________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 8 . . . . December 10, 2004


Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery.

Douglas Cowling. Illustrated by Laura Fernandez and Rick Jabobson.
Markham, ON: North Winds Press/Scholastic Canada, 2004.
44 pp., cloth, $22.99.
ISBN 0-439-96904-2.

Subject Headings:
Vivaldi, Antonio, 1678-1741-Juvenile fiction.
Music-Juvenile fiction.
Venice (Italy)-Juvenile fiction.

Kindergarten-grade 4 / Ages 5-9.

Review by Valerie Nielsen.


Douglas Cowling, a writer, musician and educator, whose most recent publication is Hallelujah Handel, has had great success in bringing classical music to young audiences. In a note to the reader at the beginning of Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery, he writes:

History is full of people whose voices are not heard and whose words were never written down: women, slaves and children. We have no records from the hundreds of children that he (Vivaldi) taught and to whose lives he gave meaning and beauty, We must use our imagination to hear their hopes and fears, their loneliness and their laughter.

     Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery is set in 18th century Venice, home to the Pieta, a school run by nuns for orphaned student musicians. When 12-year-old Katarina arrives as a new student, she is overwhelmed by the sights and sounds of the floating city. It seems to the young violinist, as she looks around at musicians, tumblers and jugglers, that the whole city has gone mad.

"Why is everyone wearing a mask?" Katarina asked a gondolier.

The young man laughed and gave her a mask to wear.

"Everyone wears a mask during Carnival, Signorina. A rich man can pretend to be a beggar, and a beggar can be a rich man!"

The gondolier introduced himself as Giovanni and helped Katarina into his gondola.

     Giovanni takes Katarina through the back canals of Venice to the prison-like building which houses the Pieta. To the young musician's delight, she discovers a whole orchestra of girls playing every instrument, even those considered by many as "unladylike" such as the bassoon, the trumpet and the timpani. But most thrilling of all is Katarina's meeting with her new teacher:

Standing before them, a man with fiery red hair nodded his head in time to the music. Then he raised his violin and began to play. The instrument seemed to sing in his hands. The music was everywhere - in her ears, in her head, in her heart.

Katarina realized that it could be none other than the famous composer Antonio Vivaldi!

     Don Antonio shows his students a gift from the Duke of Cromona, a beautiful violin case decorated with a picture of a nightingale. Inside is a violin built for the Duke by the most famous violin maker, Signor Stradivarius. The Duke has sent the violin to Venice for the Grand Concert which is being held at the Pieta the next day. Don Antonio explains that many years ago the Duke lost his son, daughter and granddaughter in a shipwreck. Convinced that his granddaughter is still alive, the Duke travels from city to city hoping to find a musician who can play music "so beautiful and so magical that it could call his grandchild back from the mists."

internal art     Katarina is awed by the beautiful instrument and intrigued by the picture of the nightingale on its case, a match for the nightingale on a ring around her neck. Unable to resist the temptation to pick up the precious violin, she is horrified when it slips from her hands and lies broken on the floor. Katarina enlists the help of her friend Giovanni in a desperate attempt to get the priceless instrument repaired and back in time for Don Antonio to play at the Grand Concert. The young people's journey to retrieve the Stradivarius involves a mysterious thief, a poem and a midnight visit to the Island of the Dead. By the end of the story, the link between Katarina's nightingale ring and the Duke of Cremona's violin becomes clear, leaving the young violinist to make a decision that will change her life.

     Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery received a JUNO award for the Best Children's Recording when it was published as a sound recording (audiocassette and CD) by Classical Kids in 1997. The sound version features over two dozen musical excerpts from Vivaldi's work as a background to a cast of well-known actors portraying the main characters. In this longer version, plot and character are fleshed out with details which make the narrative a good deal more credible. By telescoping the action, as the author has had to do to fit the story into a 44 page picture book format, some of the suspense and excitement in the musical version has been lost.

     The award-winning artistic team of Rick Jacobson and Laura Fernandez has created superb paintings using oils on canvas to illustrate this story. They have brought to life the most famous sights of Venice - St. Mark's square (complete with pigeons!), the elegant architecture, the narrow back lanes and the bridge-covered waterways. The Jacobson-Fernandez team will not disappoint readers in their depiction of the characters. Katarina is wonderfully believable, her face registering the whole gamut of her emotions, while the artists' depiction of Vivaldi (strong, humorous features and flaming red hair) is equally appealing.

     Vivaldi's Ring of Mystery is an attractive volume which will have special appeal to parents with a musical interest or whose children play the violin. Parents or teachers who have access to the CD will find sharing of this book with a young listener even more enjoyable.

Highly Recommended.

A retired teacher-librarian, Valerie Nielsen lives in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

Copyright the Manitoba Library Association. Reproduction for personal use is permitted only if this copyright notice is maintained. Any other reproduction is prohibited without permission.
Published by
The Manitoba Library Association
ISSN 1201-9364
Hosted by the University of Manitoba.