"Dear Uncle, something terrible has happened. A madman has moved into our house!" So begins "Beethoven Lives Upstairs," winner of Canada's Juno award for best children's recording and part of the exceptional new "Classical Kids" audiocassette series.
The first offerings in the series, "Beethoven Lives Upstairs" and "Mr. Bach Comes to Visit," draw children into another century with entertaining and literate biographical drama, featuring a child as the central character.
Each composer's music--a rich selection of familiar and unfamiliar works--is interwoven into the story and comes alive, demystified and accessible.
Creator Susan Hammond, a pianist, mother and teacher, designed the series to "take classical music out of its black clothes and have it speak naturally to children, the way it was first heard.
"Children, especially, experience music on an emotional level," Hammond said from her home in Canada, "not an intellectual one. For some reason, we treat classical music with a hands-off approach and we lose so much. Music was not composed in that spirit."
In "Mr. Bach Comes to Call," the composer has taken a time trip to the present to visit a young piano student. "Mr. Bach explains his music with joy and love and fun," Hammond said.
With Beethoven, Hammond and writer Barbara Nichol get "closer to the music and the man. "We try to wrap a whole culture around the music, open up an un-20th-Century world." Young listeners are also gradually made aware of the tragedy of Beethoven's deafness. The recording ends with his funeral.
Death "is part of life," Hammond said. "We're showing the glow of what was left because that person lived. They see the sadness, but they see what was left behind.
"Dry facts won't lead children to classical music," she added. "They've got to feel it. We want kids to like these composers, enjoy their humor, and life. The heart follows the mind."
Hammond said the cassettes are structured "in layers of meaning and complexity. A 5-year-old loves the drama. Ages 6 or 7 and up will notice a particular piece."
A third release, "Mozart's Magic Fantasy," due out in late January, takes yet another tack. It's "a wild romp through 'The Magic Flute,' " Hammond said.
Available on the Children's Group/BMG label at Tower Records, the Wherehouse and Children's Book and Music Center in Santa Monica. Cassette: $9.98. CD: $14.98.