a list of…five “noteworthy” books with a measure of music!

Today’s blog is in celebration of my daughter Marit’s senior violin recital!  Congratulations, sweetheart!  In honor of you and your love of music, here are five titles featuring masterful musicians for all of us to enjoy.  (Well.  One is about pigs.)


The Philharmonic Gets Dressed, by Karla Kuskin, illustrations by Marc Simont

It is almost Friday night.  Outside, the dark is getting darker and the cold is getting colder.  Inside, lights are coming on in houses and apartment buildings.  And here and there, uptown and downtown and across the bridges of the city, one hundred and five people are getting dressed to go to work.

There are a lot of different ways 105 people can get dressed.

Some shower, some take bubble baths, some shave, some trim beards.  They put on all sorts of different kinds of underwear!  Mercy me.

Curiously, however, all of these 105 people wind up by putting on black clothes.  Black pants, black bow ties, black jackets; black sweaters and dresses and skirts.

One man does things a bit differently.  He puts on a white bow tie.  Very large.  And his black jacket swoops way down in the back and divides in two.  His shirt has ruffles down the front, and whereas all the other people carry oddly-shaped cases to work, this man carries a slim leather briefcase.  They carry these cases in cabs and cars and subways and buses, as they travel to their work in the middle of the city.

Of course, all these people are the musicians and conductor in the Philharmonic Orchestra, and as they gather themselves on stage we see that these 105 people “dressed completely in black and white have gone to work turning the black notes on the white pages into a symphony.”

This is a delightful, clever, unusual perspective on the orchestra which my kids have loved.  Marc Simont has brilliantly illustrated this, with dozens and dozens of cameos of various orchestra members in their preparations, all highly individual until the moment they begin to make music on stage, at which point their individuality fades into a wonderful collaboration of beautiful music.

The Dog Who Sang at the Opera, written by Jim West and Marshall Izen, illustrated by Erika Oller

Pasha is an elegant and, yes, hoity-toity, Russian wolfhound, who lives in New York City with her owner, Shirley.  Shirley works at the Metropolitan Opera House, and one day she greets Pasha with the rapturous news that a beautiful dog is needed on stage for a big festival scene and Pasha is the chosen one!

But of course.

Pasha is petted and fawned over by the director of the opera and fitted out with a beautiful, sparkling necklace.  Even as the diva practices her magnificent aria, Pashs is convinced that everyone’s eyes are fixed upon her.  In her dreams that night, Pasha is actually the diva, receiving the adulation of her fans.

Finally it is opening night.  Pasha takes her place on stage.  But, what is this?  The diva is singing about being a queen!  I am the real queen here, thinks Pasha.

So.  Pasha begins to sing along with the diva.

Quietly first, then louder and louder, Pasha sings…or howls.  The audience begins to laugh.  And then…unbelievably…Shirley is pulling her off the stage!  The director is hopping mad!  The costume lady takes back her sparkly necklace.  Pasha is unwelcome on stage.

Pasha’s moment on stage is not a total flop however.  She does get an article about herself in several newspapers, and a nice letter from the diva herself.  Shirley loves her still, and she can listen to the opera on the radio every Saturday afternoon, dreaming of her moment of glory.

This book is based on a true story!  The incident occured at the New York Metropolitan Opera in 1997, when Renee Fleming was singing in the opera Manon, and an on-stage wolfhound named Pasha really did begin to sing along!  Photos of Ms. Fleming, the real Pasha, Ms. Fleming’s letter and a newspaper excerpt are included in the book.  Illustrations are dreamy watercolors —  just the right touch for Pasha’s illusions of grandeur!

The Fabulous Feud of Gilbert and Sullivan, by Jonah Winter, pictures by Richard Egielski

During the reign of Queen Victoria, two men worked together to create more than a dozen English operas, featuring pirates and policemen, witty lines and fabulous music.  Their names were William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan.  And they were as different as night and day.

In fact, they were so different that they had a peck of trouble getting along, what with Mr. Gilbert filling his stories and lyrics with ridiculous puns and topsy-turvy plot lines, and Mr. Sullivan yearning for the opportunity to write serious music to accompany serious words!

