates his music enough to listen and pay for it, if you’ll forgive me for being so ill-bred as to raise the subject of paying artists for their craft.

I think our girl read Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking.  “This man,” she thought to herself, “is making music.  I love music.  His music is beautiful.  It’s worth something.  I’m going to give him what I can.”  Is that charity?  I suppose it is, but it’s also payment, and I think that’s great.  It’s recognizing value.  And he offered her a lesson, another gift.  She accepted it.  It’s the sharing of art, and how it evens out over time: she paid what she wanted freely, and he gives her something for it.  Music goes back and forth and the notes of the accordion soar through the night, reaching a wider audience.  It’s beautiful.

Perhaps you think I’m cheapening something by dragging in the economics.  Maybe you’re wincing.  I’m really sorry about that.  (But then maybe read Amanda Palmer’s book, because I think I see her nodding vigorously.)  Would it help if I also think that the book highlights the value of music?  It says that music, even if it’s not something you can bring home in your pocket, isn’t something you can taste, isn’t something you can name and cuddle, has a true value and touches people.  It reaches that town that night: people stop in the snow and listen, watch, and pay.  Music matters, and that’s what the girl learns, and what she teaches her fellows.

That’s the gift she receives, and the gift she shares.  And that’s what the book, woken up by the music, told me it cares about.  Am I right?   Am I wrong?  I have no idea, but books are not absolutely dead things, so read it, and if it tells you something different, let me know.

Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed

I just want to put it out there right here, right now: the world needs more books like this one.  “What’s this one, and what’s it like?”  asks the world.  “If you want us to make more like it, you need to be more precise.”  Fair enough, that’s why I’m here, after all.  The book is Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed, written by Lesléa Newman and illustrated by Amy June Bates, and it’s adorable.

Ketzel the Cat Who Composed

Look at that kitty!  She looks so much like my Penelope (named after Odysseus’ wife, yes, of course).  Aren’t they incredibly similar?   (And, no, of course this isn’t an excuse just to post a picture of my adorable, sweet, darling kitty.)

SAM_3388

So, perhaps the reason I feel very attracted to Ketzel is that Ketzel and Penny look rather alike, but there’s a lot more to love about this book than that.  First of all, it’s a good story.  Yes, it’s based on a true story, so it’s a cross between biography and music history with a heavy dash of imagination thrown in for colour and narrative structure.  That said, it’s also simply an excellent tale (about a cat with an excellent tail, I’m sure) (look, it was sitting right there and I’m only human).  It’s a good story, and a good story is kind of fundamental to a picture book, don’t you think?

Second, it’s a good story which also happens to tell something about the way compositions happen.  If you were like me as a child, you were a horrible pest who nagged your poor, beleaguered parents with questions like, “How were operas composed?  Did someone write the words first and then the music or did they talk a lot or did the composer send a plan for the music to the writer or…”  (Yes, this all happened before I knew the word “librettist.”  I was always a pest.)  This isn’t a book about an opera, but it probably would still have helped to shut me up.  Or not.  It’s hard to say.

So, I hear you ask, what is this book about?  I’m so glad you asked.  It’s about a composer, Moshe Cotel, who gets his inspiration from the noises of the city around him.  Then one day he hears a little kitten crying in a city street.  He rescues her, earning my undying love.  They live together happily: Moshe composes and Ketzel listens.  But then one day Moshe receives notice that the Paris New Music Review is holding a contest, but each composition must be under a minute long.  “Impossible!” cries Moshe.  But he can’t help mulling it over, stressing out over it, day after day, until Ketzel decides that the only thing to do is to destroy the letter, the cause of his grief.  Ketzel pounces, treading on the piano as she goes.  Moshe pounces on paper and pencil and jots down the notes: “Ketzel, that was magnificent!”  He submits her piece to the contest, and it receives a certificate of special mention.  Moshe and Ketzel together attend the concert hall where it will be played, and Ketzel meows when her name is announced, drawing attention from the audience.  At the end of the performance of her piece, Moshe brings her to the stage to take a bow.  They go home, and, one day, another letter arrives in the mail: a royalty check for Ketzel!

