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I wanted to like Peter and the Wolf as a child. I really did. Sergey Prokofiev’s classic composition tells the story of a young Soviet boy named Peter who captures a wolf and convinces a band of hunters to send it to the zoo. The piece is often used to introduce young children to the orchestra because each of its characters is represented by a different musical instrument—the horns signal the entrance of the brash, violent wolf, while the curiously gentle Peter is personified by the string section. My grandparents had the Opéra de Lyon recording narrated by Patrick Stewart in the CD cabinet under their television. It’s entirely possible that I had a short attention span as a child, but I just didn’t find Peter and the Wolf all that compelling. I remember trying to engage the story, but eventually losing interest and becoming terrifically bored. Lemony Snicket agrees with me.
Snicket’s most recent work, The Composer is Dead, is not only a book ($17.99 from HarperCollins) but also an entire symphony: a collaboration with Snicket’s close high school friend, esteemed composer Nathaniel Stookey. The book is packaged with a CD, included on the inside cover. Playing the CD while reading the book yields a combined musical and literary experience somewhat similar to Peter and the Wolf. Snicket (writer Daniel Handler’s pseudonym) is best known as the mysterious author responsible for chronicling the lives of the Baudelaire orphans in his bestselling novels, A Series of Unfortunate Events. His macabre tone and instructive, almost educational commentary have distinguished him as a unique voice in children’s literature.
According to Snicket, the collaboration came about when he and Stookey ran into each other completely by chance after both moving back to San Francisco. “I was actually giving another interview in an outdoor café,” says Snicket, “and there came Nathaniel Stookey ... It was, in fact, such the perfect moment that the interviewer thought I’d set it up.”
Stookey, who served as resident composer under Kent Nagano with the Hallé Orchestra of Manchester, England, had returned to San Francisco after a three-year stint as composer-in-residence with the North Carolina Symphony.
After their fortuitous meeting, Stookey asked Snicket to narrate a performance of Peter and the Wolf for the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. “As I prepared for the performance,” says Snicket, “I thought, ‘beautiful music, bad story. Surely we can do better.’” With that in mind, he and Stookey set out to create a story that had the same purpose as Peter and the Wolf—introducing the orchestra to those who are unfamiliar with it. Their collaboration, though, would have a better narrative to accompany the music.
Snicket expounds on the ways he thought Peter and the Wolf could be improved, saying, “Mostly my problems are: a) with the insipid story of Peter and the Wolf, and that b), even though Peter and the Wolf sets out to teach people about various parts of the orchestra, if you don’t know anything about the symphony orchestra and you leave a performance of Peter and Wolf, I think you would be unable to identify the sound of a French horn ... The Composer is Dead makes that [the sound] clear.”
While teaching the components of a classical orchestra is a tall order, Snicket and Stookey deliver beautifully. Stookey admits that it was a huge challenge to compose a score that invited comparison to Prokofiev’s classic. Even so, in The Composer is Dead, he undauntedly displays his talent through short pieces designed to highlight the abilities of each instrumental section. Snicket sprinkles the narrative with his trademark wacky alliteration and vocabulary lessons. As true Snicket fans will notice, the book’s second sentence follows a formula he perfected in A Series of Unfortunate Events: it presents a vocabulary word, followed by the phrase “a word which here means” and a practical definition. As the story opens to a brassy overture of horns and woodwinds, a composer is sprawled out on his desk. The vain inspector, voiced in the book’s accompanying CD by Snicket himself, proceeds to interview each section of the orchestra to uncover the truth behind the murder.
What makes The Composer is Dead such a meaningful departure from Peter and the Wolf is the way Snicket’s wry, satirical libretto—a word which here means “the text of an opera or other long vocal work”—not only describes, but also personifies the instrumental sections. The much-acclaimed first violins sing with confidence as they play a waltz at a society ball. The long-suffering, underappreciated violas bemoan their fate to stacked chairs after rehearsal. Snicket and Stookey don’t just match instruments with the sounds they make—they show how the other parts of the orchestra and the audience perceive instruments. The story almost reads like a well-constructed series of inside jokes about musicians united around a murder.
The Composer is Dead not only introduces its audience to the orchestra, but also promotes a love of classical music. Snicket describes the need for the promotion of intellectual pursuits, saying, “They’re both [literature and classical music] somewhat beleaguered art forms currently often overlooked in favor of newer, flashier media ... The Composer is Dead tries to make those things perhaps a little less old-fashioned.” These words echo Snicket’s similar plugs for reading and independent thinking that appear in A Series of Unfortunate Events. In those books, the Baudelaire orphans often save their own lives through a combination of reading and clever ingenuity. Readers sympathize with learned, well-read characters while villains are depicted as ignorant, close-minded hoodlums.
While The Composer is Dead brilliantly accomplishes Snicket’s goal, I wonder exactly how much children today know about classical music. You may have seen a television ad campaign that promotes childhood engagement with the arts through fake products like “Raisin Brahms” and “van Goghgurt.” Americans for the Arts, the nonprofit organization partly responsible for the ads, claims that kids are not getting enough exposure to the arts inside or outside of school. If this is really the case, the future of the fine arts may depend on works like Snicket and Stookey’s more than we previously thought.
To personally assess the accuracy of this claim, I visited Bank Street Bookstore two Sundays ago, where I met six-year old Theo Haegele from Brooklyn browsing with his father and grandmother. When I asked him if he knew any of the instruments in an orchestra, he promptly mentioned the flute. Wanting to see just how far just how far his knowledge extended, I asked if he knew what a flute sounds like. Theo looked down and thought for a moment, then emitted a high-pitched whistling noise. Impressed that he not only knew about flutes but also could imitate one spot-on, I gratefully thanked him and his family and left.
Perhaps the fine arts aren’t as foreign to America’s youth as some educators and public service announcers would lead us to believe. At the same time, we in Morningside Heights forget that children around the country don’t have equal access to symphonies and theater. Books like The Composer is Dead or Anita Ganeri’s The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, to which Mr. Stookey has compared his and Snicket’s piece, expose children to music they may otherwise never have heard. “I think our objective was maybe more to instill love of this music, though, [rather] than understanding” says Stookey. “There’s only that much understanding you can get from something like this ... We were hoping to communicate that in some way that would make other people love it too.”
Rather than teach children something they might learn in an elementary school music class, The Composer is Dead shows children why their music teachers—and millions of other people—listen to and love classical music in the first place. For Snicket, there is an added benefit. “I think that as cultivating a love of literature and classical music, you kind of double your instances of having detachment and alienation from the modern world,” he says, “which is my idea of a good time.” What we have in the end is a case of reclusive sophisticates breeding smaller reclusive sophisticates.
There will naturally be some children who listen to The Composer is Dead and fail to become enchanted with the orchestra. I doubt I ever made it all the way through Peter and the Wolf. These children may instead fall in love with one of the newer, flashier forms of media Snicket mentions. Even so, the brilliance of what Snicket and Stookey have done lies in their ability to reveal the violent emotion and sheer feeling the orchestra can elicit at an age when children are perhaps most easily captivated by violence and drama. By hooking kids into a story they actually want to stick around for, the orchestra seems much less foreign and dated. Some people may find it depressing that today’s youth is more captivated by a homicide à la Law and Order than a story about nature. Even so, I might have finished Peter and the Wolf had something happened to keep me listening. There are no wolves near my grandparents’ house outside Detroit, but there are plenty of murders.
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