De-Composing: The Composer Is Dead by Lemony Snicket
Daniel Handler, a.k.a. Lemony Snicket, says that the impetus for his new book, The Composer Is Dead (Book & CD) was the desire to supersede the standard Peter and the Wolf as the favorite medium for educating elementary music students about the instruments of the orchestra.
Back in the day, my elementary class didn't even get to see Peter and the Wolf. Instead, we sat through several run-throughs of a low-fi recording of "Rusty in Orchestraville," a not-very-scintillating drama through which we (well, some of us, anyway) learned the sounds of each section in the musical aggregation. This album came in two parts--a record with the story of poor Rusty, working his way through the strings, woodwinds, percussion, and brass, apparently in an effort to escape from Orchestraville, I presume, and, the most exciting part, a second record, with narrow grooved tracks featuring each orchestral instrument for us to prove our ability to identify each by its distinctive sound. This latter teaching material was made gleefully suspenseful by our teacher's attempts to drop the needle on the right track while it whizzed around on the turntable at a dizzying 78 rpm. But I digress.
Only Lemony Snicket, creator of the notorious A Series of Unfortunate Events books, would stoop to opening his music education thriller by pulling out that old, er, musical saw (What do composers do when they die? Decompose.) and turning it into a premise for a study of the modern orchestra. But then, only Mr. Snicket would have the, er, brass to try to pull that one off.
The composer is dead.
"Composer is a word which here means "a person who sits in a room muttering and humming and figuring out what note the orchestra is going to play."
This is called composing. But last night the composer was not muttering. He was not humming. He was not moving. Or even breathing.
This is called decomposing.
To investigate the suspicious death of the composer, the mustachioed Inspector appears to interrogate the last group to see the deceased alive--the orchestra. Systematically, he questions each section about what they know and where they were in the fateful hours surrounding the death. He begins with the strings, particularly those divas of the orchestra, the violins, "the first violins, who have the trickier parts to play, and the second violins, who are more fun at parties."
"We were performing a waltz, which kept us busy all night."
"AHA!" said the Inspector. "Perhaps you murdered the composer for making you play so much!"
"Don't be ridiculous!" the violins said. "Violins are the stars of the orchestra. If we killed the Composer, we would have to find work at square dances or in romantic restaurants!"
The Inspector questions the cellos and basses and then, just as he turns away, remembers something.
"Oh!--the violas! What about you?"
"Everyone forgets about us," said the violas bitterly. "We play the notes and the chords no one cares about. We play crucial counter melodies that no one hears. We have to stay late after performances and stack up all the chairs."
In fact, it seems every instrument in the orchestra has some weak alibi or outstanding grievance against the Composer that make each one a suspect. But then, an even more likely culprit presents himself to the Inspector:
"Of course!" the Inspector said. "The conductor!! You have been murdering composers for years. In fact, wherever there is a conductor, you're sure to find a dead composer!
J. C. Bach....... dead!
C. P. E. Bach...... dead!
J. S. Bach...... dead!
Schubert......Unfinished, but dead!"
But as Snicket finally deduces, orchestras and conductors murder composers all the time. More importantly, however, they also keep them alive for generations to enjoy, and that's the theme of this little musical morality play. Together Lemony Snicket and Nathaniel Stookey capture the characteristic sounds of each instrument and make them memorable for the student--and, unlike "Rusty in Orchestraville," all without requiring any riveting feats of hand-to-eye coordination from the music teacher.
Included with the book is a CD of Snicket's impassioned reading of The Composer Is Dead (Book & CD), performing his text to Nathaniel Stookey's original score played by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra--including the violas, should you have the trained ear to hear them.* A visual peek at this black tie event can be seen here.
This book and CD combination is destined to become a staple of elementary music education, allowing Rusty (one hopes) finally to Rust In Peace.
*And thanks to Rusty and that fearless teacher so long ago, I can!