Even if your cat isn’t the body-double of the cat in the book, you see you can love this story.  For one thing, it’s incredibly sweet.  The bond between the cat and Moshe is lovely to watch: he rescues her, she cares for him, and, in so doing, gives him the inspiration he needs to get out of his funk.  He, in turn, sees her as her own little person and firmly gives credit where it is due.  He submits the composition in her name, brings her to hear the concert, and gets her her very own bank account to deposit her royalty check.  That money is designated only for her cat food, in the end.  Love is really at the heart of the story, and I think that’s what makes this story so beautiful.

The other thing that comes through is the story of composition.  Moshe is a composer, and he takes inspiration from everything around him, the story tells us.  He tells Ketzel: “You must listen outside yourself and inside yourself.”  Ketzel wonders, as she watches him struggling to compose whether he’s listening outside himself or inside himself… or perhaps he wasn’t listening at all.  But she, we can tell, is the one who is doing the listening.  She listens outside herself: Moshe is unhappy and sad.  She listens inside herself: That makes her sad and she wants to do something about it.  She pounces on the letter.  The sound she makes penetrates through Moshe’s sadness and he wakes up from his funk… he listens outside himself and inside himself and writes down what he hears.

When Moshe first brings Ketzel home with him, he plays her some music and she reacts, meowing.

“Ah, Ketzel, I see that music stirs your soul,” he said.  “And that is a wonderful thing.”

This story, without ever telling you that music should stir your soul, gives a portrait of a composer at work.  It gives a quirky little story: not every composer has a cat to provide musical inspiration, more’s the pity.  But it’s a wonderful little lesson in listening, in accepting what is available from your environment.  Moshe, from the very beginning, is shown receiving his inspiration from ambient noise.  Ketzel reminds him that this is how he works, and he thanks her for it charmingly.  We, the audience of his story, know that she was only reminding him of what he knew already, although the story never, ever says so.  We are never told that this is a story about how to compose music.  We are never told that this is about musical inspiration.  We are told that this is the story of Ketzel, and, indeed, it is: Moshe and Ketzel are our cast of characters, and we love them.

But along the way we learn a little something about music, and I’m so glad we do– the story wakes up our musical souls a little, and that is a wonderful thing.

Violin: Making Music

It’s hard to say whether the Changeling was first more interested in music or in musical instruments.  She loved songs, and she loved music.  But she also loved watching her daddy play the violin.  So, at one point I joked, “Would you like your own violin?”  And she said, not joking at all, that she would.  A few months later I mentioned a present, and she said, “Is it a violin?”  And that’s when I realized she was absolutely, deadly serious: she wanted a violin, and, while she was willing to be patient, she wasn’t going to forget it.  And so she has her very own little 1/16 violin now, just like Daddy’s, and I help her play hers while he plays his, and she’s as happy as can be.  Just don’t let anyone else touch her violin, all right?

And so I realized at one point that we had a gap in our music book collection: we could talk about symphonies and orchestras, we had storybooks, but we didn’t have a nice simple book to methodically talk about her very favourite instrument: the violin.  And that’s when I went to my favourite bookstore and asked for one, and they provided me with exactly what I needed, as they so often do: Violin: Making Music, by Kate Riggs.

Violin Making Music.jpg

A word about availability: this came out in 2014 and you should still find copies around (I did at my local children’s book shop!), but it looks like it’s already out of stock on Amazon and Powell’s, which is a crying shame.  That said, look around and you’ll find it, no problem.

The lovely thing about this book is how straightforward it is.  It’s not a frilly book; it’s just a straight introduction to the violin for small children.  By straightforward I mean that it’s extremely logical: it goes from the broad to the specific.  First we meet the string family, then the parts of a violin, including a separate page for strings and pegs.  Later it talks about more particular topics: sizes of violins, playing the violin, early violins, what sort of music violins are used for (orchestral and chamber music), and an introduction to a violinist (Joshua Bell).  It’s all useful, basic knowledge for a small child (my toddler daughter likes it, but it could be useful through early readers, too, I think).

