July 15, 2011
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
First Published in the UK as Illuminations, Eva Hoffman's novel Appassionata is a powerful discourse on music, politics, and love.
The Chicago Tribune wrote of the book:
"A turbulent tale that grips the reader's attention. Hoffman's musical training, her sensitivity to current events, and her own traumatic life experiences combine to make for a distinctive novel that is fully worthy of our attention."
Appassionata is a novel centrally about music – and it arose from an impulse to write about the fantastic power and immediacy of that medium; and to give expression to what it is like to perform it and live within it. The novel's protagonist is Isabel Merton, a classical pianist on tour in Europe. Her own repertory tends towards 19th and early 20th century Romanticism; but her tastes are more ranging and eclectic than that. As I was writing about Isabel's performances, or her practice sessions, I either listened to or played (hardly as well as she!) the relevant pieces on my own, very old Bechstein. But Isabel also listens to music performed by others, and sometimes I listened along with her. Of course, I bequeathed to her the pieces which I particularly love; and some of them were songs, or Romantic lieder (since the question of romanticism, and its double nature – sublime and demonic – is at the heart of the novel). And then, there was the music I listened, which did not make it into the text…
1. "Dva Shopski Duete," from Le Mystere des Voix Bulgare
I first heard the Bulgarian Women's Choir on this recording, and I leant some of my first reactions to Isabel, as she listens to the women live, in Sofia, singing their amazing form of ancient, wild, folk music. This is how she describes this song: "It is music, but hardly yet music. What emanates from the women's throats is closer to unmediated emanations, raw whoops, fierce shouts. Wild calls, so piercing that that she wants to call in response. It's close to sounds wolves might make, or powerfully throated birds… A sort of pre-music, in which violence is not yet distinguished from pleasure, or aggression from wild love… The voices go through her body like whipping winds, and she's almost frightened by her pure response. If she were in a circle of Bacchantes, making these sounds, who knows what frenzy she might be capable of, what orgiastic dancing or tearing of flesh." Let this stand for my response as well.
"2. Good Night," from Winterreise by Franz Schubert, sung by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, accompanied by Gerald Moore
It is of course the whole cycle one wants to listen to, but occasionally I want to luxuriate in a particular song – and this opening one from a Winter Voyage is one of the most beautiful. Schubert's melodies have been praised for his "angelic lengths," and there is something transcendent about the accepting serenity of this music – no matter what the undertow of darkness. Here, the gentle swoops and the quite regular (almost "walking" rhythms) are a perfect representation of a pensive mood, of "emotion recollected in tranquility". In Appassionata, a critic talks about the "slushy sentimental lyrics" of Schubert's lieder, and says, "The whole notion of a work of art is an illusion." Isabel agrees about the lyrics (as I often do), but responds – "Then analyse the illusion!" Not an easy thing to do, but listening to this song instantly allows me to dip several levels down in my inner state, to a deeper and more spacious place – and the passionate strength of Fischer-Dieskau's voice adds to that effect.
3. "The Water Fairy" by Robert Schumann, sung by Elly Ameling, accompanied by Jorg Demus
Again, I could pick almost any track on this recording of Schubert and Schumann Lieder, simply for the renditions by Elly Ameling. Her voice has a lovely naturalness that is both lyrical and straightforward. This short song has Schumann's mercurial moodiness, oscillating between pensive melancholy and something more whimsical – a shifting of moods to which my protagonist is very sensitive.
4. "Think," sung by Aretha Franklin
There're certain kinds of music I can listen to only if I can move to it in some way as well – and most of Aretha Franklin's repertory falls into that category. Otherwise, the sheer (and let's face it, erotic) energy of her performances is difficult to bear. "Think," of course, has been declared (for good reasons) a kind of feminist anthem, but for me, it is the breathless rock rhythms and the throaty urgency of Aretha's voice, the passages which are close to speech, then morphing into long sustained notes and gliding lines, and back into that single-syllable punch of "Think!" that have me in thrall. In Appassionata, there is a cellist who has been brought up on rock music, and whose playing draws on its energies and rhythms; and this, far from violating the classical music she plays, infuses it with what may have been its original newness and vitality. Aretha does that for me.
5. "As It Was Painted by Chagall (Tak Jak Malowal Pan Chagall)," on Leopold Kozlowski, The Last Klezmer of Galicia
This little elegy to a lost world which lives on only in imagination and the images of Chagall has all the bluesy poignancy of klezmer, but also a kind of postwar sophistication – as if Edith Piaf was crossed with gypsy music. For me, it touches nostalgic strings without undue sentimentality – and nostalgia, I find, is a lyrical feeling, and sometimes a good source of writing.
Eva Hoffman and Appassionata links:
Cleveland Plain Dealer review
Daily Mail review
Kirkus Reviews review
Musical Assumptions review
New York Times review
O Magazine review
also at Largehearted Boy:
other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists