52_mara_coverMara
by Lilly Barnes
Variety Crossing Press
345 pages; $22.95

“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.

 

unfinished_scoreAn Unfinished Score
by Elise Blackwell
Unbridled Books
265 pages;
$28.95 US

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.

52_hilmes__cosima_wagnerCosima Wagner: The Lady of Bayreuth
by Oliver Hilmes
Yale University Press
374 pages; $40.00

“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.

 

sibeliusSibelius
by Andrew Barnett
Yale University Press
461 pages, photos & musical examples; $28.00 US (pb)

YALE UNIVERSITY PRESS HAS just released some of its most interesting recent titles in low-priced paperbacks – among them The Oboe by Geoffrey Burgess and Canadian musicologist Bruce Haynes; John Worthen’s Robert Schumann; and this biography of Jean Sibelius by Andrew Barnett. After the revelatory performances of Sibelius’s magnificent symphonies by the Toronto Symphony under Danish conductor Thomas Dausgaard in April, and their broadcast on CBC, this excellent study of his life and works is especially welcome.

Sibelius was a melodist in an age when composers like Arnold Schoenberg, who was born just nine years later, were seeking out new languages, sounds and techniques. Throughout his long life, Sibelius steadfastly resisted the influence of serialism and the avant-garde, so that by the time he died in 1957 he was decidedly out of fashion. But today composers enthusiastically celebrate his influence.

Barnett, chairman of the UK Sibelius Society, takes a detailed and critical look at the music, showing how Sibelius’s emotional life and personal experiences shaped his rugged lyricism. Barnett points out his “trademark” motifs like the descending fifth (right in the opening of the Violin Concerto), and the ‘S-motif’, like an elongated turn (heard throughout Finlandia). He offers insights into the myths and landscapes of Sibelius’s homeland, Finland, where the composer spent his whole life.

Though Barnett doesn’t offer much psychological insight into Sibelius’s debilitating insecurities, he documents Sibelius’s self-destructiveness. As Sibelius wrote in his diary, he needed to drink “in order to be able to live at all,” adding at a later date that “alcohol is the only friend that never lets one down.” Describing how Sibelius made a bonfire of his late work, including the eagerly-awaited eighth symphony, Barnett writes, “What he had in mind was a scorched earth policy with regard to many of his scores.” Barnett then quotes Sibelius’s long-suffering wife Aino, who commented, “Afterwards, my husband’s manner was calmer and his spirits were brighter. It was a happy time.”

The select bibliography and discography have not been updated since the original publication in 2007, and Winter Fire by William Trotter is still absent from the list of relevant fictional works. But Barnett paints a lively portrait of this complicated man, and provides the historical context for his work, which opened the way for Finland to become the musical powerhouse it is today.

lois_marshall_-_wholenote_resizeLois Marshall: A Biography
by James Neufeld
Dundurn Press
352 pages, photos; $28.99

When Canadian soprano Lois Marshall first showed up at Sarah Caldwell’s Boston Opera Group to sing Mimi in Puccini’s La Bohème, Caldwell took one look at her and blurted out, “This is wonderful. I’ve always wanted to have a Mimi who was really sick.” Caldwell was not known for tact. But her comment, as related in James Neufeld’s eloquent and moving biography of Marshall, suggests how much Marshall could have done in opera if more directors had been willing to work with her impairment.

Childhood polio left Marshall with a limp. But it certainly did not stop her from a busy career in recitals and oratorios, as a particular favourite of Ernest MacMillan, Beecham and Toscanini. Nor did it stop her from frequently touring Europe, Japan, and the Soviet Union, where she was adored.

But Marshall’s disability did prevent her from having an operatic career. Neufeld presents her as not just a great singer, but a convincing actress as well, who could interpret an operatic role as convincingly as a Strauss lied or a Bach aria. Neufeld makes a convincing case that, with her powerful voice, dramatic temperament, phenomenal memory and lovely stage presence, Marshall would have been a great opera singer, had she been given the opportunities.

Instead, starting from Arnold Walter’s refusal to admit her into the Royal Conservatory’s Opera School, “Canadian opera producers simply missed the boat.” If today Joyce DiDonato can give a convincing performance of Rosina in a wheelchair at Covent Garden, as she did last summer after she broke her leg on stage during the opening night of Rossini’s Barber of Seville, then surely opera directors could have accommodated Marshall’s disability.

Using his extensive interviews with Marshall’s family members, friends and fellow musicians, as well as his own experiences hearing Marshall live and on recordings, Neufeld conveys both the communicative power of Marshall’s singing and the “warmth and sunshine” of her personality. But Neufeld’s most revealing source is the unpublished memoir Marshall drafted at the end of her career.

Neufeld, who teaches English at Trent University, writes insightfully about Marshall’s accomplishments. With a novelist’s flair, he delves into Marshall’s complicated relationship with her long-time teacher and accompanist, Weldon Kilburn. Soon after they finally married in 1968 their relationship unravelled. As her musical partner, Kilburn had been supportive and sensitive, but as a lover he proved to be inconstant and heartless. “Though Lois seldom performed opera,” Neufeld comments, “her romantic life seemed to be caught up in one.”

Click Here to Read an Excerpt from this book

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