Lemony Snicket and Daniel Handler - The Composer Is Dead

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Who Killed the Composer? Only Lemony Snicket Knows for Sure

Mar 17, 2009 (Updated May 25, 2009)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Educational & entertaining - includes an audio recording.

Cons:Some jokes a bit sophisticated for preschoolers - doesn't hurt the overall story,though.

The Bottom Line: This humorous mystery is the backdrop for teaching about the jobs of the various instruments in the orchestra.  Clever and funny.


Welcome back, Lemony Snicket!  Alas, Mr. Snicket is apparently once again obsessed with not-so-happy plots reminiscent of those in his popular Series of Unfortunate Events books.  This time, the devious plot occurs in picture book form in the world of the orchestra.  And what is the unfortunate event?  The Composer is Dead.


Who Killed the Composer?
 
The guy is definitely dead.  Of that there is no doubt.  And now the inspector must solve the mystery.  Who is the murderer?  The most logical suspects:  orchestra members.  The inspector interrogates them section by section:

- The strings, including the first and second violins (the firsts carry the melody, but the seconds are "more fun at parties"), the cellos, the basses, and the violas;
- The woodwinds, including the flutes doing their interminable bird imitations, the sneaky clarinets, and the oboe;
- The brass, including the trumpets (who, at the time of the murder, were busy leading a parade), French horns, and the trombones (who spent the night at a club, drinking and dancing the hours away);
- The percussion, including the drums, cymbals, and xylophone (who all had an even better time at that party than the brass);
- Meanwhile, the tuba was at home playing cards with the harp - a truly odd couple, but what the heck!

Everyone has an alibi - except the conductor!  Yes, conductors always murder composers.  After all, aren't most famous composers whose works have been led by conductors dead?  The inspector rattles off a list of 43 composers, including:
- Beethoven - dead!
- Schubert - unfinished, but dead!
- Schoenberg - incomprehensible, bit dead! 
And so on...

The orchestra defends the conductor, claiming, "all of us have butchered a composer at one time or another."  The inspector is thwarted by that remark, but it's true, after all.


Humor
 
Snicket's narration is humorous.  I'm not sure the 4 to 8 year-old target audience will catch all of the jokes ("incomprehensible" Schoenberg a case in point), but the book is entertaining nonetheless.  His irreverent definition of a composer starts off the fun:

"...a person who sits in a room, muttering and humming and figuring out what notes 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.
 
The illustrations by Carson Ellis carry through the humorous mood.  As each type of instrument is introduced, it appears in silhouette.  Surrounding drawings relate to the type of music or occasion suited to the instrument.  For example, the flutes are surrounded by birds, the violins by waltzing couples, etc. 

The time periods are inconsistent.  The inspector is dressed in clothing reminiscent of early 1900's; the waltzing folks appear to be from an earlier time; and the dancers in the club sport styles reminiscent of the 1940's.  It doesn't matter - it's all fun.

The predominant colors are golds, browns, tans, and pale orange shades.  No bright colors jumping off the pages.


The CD
 
The book comes with a quality CD recording.  The first 9 tracks feature Snicket reading the story with music composed by Nathaniel Stookey (evidently not the dead composer in the book title) and performed by the San Francisco Symphony.  The second 9 tracks feature the music on its own.

The music is really quite good, and highlights all of the instruments.  When the list of dead composers is read, snippets of their music can be heard.  Ominous tones help announce the fact that The Composer is Dead.  From that point, as each section of instruments is interrogated by the inspector, it adds the appropriate sounds to the music, skillfully building into a unified piece of orchestration.  It's interesting to hear how clearly one can distinguish each instrument playing its part as the sounds are blended.

Snicket's oral interpretation of his story is vocally animated and delightful, and there are a few added lines that aren't in the printed text.  Even with some challenging vocabulary (normal for Snicket), the author's reading aloud makes the story understandable, even for preschoolers.

 
Final Comments

This book uses the funny plot to introduce the job of the various instruments of the orchestra.  Presented as a mystery, it's still an educational rendering of the information.  Overall, it's a fun book and an even more fun listening experience. 

Will Snicket's clever presentation of the instruments of the orchestra one day rival Benjamin Britten's Young People's Guide to the Orchestra or Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf?  Who knows...but Snicket's picture book and the accompanying CD are both a delight.


Recommend this product? Yes

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