An Unfinished Score
by Elise Blackwell
IN ELISE BLACKWELL’S intriguing new novel, all the main characters are musicians. Many are – or want to be – composers. Around that revolves the suspenseful plot, which deals with betrayal, blackmail, and a most unusual method of revenge.
Suzanne’s lover Alex has been killed in a plane crash. He was a famous conductor, she an accomplished violist. Suzanne is married to Ben, a cellist and composer. They share their house with Suzanne’s best friend Petra, a violinist in Suzanne’s string quartet, as well as Petra’s daughter, Adele, who – and the author makes sure the irony is not lost on us – is deaf.
Alex’s wife Olivia plans an elegant revenge by forcing Suzanne to complete a viola concerto her husband had left behind. Suzanne is such a consummate narcissist that she deceives herself into thinking that “through Alex’s music she will know what happened to her.” But Olivia has other plans, saying, “From now on, when you think of him you will also think of me.”
Ben’s unrelenting dullness gives experimental composers a bad name, and Petra’s glibness and endless supply of viola jokes grow tedious. But Olivia and Suzanne are compelling characters.
Blackwell, who teaches at the University of South Carolina, acknowleges the help of various sources like a masterclass given by Canada’s St. Lawrence Quartet for the musical side of things, such as her descriptions of the workings of Suzanne’s string quartet. She has peppered her story with arcane facts from music history, like the origins of Albinoni’s famous Adagio in G minor, as well as interesting figures like the late British composer Minna Keal (misspelled by Blackwell as Keel). They give the story breadth, steering it away from becoming maudlin by creating a musical context for the world Blackwell’s characters live in. But the confusing mixture of fact and fiction, as in the bizarre episode with violinist Joshua Felder, distracts from the story. In any case, this is a highly enjoyable novel that kept me happily reading until the surprising – and satisfying – end.
Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn
by R. Larry Todd
Oxford University Press
454 pages, illustrations & musical examples; $49.50
IN 1842, FELIX Mendelssohn was received by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Buckingham Palace. After he performed for them on the piano, the Queen chose a song from his Op. 9 collection, “Italien,” for him to accompany her. “I was obliged,” he wrote in a letter home – quoted by R. Larry Todd in this fascinating biography of Mendelssohn’s older sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel – “to confess that Fanny had written the song (which I found very hard, but pride must have a fall).”
Hensel wrote over 400 works, including songs, piano pieces, cantatas, concert arias, and a major string quartet. Yet few were published in her lifetime, even fewer under her own name. Performances were just as rare. It’s a situation that Larry Todd calls “one of the great injustices of music history,” though it is beginning to change, with publication and performances of her music, as well as excellent recordings like Toronto pianist Heather Schmidt’s recent disc.
As Todd explains, Hensel’s career as a concert pianist, conductor and composer could only be pursued in private, as an “ornament” to her life. It wasn’t just because she was a woman, but more because she was a wealthy upper-class woman – unlike, for instance, her friend Clara Schumann. Even Mendelssohn, who encouraged her composing, dissuaded her from publishing her music under her own name.
Hensel had a devoted and supportive husband, the painter and poet Wilhelm Hensel, and a loving son, named Sebastian Ludwig Felix after her three favourite composers. But her “symbiotic” relationship with her brother was the most complicated and significant one in her life. In 1847, at age 41, she died suddenly from a stroke. Six months later, Mendelssohn too died in the same way.
Todd, who teaches at Duke University, has specialized insight into Hensel and her extraordinary family, as well as the period, having written a major biography of Mendelssohn. The best thing about his book is the sensitive, meticulous way he looks at Hensel’s music and describes her distinctively imaginative and adventurous voice, making a persuasive case for it to be heard more frequently.
“The last thing I want to do,” writes Oliver Hilmes in this penetrating biography of Cosima Wagner, “is to criticize Cosima or turn her in to a psychotic study.” Fanatical, insecure, humourless, self-debasing, pugnacious, manipulative, and autocratic, Cosima offers few qualities that are likeable, and many that are downright repugnant. But she certainly is fascinating - all the more so when put into the perspective of her times and mileu as deftly as Hilmes does.
For the first half of this portrait, which roughly covers the first half of Cosima’s life, Hilmes treats her with sympathy. Cut off from her mother, the Countess Marie d’Agoult, a writer who used the pen-name Daniel Stern, neglected by her father Franz Liszt and his termagant mistress Princess Carolyne von Sayn-Wittgenstein, bullied by a harsh governess, she was understandably eager for an escape. She married Liszt’s brilliant but effete – and abusive – student Hans von Bülow. Soon after, her beloved brother and sister both died. She ran off with Richard Wagner, colleague to her father (Wagner was just two years younger than Liszt) and mentor to her husband. Wagner was an egotistical philanderer, though he did write Siegfried Idyll for her thirty-third birthday in 1870, the year they were finally able to marry. But as Hilmes covers the second half of Cosima’s very long life, from the death of Wagner in 1883 until her own death in 1930, at the age of ninety-two, Hilmes’ sympathy is significantly reduced. Cosima takes control of her husband’s fledgling opera festival in Bayreuth, and even manages to control the production of Wagner’s operas. Hilmes describes how she would hide in a black-curtained booth at the side of the stage during rehearsals, sending her comments out on scraps of paper. In fact she turned the Bayreuth Festival into a fiefdom, and established her own family as the ruling dynasty, a tradition which continues today with the recent appointment of two of her great grand-daughters as co-directors following the death of her grandson, their father Wolfgang.
