The sixth-graders strained to recall the name of the composer who suffered "ill health and sadness over the breakup with his ladyfriend named George Sand. He died in poverty and had Mozart's 'Requiem' sung at his funeral in Paris."
For 85 sixth-graders from throughout Southern California, Arizona and Texas, tough questions such as this one about Chopin (of course!) were part of the day's Academic Pentathlon, the first one in the nation aimed at sixth-graders, said Robert Peterson, Orange County schools superintendent.
For the finale of the Pentathlon, 11 teams took turns answering questions on the music of the 1800s.
It's not that the children gathered at the Orange County Department of Education building in Costa Mesa necessarily love classical music. Several said they had never heard it before last month. Others only recognized Beethoven and Tchaikovsky's works because they had watched Tom and Jerry cartoons. And some said they didn't want to hear it again after this weekend.
"I've had enough," said Eileen Rivera, 11, from Del Norte Elementary School in Ontario, Calif. Sharon Sergey, her coach, acknowledged that her student did not appear eager to listen to such music--"unless she has a gun to her head."
She is interested in music, Eileen said, "but not this music." Something more in the way of Madonna or Prince suits her better, she said.
"It's elevator music," complained Jeff Huang, a student from Bonita Canyon Elementary School in Irvine. Jolly S. Patel, from Fullerton's Topaz Elementary School, added, "I like Beethoven, but the modern is better." And what could be better than Beethoven? "Lionel Richie."
At Del Norte Elementary, the students were coached twice a week for about a month on the different subjects of the contest: math, science, social studies and communication skills, and then the biggie--the super quiz on music. Students from other schools said they studied daily before school, after school and then later at home.
For some, the rewards went beyond the satisfaction of doing a good job or learning something new.
"I didn't really come for this," said Fynn Sloyan, 11, who traveled from Tucson, Ariz., for the contest. His friend, Charles Deller, 12, chimed in: "It was a free trip to California. We came for the beach. And the girls."
But if the answers were any indication, most of the students had done their homework. They remembered, for example, that Tchaikovsky had had a nervous breakdown, which was reflected in the mood of his last symphony, the "Pathetique."
For the 26 students who traveled from Dallas to meet "a challenge," the prize was a first-place spot in the overall category. "We like to compete," explained Winston Power, superintendent of the Hiland School District and founder of the Texas Academic Decathlon, the high school version of the academic contest. Second overall winner went to Holaway Elementary School from Tucson, and third was Topaz Elementary School of Fullerton.