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Book Review: Before There Was Mozart


Many, many years from now you’re going to be a major-league ballplayer.

Or a concert pianist. Or maybe a ballerina, or a singer with a band.

That’s because you spend a lot of time practicing. Although it’s sometimes hard and not always fun, practice makes perfect, and you want to be as perfect as possible when you’re a ballplayer, pianist, ballerina, or singer.

Throughout his life, a young boy named Joseph practiced his violin, but only when he wasn’t exploring. In the new book “Before There Was Mozart: The Story of Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George” (c.2011, Schwartz & Wade Books, $17.99 / $19.99 Canada 40 pages) by Lesa Cline-Ransome and James E. Ransome, you’ll read a story that’s somewhat hidden by history.

It was breezy on Christmas Day 1739, and the slaves who worked the sugar fields were preparing to celebrate the holiday. But up in the main house, the owner of the West Indies plantation was awaiting the birth of a child….

The baby was named Joseph because it was Christmas, and the midwife predicted that someday, he’d meet the king and queen of France. Joseph’s mother, Nanon, a slave born in Senegal, was just happy that the boy was healthy.

On the plantation, Joseph loved to play with other slave children, even though he was not one of them. As the only child of a slave and her master, he wasn’t made to work; instead, he was allowed to wander the island and explore; and when Joseph’s mother went to town, he usually went along.

It was in town that he fell in love with music.

But life wasn’t all play. Monsieur Plato, the plantation’s overseer, was also Joseph’s tutor, and Monsieur ended each lesson with violin practice. By the time he was 9 years old and had immigrated to France with his parents, Joseph–whose father eventually gave him the name of Joseph Boulogne, Chevalier de Saint-George–was known as a talented violinist.

As Joseph grew, he loved the violin more and more. He started composing and performing: unknowingly, before Wolfgang Mozart, and later–fulfilling the prophecy made the day he was born–as the first man of color at the royal palace for the king and queen of France.

If you go looking for this book–and you should–you’ll probably find it in the picture-book section of your library or bookstore.

It might be ill-placed there, however.

Author Cline-Ransome and illustrator Ransome have dusted off an amazing story that even adults can appreciate, but I fear that the narrative is too sophisticated for toddlers, who gravitate toward picture books. Surely, “Before There Was Mozart” can be enjoyed by them–the illustrations are colorful, and very little-kid-friendly–but children old enough to understand history, classical music, and this tale’s significance will probably like it more.

Overall, this is a beautiful and important book, but just beware for whom you bring it home. Small children may squirm with impatience at this story, but for kids 8 and up, “Before There Was Mozart” is just perfect.