That’s not to say there are no cute details: the words on each page are written on a music staff, making me think about how the words are just a stand in for music: music and words, how different are they, really?  (Wait for the answer to that when we get to another book in this music series, A House Filled with Music.)  It’s also filled with pictures.  When reading it with the Changeling, it’s often hard to get passed the “String Family” page because she will stare at each picture memorizing which one’s a mandolin and which one’s a banjo, and asking about the lute.  She loves to have her violin out at the same time so she can compare it with the pictures, learning about the different parts and how they work: where’s the bridge?   Where are the pegs?  Where’s the frog and the tip of the bow?  She flips through and talks about how she has a little violin, but Daddy has a big violin, and he also has a very big violin called a viola.  And then she’ll find a picture of the viola to show us.

In other words, this isn’t a narrative book at all, nor should it be.  It’s a purely informational book, a kind of large encyclopedia entry, beautifully laid out, aimed at helping children understand their first instrument a little better.  I won’t say we often read this book from cover to cover, although I do like the logical progression you get from doing so.  More often, we put the book into the Changeling’s hands, and she leads us: first she’ll look at the “String Family” pages, and she’ll run through the names and ask about the instruments.  Then we’ll look at how the violin is made and how it works for a little bit.  We’ll talk about the sizes.  And so on.  We’ll absolutely refer to the text, which is nicely simple at directing how the conversation could go, but it’s not strictly necessary to follow it on each and every page.  This is a beautifully malleable book: it provides topics, words, pictures, and ideas; the reader can mix and combine to suit the needs of the child audience.

So how does a typical reading go?  It’s more of a conversation than a reading (which I suspect Kate Riggs would appreciate).  The Changeling will ask for the book and ask for us to sit down to read it.  I’ll open it up and start at the first page.  She’ll flip to look at the “String Family,” and name the instruments, then select her favourites for a bit more chat: “Who plays the cello, Emeh?”  “Your uncle does!”  And so on.  Then we’ll name everyone who plays the violin.  We’ll flip to look at the page about the violin, and she’ll run to take out her own violin.  We’ll talk about the different parts.  When we get to the page about playing the violin, the Changeling will usually have a go at that herself (she likes to “play” Frère Jacques).  If she decides to come back to the book and not just play with her violin, then she likes to hear about Joshua Bell and chamber music for a bit.

So, you see this isn’t at all how we normally read books; this one has a different mode all its own.  We’re usually of the sit down, snuggle, and plow through a few stories type of family.  Instead, this is what I guess we’d call an interactive read.  It really gets her active and excited.  And that’s what makes me love it: it’s a starting point, a jumping off into conversation and activity book.  It’s not a book which wants to be used for its own sake– it wants to be useful to you, at your level.  That’s a nice, companionable book if there ever was one.  It’s straightforward, as I said: “Let me give you what you need, and you can find what’s useful to you here.”

I think, perhaps, it’s time for the Violin to come forward and take a bow.  Thank you for your sterling service in educating my child as to who and what you are, where you came from, and how you’re useful to musicians.  I appreciate that.

Welcome to the Symphony

Welcome to my music-themed trip!  Remember how I said that journeys are often like music?  You usually have a motif or theme for any given journey (a search for good coffee or saying embarrassing things unintentionally due to lack of sleep– wait, that’s probably just me); movements of preparation, contemplation, activity, and farewell; moments of harmony or dissonance; and so much more.  To embark on this trip, let’s welcome you all with Welcome to the Symphony, by Carolyn Sloan, illustrated by James Williamson.

