The Composer Is Dead

composerdeadSnicket, Lemony. The Composer Is Dead.  Carson Ellis, Illustrator.  Music by Nathaniel Stookey.  New York: Harper Collins, 2009.

This week the Georgetown Symphony Society season begins.  The Round Rock Symphony opens the season with Mozart’s Symphony No. 39, E flat Major, K.543, Haydn’s Cello Concerto, C Major, and Shostakovich’s  Symphony No. 9, E flat Major, opus 70.

Do you know one thing that Mozart, Haydn and Shostakovich have in common?  They were all great composers, but now they are decomposing¹.  Orchestra everywhere play their music.  Do they make or murder the pieces?  Go to a symphony and see for yourself.

An excellent book to celebrate the beginning of symphony season is Lemony Snicket’s The Composer Is Dead.   It is his contribution to the corpus of work on the orchestra instruments and how they sound. What a tutorial it is! He has written this ode to the orchestra with the same droll cynicism that you find in his A Series of Unfortunate Events.  As you might suppose, the story begins with a dead composer. Here’s the opening salvo.

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 notes 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.

The police are called and an inspector arrives to detect.  This fussy inspector declares he will find the Composer’s enemies “wherever they are lurking.” He interrogates the strings, the brass and the percussion. As he does, each instrument is described. Each instrument has a story about its contribution to an orchestral piece.

I was enchanted the first time I read this book.  While the language is lyrical at times and the descriptions are amusing, without musical examples the book would not be useful as an orchestra tutorial. The author had an excellent plan and insidious plan.  He collaborated with the live, not decomposing, composer Nathaniel Stookey to provide the musical information needed to make this book complete. A CD provided with the book has the author reading the book in performance with the San Francisco Symphony.

Does the inspector catch the culprit?  You will have to read the book to see.  Here’s the end of the story.

“Those who want justice,” said the orchestra, “can go to the police.  But those who want something a little more interesting …should go to the orchestra!”

Here is a YouTube video featuring the author, composer and orchestra.  It is a teaser to recommend this book to you.

If you are looking or an orchestral adventure to find out how orchestras are treating composers, here is a listing of local symphonies.

¹Snicket, Lemony. The Composer Is Dead. New York: Harper Collins, 2009, p. 3.


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