The Extraordinary Music of Mr. Ives: The True Story of a Famous American Composer
Written and Illustrated by Joanne Stanbridge
(Houghton Mifflin Books for Children, 2012, Boston, $16.99)
On May 7, 1915, a German torpedo sunk the Lusitania, an ocean liner en route from New York to Liverpool. Over a thousand innocent civilians died, and on both sides of the Atlantic, people reeled in shock and grief. In New York, a businessman and composer named Charles Ives struggled to make sense of the attack. On the way home from his office, on a train station platform, he heard an organ grinder play “In the Sweet By and By,” a popular hymn. One bystander began to sing the familiar lyrics; soon, others joined him. Before long, New Yorkers of all backgrounds were singing together, putting aside their differences to express their collective grief through music. Later, Ives incorporated snatches of the hymn in a piece he composed about the event: “From Hanover Square North, at the End of a Tragic Day, the Voice of the People Again Arose.”
In The Extraordinary Music of Mr. Ives, Joanne Stanbridge explores this magical, poignant moment in American musical history. Her prose, when she relates Ives’s experiences on the train platform, often reaches poetic heights: “Up the song flows, into the evening sky, rolling out across the ocean, to the sadness on the other side.” Her account captures music’s ability to express what words cannot. Those reading the story aloud may have to suppress their own tears at this juncture.
If Stanbridge’s narrative is strongest when she describes New Yorkers grieving together, her illustrations are the most powerful when she imagines scenes from the Lusitania’s sinking. As no text accompanies these spreads, readers do not know, until they read the book’s afterword, whether these images depict what happened aboard the ship or whether they reflect what Ives might have imagined about passengers’ frantic struggle for survival. The deck tilts, and wide-eyed children leap into lifeboats. These are, surely, among the most startling images in a children’s picture book.
So arresting are Stanbridge’s depiction of the ship’s sinking and her account of its New York aftermath that her discussion, near the end, of Ives’s influences on 20th century music jars. This information, while interesting, would have been better suited to the book’s afterword. However, The Extraordinary Music of Mr. Ives is an extraordinary look at an oft-forgotten chapter of American’s history and music’s ability to heal.
-Dorothy A. Dahm