Read On! A Classical (Book) Guide For Kids

At my house, amidst the buzzing-hive joy and chaos of everyday life, you will find two constants: music being played and books being read.  Every now and then, the twain meet, and we’re always happy to find a great children’s book about classical music.  I love them because they meet kids on their level, making classical music fun, interesting, and most importantly, approachable.  Here are three of our favorites.  We hope they’ll find their way into your home!

zinzinzinZin! Zin! Zin! A Violin! (Lloyd Moss, ages 4-8) For many years I listened to the rich baritone of Lloyd Moss, the much-beloved program host on WQXR. Little did I know that one day I would be reading his wonderful book to my children. Written in witty rhyme, the story highlights each member of an orchestra as they enter the stage for a concert.  Children will learn to identify each instrument, and may even remember the musical terms for each successive grouping (solo, duo, trio, quartet etc.). The Caldecott Honor-receiving illustrations by Marjorie Priceman are colorful and energetic- if you look closely, each player resembles their instrument! Two cats, a dog, and a mouse add to the fun with their onstage antics.

berliozBerlioz The Bear (Jan Brett, ages 4-8) Could there be a better name for a bear musician?  We were already big fans of this wonderful author and illustrator and were thrilled to discover her charming story about Berlioz, a nattily dressed, double-bass playing bear who is beleaguered by a strange buzzing sound in his instrument just before his orchestra is to play a big concert.  In Berlioz’s ursine group are a French horn player, a violinist, a clarinetist, bass drum player and trombonist.  After a hole in the road sidelines the bears’ “bandwagon” and threatens to make them late to their performance, many friends try to help…but the buzzing ends up saving the day!   I asked my five-year-old daughter what she likes the best about Berlioz The Bear, and she replied that seeing all the animals go into the town square to get ready for the concert is her favorite (Brett’s page-border illustrations add a particularly wonderful element to the story). She also likes that the orchestra plays “Flight of the Bumblebee” for their encore, noting that “it’s fast and sounds like a bumblebee”. It’s also a fitting homage to the hero of the story.

39aptsThe 39 Apartments of Ludwig van Beethoven (Jonah Winter, ages 4-9) Not only did Beethoven own five pianos, he owned five legless pianos.  Apparently the composer enjoyed composing on the floor!  Music history tells us that Beethoven lived in 39 apartments over the course of his life, but this funny, quirky story surmises exactly why he moved so many times (A stinky cheese smell? Fraülein Hausfrau couldn’t take the noise?). I crack up every time I see the illustration of baby Ludwig emitting some suspiciously famous-sounding cries: Wah wah wah waaah!  Barry Blitt’s illustrations are wonderful, and since Beethoven was such a genius it makes sense that he is depicted with an oversized cranium.

musiciansWhen we’ve worn these three ragged, I’m looking forward to diving into Lives of the Musicians: Good Times, Bad Times (and What the Neighbors Thought) by Kathleen Krull and illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt (another artist fond of enlarging composers’ heads!). Short chapters and engaging pictures are sure to provide another wonderful window into the lives of composers.  Bonus: I learn a lot, too!

Happy Wednesday, dear Revelers!

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Mother Moat’s Art

To my delight yesterday, WQXR (please let us do a late-night infomercial for you someday!) played a Mozart piece tortuously titled, “12 Variations in C Major on “Ah vous dirai-je, Maman”, K. 265.” Now, the reader (s) of our blog will know what the K stands for, and it’s not potassium. Mozart’s title was “Zwölf Variationen in C über das französische Lied „Ah, vous dirai-je Maman“ KV 265.” I note, uselessly, that the English translation drops the modifying phrase “the French song,” probably because the title of the song is in French. In other words, duh, Mozart.

This is a lovely little piece (I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything Wolfie wrote that wasn’t lovely, but still) that I think is great for kids and is also exemplary employment of theme and variation. Don’t forget that Sibling Variation 1 (or does that make her the theme?) wrote a guide to classical music for kids!

What, exactly, is this so-called French children’s song, “Ah, vous dirai-je, Maman”? Melodically, most listeners will hear it as “Twinkle, twinkle, little star” though the tune is also used for asking black sheep how much wool they have and reciting the alphabet. Now, “Twinkle, twinkle” is a staple of childhood bedrooms across the land, and with good reason (staring up at the stars and wondering about life has sparked a lot of creativity in humans over the millennia and should be encouraged). But the lyrics of the French song are, in my mind, quite hilarious. Noting the formal “vous,” the song basically boils down to: candy > grown-up stuff. And that’s hard to argue with, most days. Et mais oui, one would never tutoyer when speaking grandly of candy’s value!

Ah ! Vous dirai-je Maman

Ce qui cause mon tourment ?

Papa veut que je raisonne

Comme une grande personne

Moi je dis que les bonbons

Valent mieux que la raison.