Well.  Mr. Sullivan finally put his foot down and told Mr. Gilbert he wouldn’t write any more music unless Mr. Gilbert came up with something tantalizing and new.  Mr. Gilbert was stumped…until he happened upon a Japanese street fair and a Japanese play featuring the most exotic, colorful, fascinating actors he’d ever seen.

Gilbert rushed to work at incorporating these Oriental elements into a new opera, and happily, Mr. Sullivan was completely enthralled with the story.  Soon, the silken robes, black wigs, and foreign persons with names like Nanki-Poo and Ko-Ko were gracing the stage in London as The Mikado played for enthusiastic audiences.  It remains their most famous opera.

Winter’s account of Gilbert and Sullivan is juicy with details, yet simple enough for very young children to enjoy.  Egielski’s vivid, cheery artwork energizes the story, creates the Victorian world as well as the fantasy world of the opera, and even incorporates clever hints of the varied artists who inspired him.

Dark Fiddler: The Life and Legend of Nicolo Paganini, by Aaron Frisch, illustrated by Gary Kelley

Nicolo Paganini was born in 1872 in Italy.  As a young child, his harsh father began forcing him to play the violin, and soon Nicolo showed the signs of his unusual musical gifting.

By age 13 he was hailed as a child prodigy.  He composed music, invented new bow strokes, and played with unheard of virtuosity like a madcap spirit.  He dazzled.  He stunned.  He improvised.  He practiced ghastly numbers of hours a day.  When he finally toured Europe, concert houses were filled to overflowing hours before the music began.

Paganini had very nearly died as an infant, and his illness left him with a sickly nature and loose joints, which actually worked in his favor as he fingered and bowed like wildfire.  His crazed, unhappy life and poor health finally caught up with him, however, and he died at the age of 57.  He spurned religion to his dying breath and left behind a host of whispered rumors about the condition of his soul.

This short, spellbinding biography of perhaps the greatest violinist ever is marked by the eerie, dark loneliness of Paganini’s life.  Kelley’s riveting artwork with its almost cubist styling, captures the shadows that haunted Paganini despite the glorious music he produced.  Further biographical information is included.  An interesting, melancholy look at the incredible toll that musical genius took on this man’s life.

Garth Pig Steals the Show, story and illustrations by Mary Rayner

Mr. and Mrs. Pig and their ten piglets have decided to form their own band.  To that end, each of the piglets is valiantly practicing an instrument — from violins to the triangle.  Father Pig is the conductor; Mother Pig sings.  They are sounding so good that the mayor asks them to do a benefit concert at the town hall!  The only glitch is, they don’t have enough bass notes in their ensemble, for all the little piggies are too small to play the larger, deeper instruments.

So, Mr. Pig takes out an advert for someone who can play the double bass…or cello…or tuba…whatever.  And, just in the nick of time, a tall lady appears with her sousaphone ready to help out.  She is a bit obscured behind her very large instrument case…which is possibly why Father Pig doesn’t notice her wolfish looks.  Is she willing to play gratis, just to help pigs?  Of course, the lady says.  “Nothing I like better than a helping of pig.”  Yikes.

How the wolf-in-concert-attire slyly seats herself in the back row of the family band, how Garth mysteriously disappers in the midst of the concert, how William, Garth’s trumpet-playing brother, spots the trouble and devises a shrewd plan to rescue Garth, and how the band’s unswerving devotion to The-Conductor-and-his-Baton results in a little pig being dramatically blown out of a sousaphone to the thunderous applause of the audience…well, that is the exciting story in this book!

Mary Rayner’s pig family stories have been favorites of ours through the years.  Wonderfully illustrated, unswervingly exciting, featuring valiant older siblings who may occasionally torment the younger ones but always come through in a pinch.  What more can you ask for?

[photo credit: Caytlin and Marit, by Shayna Frankenfield]

Amazon links:
The Philharmonic Gets Dressed (Reading Rainbow Books)
The Dog Who Sang at the Opera
The Fabulous Feud Of Gilbert And Sullivan
Dark Fiddler: The Life and Legend of Nicolo Paganini (Creative Editions)
Garth Pig Steals the Show