But Hilmes shows Cosima’s Bayreuth Festival to be not just a family business but a reactionary cult. Exposing how she turned Wagner’s nationalistic, anti-semitic ideas into a political cause that led directly to the destructive German nationalism of the Nazis, he traces the roots of the family’s well-documented ties to Hitler and the Nazis directly to Cosima.
The translation from the German by Wagner expert Stewart Spencer is elegant and clear. But I wonder whether it is Hilmes or Spenser who identifies Alma Mahler-Werfel as a ‘Viennese socialite’, since Hilmes’ previous books include a biography of Alma Mahler.
“You are getting some notion what it’s like trying to fit everything I found out about Mara into one single person,” says Ted, the lead voice in Lilly Barnes’ novel about music, madness, racism and survival. “There’s always something goes squishing out the sides.” That something is why Ted is so fascinated with Mara. Mara, whose daughter Michelle, a jazz singer, has just died, has apparently cut off the dead girl’s earlobes. Ted, a jazz pianist, is obsessed with discovering why.
Lilly Barnes, a scriptwriter and documentary-maker for the CBC, uses her keen ear for dialogue to create a cast of vivid personalities to tell her story from various points of view. We hear from Ted, a jazz pianist enlisted to help Mara, Bear, who is Ted’s jazz partner and best friend, Bear’s wife Alicia, Michelle’s former neighbour Lena, and Mara herself, who had been a concert pianist in Europe. Barnes gives each one a distinctively idiosyncratic way of talking.
The story is set in Toronto in 1964, with frequent references to the thriving jazz scene then. By sending Ted off to Europe, Barnes is able to introduce characters from Mara’s mysterious past and describe what it took for her to survive the Holocaust as a Jew. In fact, the most compelling aspects of this novel relate to Barnes’ own life, since her mother was a Russian concert pianist, Barnes herself was married to the late Canadian composer Milton Barnes, and her sons Micah and Daniel are jazz musicians.
At one point, Lena says, “I love a mystery. It’s where surprises come from.” But, richly layered and moving though this novel is, surprises are few, since it turns out that things are just as they seemed all along. It’s just that Ted couldn’t see it. But at least in the end Ted, who had been musically blocked, gets his chops back –and more – and the music triumphs.
“Is this book biased? You bet it is!” writes Jack Gottlieb in this memoir of his years spent working with Leonard Bernstein. As Bernstein’s assistant, on and off, from 1958 until his death in 1990, Gottlieb worked on Bernstein’s concerts, scripts, program notes, orchestrations, recordings, compositions and books, and picked up his laundry.
Gottlieb is candid about Bernstein’s always spontaneous, frequently volatile and sometimes shameless behaviour. Gottlieb describes LB, as he refers to him throughout this wonderful “grab-bag” of a memoir, as “passionate, profligate, overextending himself, taxing his associates.” One of Gottlieb’s diary entries reads, “Later LB upsets me by saying I’m a disappointment.” But he remains fiercely loyal to the man and his music. In fact, Gottlieb heads up the Leonard Bernstein Office today.
He creates a portrait of Bernstein in all his genius, exuberance, and irrepressible energy. Bernstein was driven by what Gottlieb calls “a burning need to communicate,” and Gottlieb covers the full range of his remarkably versatile accomplishments as a composer for Broadway, the concert hall and the opera house, conductor, pianist and even lyricist.
Everyone who ever met Bernstein, it seems, has a story. Even the FBI has their own dossier, because of his notorious political activity. But nobody’s anecdotes are funnier or more revealing than Gottlieb’s. Clearly his ability to appreciate the wry side of situations helped him survive an intense working relationship with a very complex man.
Gottlieb, a composer himself, includes his own program notes for many of Bernstein’s works. In their clarity and commitment to Bernstein’s own method of using purely musical values rather than programmatic references to talk about music, they promote appreciation of lesser known works like Gottlieb’s favourite, The Dybbuk, as well as under-estimated late works like Arias and Barcarolles and A Quiet Place.
Gottlieb provides the full text of the notorious yet misunderstood disclaimer Bernstein addressed to New York Philharmonic audiences in 1962 before conducting Glenn Gould in Brahms’ Piano Concerto No.1 in D-. “I have only once before in my life had to submit to a soloist’s wholly new and incompatible concept,” Bernstein said, in part, “and that was the last time I accompanied Mr. Gould.” At the same time, Gottlieb provides a look behind the scenes before the concert as Gould, who Gottlieb describes as “a luminous pianist but quite messy about his appearance”, gets a haircut and grooming from Bernstein’s wife, Felicia, at the Bernstein apartment.
Given that Bernstein never, unfortunately, wrote his own memoirs, this contribution from such an observant, witty and loving associate – and his collection of personal snapshots - is all the more treasurable.