Oh! Shall I tell you, Mommy

What is tormenting me?

Daddy wants me to reason

Like a grown-up person,

Me, I say that sweets

Are worth more than reasoning.

So which came first, French candy theory or English astronomy? It would appear that Gaul is the origin in this case. According to a couple of Internet sources (not pretending to scholarship here), the tune was first published in Paris in 1761 without words.

Mozart’s variations on this theme were first published in Vienna in 1785. Here is Walter Gieseking playing the piece:

You have to love the appearance of the minor key after 3:00 (de rigueur in theme & variation)! And I swear there are small Bach quotes after 4:00 (one of the few composers the little genius actually acknowledged as also having talent). But whether your bag is Mozart, theme/variation, or candy, this is a fine piece for your listening pleasure.

Play On! A Classical Guide For Kids

Getting your kids soaked in classical from an early age is a wonderful thing (provided they enjoy it, of course).  I’m sure there are loads of studies out there on the Inter-Webs or housed in dusty university libraries that will support my hypothesis:  classical music is really, really good for your kids’ rapidly developing brains.

My daughter definitely enjoys classical, and it’s been a joy to watch her absorb it.  We have played it for her literally since the day she was born.  She likes it as a background while playing, reading and eating breakfast and lunch, and will also request it when we’re in the car (if she’s not in a Raffi, Harry Connick Jr. or the new Broadway cast recording of Cinderella state of mind).  We took her to see a chamber performance of Peter and the Wolf, and they had an “instrument petting zoo” afterwards.  I have made it my mission to teach her that worlds of incredible music exist that have absolutely nothing to do with ridiculous purple dinosaurs or strange men from Australia.

I prefer, even for babies, classical recordings featuring the actual instruments for which the piece was written.  In other words, not Brahms’ Lullaby played on the vibraphone.  In my mind you’re never too young to hear a flute, an oboe or a cello.  (Word to the wise: Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor sounds absolutely ridiculous on a vibraphone. Trust me.)

To me, one of the best things about classical music is that there is SO much of it.  There are worlds of Haydn and Boccherini and Smetana that I have yet to discover.  It’s nice to know that there will always be something new to hear, and as a parent, that makes weaving classical into your child’s life that much more exciting.  Below you’ll find what might be floating around our house, broken down into some very practical categories. Enjoy!

Music For The Sunrise: Grieg, “Morning Mood  From Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite, this opener is delicate and lush.  It will also cause you to wonder if you’ve heard it in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. 

Music For Tickling: Mozart, Rondo alla Turca  Who knew classical piano could tickle you? Give it a try!

Music For Rainy Days: Chopin, Nocturne Opus 9 No. 1 in B-flat minor  All of Chopin’s nocturnes are perfect for days when rain is coursing down your windows, but I’ve always found this one particularly evocative.

Music For Stomping: Debussy, “Golliwog’s Cakewalk”  The last movement of the wonderful six-movement “Children’s Corner Suite”.  A golliwog is an old-fashioned doll, and a cakewalk is…well, I just hope it involves actual cake.  Ooh, it does!  Thanks, Wikipedia!

Music For Running In Circles: Beethoven, Rondo a capriccio  Evgeny Kissin and his hair engulf the piano keys in flames in this live performance.  No need for running in circles, I’m exhausted just watching him.

Music For Laughing:  J. Strauss, Adele’s Laughing Aria (from “Die Fledermaus”) Sibling the Younger may or may not remember listening to this as children while jumping recklessly on my bed (and yes, laughing) when we were supposed to be sleeping.  It’s just that kind of piece.

Music For Hide-and-Seek: Britten, Simple Symphony, second movement, “Playful Pizzicato”  This piece is so much fun and has great texture.  Ready…get set…here I come!

Music For Flying:  Wagner, “Ride of the Valkyries (from “Die Walküre”)  And what a ride this is!  It’s SO powerful. Serendipitously, it saves you from sitting through the entirety of the opera “Die Walküre”, which is five hours long.

Music For Hurrying:  Rossini, Finale to the William Tell Overture  One afternoon, my daughter and I were trying to get to our local recycling center before it closed, and we were running behind.  I turned on the radio and of COURSE this was playing.  Hilarious.  We made it.

Music For Winding Down: Satie, Gymnopédie No. 1  So, so lovely.  I never tire of hearing those plaintive notes.

Music For Tiptoeing:  Grieg, “Anitra’s Dance  Henrik Ibsen wrote the play “Peer Gynt” (for which Grieg wrote the incidental music).  Being a thief, Anitra definitely needed to tiptoe!

Music For Stargazing: Holst, The Planets, second movement, “Venus”  One of my neighbors is a very bright sixth-grader for whom the universe holds great fascination and mystery.  This one’s for you!  It’s cool, quiet and perfect for picking out constellations.