Welcome to the Symphony

I should mention right up front that I got this at 30% off at the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline because some of the physical aspects of the book weren’t working when I got it (the batteries had run out for the music panel you see on the right, and the panel was loose).  Well, great for me, because a little Super Glue got the panel firmly in place and new batteries were easy!  The book works like a charm now and I frankly feel sort of bad that I got a discount for such easy fixes (I guess I’ll just have to continue to give them my business).  But do be aware that they may be working out some teething problems in assembling these books– hopefully they’ll be worked out soon, because this is a truly excellent introduction to how orchestras and music work, and it’s aimed at very young children.  The Changeling loves it like crazy, and I’d like to apologize to everyone on our airplane on the way back from South Carolina last month in case they were disturbed by occasional bursts of Beethoven’s 5th.

Let me start by telling you the result.  After reading the book through a few times, we asked the Changeling if she’d like to watch an orchestra playing the symphony.  She agreed.  My husband found a performance on YouTube with a good view of the orchestra.  She sat on his lap and watched the first movement (which is the one outlined in the book), and apart from occasionally pointing out trumpets or violins, she just snuggled, watched, and listened.  Another day, she proposed watching it again.  I won’t say that Beethoven’s 5th is now her favourite piece of music and she’s become a genius musician and I anticipate that she’ll shortly be as famous as Karajan or Oistrakh, depending on which route she takes, but that’s hardly the point– or what I want.  What I was looking for was a fun introduction to the types of music she often hears in our house.  When she says, “What are you listening to?”  I usually tell her, “Mozart,” or “Beethoven,” or whoever it is.  She says, “OK!”  And that’s it.  This book provides a better answer, and that’s what I wanted.

So let’s look at that better answer.  In this book, there are three little mice who are going to the symphony, each with varying levels of experience when it comes to orchestral music.  This allows them to have little conversations like this:

Mouse 1: “Who’s that guy coming on the stage?  Is he late?”

Mouse 2: “He’s not late!  He’s the conductor.”

Mouse 3: “The conductor gets to tell everybody else what to do.  He’s the director!”

The illustration shows the conductor coming out. The main text then explains more about the conductor, dynamics, and tempo, each in a clear block of text.  I love that arrangement, personally: the illustration captures the big picture, the mice discuss the situation, and the blocks of text act as sidebars, giving you the details in easy chunks.  The illustrations, created digitally by James Williamson on a tablet, have the look of pen and watercolour: they’re vivid, dynamic, and always excellent at singling out the focus for each page.  Now, for us, the Changeling isn’t quite up to dynamics and tempo yet unless she’s in the mood for a really slow and curious read, so I generally skip them.  The arrangement of the text makes it very easy to focus along with the visuals and customize your reading to your child’s level.

The next page introduces the symphony itself, Symphony No. 5 in C Minor by Beethoven, and this is where the real fun starts for the kids.  They get to press buttons!  Well, technically they already got to press the button for “tuning,” but honestly that one usually seems less intriguing to the Changeling– as it ought, I think!  For the rest, you get to hear different aspects of the symphony.  First, you hear the first few bars of the symphony played straight.  Then, it breaks down: the main theme, different instruments from the orchestra, melody and harmony, a little conversation between instruments, etc.  This is what the Changeling loves best.  For example: “Can I press ‘Theme’?  What’s a ‘Theme’?  The theme is the main idea!”  And then I feel very proud because she associates the button with the name of the section and the little block of text.  Good girl!  You’re being indoctrinated properly!

I’m only half joking.  There’s a certain element of memorization that goes on with this book.  Each page has a quick definition of “Orchestra,” “Strings,” “Melody,” and so on.  The music and illustrations bring those definitions to life, and it’s impossible to say at such a young age how much of that really penetrates, and how much is simple association with pressing the button and hearing.  Presumably there’s some memorization, and some understanding, just as with adults, really.  In other words, I’m not particularly bothered by her understanding of “harmony,” but the fact that she’s curious and enjoys pressing the button ten times to hear what it sounds like is great (sort of).

Either way, she’s getting better answers to her questions than she was getting before: more depth, more definition, and more entertainment along with them, and she’s gaining new sources of enjoyment.  As far as I’m concerned, that’s a book’s job: opening new worlds and stretching your mind.  She’s being welcomed into the world of symphonic music, and having a lot of fun along the way.