Music Book Review: Once Upon a Tune Stories from the Orchestra

DISCLOSURE: This post contains affiliate links. This means that I may earn a small commission (at no cost to you) if you make a purchase using my link.

This month’s Music Book Review is Once Upon a Tune: Stories from the Orchestra by James Mayhew.

Music and stories are inextricably linked. Songs tell a story, operas tell a story, even hymns and sacred choral works tell a story. Obviously these all have words that help us understand the stories they tell us. But what about music without words? Can and do they tell us stories?

The short answer is yes.

Orchestral music can paint a picture. I immediately think about Vivaldi’s Four Seasons where each of the seasons is clearly represented in music. Or Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, whose name gives away its subject matter. Listening to the music you can hear why the Symphony got its name. I was listening to a piece of music called Storm Wind by Kristina Arakelyan the other day, and even before I knew the title of the piece I knew that she was depicting stormy winds with the singer’s voices swirling around and around.

The book I am reviewing this month tells the stories behind some very well known pieces of music including The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas, The Flight of the Bumblebee by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and The William Tell Overture by Gioachino Rossini.

The book is presented as a normal short story collection – each tale follows one after the other. You can read one at a time or all of them in one go. They are fascinating, mythical, adventurous and fantastical tales, each one a stand alone story that you can read whether you know the piece of music it is based on or not. At the end your child might be inspired to seek out the piece of music the story is about and listen to it, to see if they can hear that story as they go along, or see that story playing out in their imagination as they listen.

James Mayhew is both the author and illustrator of this book, and he peppers the book liberally with beautiful illustrations, further showing the reader what is going on in the story – and let’s face it, for children books without pictures are a bit rubbish, aren’t they? If you look carefully at many of the illustrations, you will see that music notation forms an integral part of the picture.

At the end of the book there are two lovely features. Firstly James Mayhew gives some musical notes about each of the works he has featured in the book, telling you a little about when the piece was written, about the link between the music itself and the story told, and perhaps putting the music into context within a bigger story – the music for The Flight of the Bumblebee, for example, is only part of the story that is told in the book, and that is put in context in this later section. He also makes some suggestions about particular recordings of these works that you might want to listen to after reading the stories, or maybe at the same time. These recordings can all be found on either YouTube or Spotify making them easy to find.

On Amazon, the book has a suggested reading age for this book as 5-9. I must admit that I don’t agree with this suggestion. While some of the stories, like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice would probably be fine to read with 5-7 year olds (although I tried watching the Disney Fantasia version of this with my 4 1/2 year old who found it a little scary), I feel that some of the stories may be a bit worrying or frightening for some younger children. You know your children well, though, and what you think they can handle. My 7 year old loves Star Wars films, Marvel films, dinosaurs fighting quite graphically, but cannot cope with films like Labyrinth where it is children who find themselves in potentially dangerous situations. I feel that some of the stories in this book would be a bit much even for him, although others would be fine. The tales told here, with their subject matter, remind me a little of original Brothers Grimm stories. They are amazing, and wonderful and brilliant stories, but can be a little dark. In addition, many of the stories in the book are fairly long, and may be too long for the attention span of your average 5 and 6 year old.

I would suggest that this is a book for the older end of that recommendation, perhaps 8 plus, maybe 7 year olds if you feel they would be OK with slightly darker material.

If you have enjoyed this review and it has made you want to buy your own copy of the book, then you can click on the link below which will take you straight through to Amazon. I should let you know that as this is an affiliate link if you do make a purchase using this link, then I may earn a small commission, at no extra cost to you, which will help me keep this blog running in the future! Thank you.

At the time of writing, this book could be purchased on Amazon for £12.59, although prices do change depending on demand.

If you have enjoyed reading my blog post, thank you. I am always looking for ideas for the blog, so would love to hear from you with suggestions for topics you would like me to cover in the future. Also, if you would be interested in supporting me to keep this blog running, buying the books to review here, and supplies to make the DIY instruments, for example, I would be absolutely delighted if you would consider buying me a coffee using the following link: Buy Me A Coffee Thank you!!


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