June 1, 2012
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.
As much as any writer Matt Rees is a perfect fit for the Book Notes feature, since he writes and records songs about crime fiction in his Poisonville project.
Rees' novel Mozart's Last Aria explores the composer's mysterious death through the eyes of his sister, Nannerl.
Kirkus Reviews wrote of the book:
"A beautiful book illuminated by the author's own musical background that moves slowly and deliberately to a fine conclusion."
Writing about great art is a great risk. Unless you produce great art yourself, you may find yourself looking like the banal yet blameless tourist who stands before the Mona Lisa telling his pal how "cool" it looks and how the colors are "really cool." That's a risk I took with my novel Mozart's Last Aria, in which the composer's gifted sister investigates Wolfgang's mysterious death––and performs a good deal of his amazing music. I felt confident taking on such a challenge, because I had been inspired to delve into the subject in the first place by the music. The music led me to the stories of Wolfgang and sister Nannerl, and in turn I decided to write about them. Mozart's music was the basis for my book on an even deeper level––a neurological level, you might say. When I was tooling around the West Bank as a foreign correspondent during the Palestinian intifada, I listened to Mozart constantly. It was the only way I could remain clam and overcome the fear that someone around the corner was about to shoot at me. I figured I owed the great man a damned good novel. I simply couldn't let him down.
This is a playlist of the genesis of Mozart's Last Aria, of its research, and the soundtrack for my writing:
Piano sonata in A minor. First movement
Nannerl plays this movement in the first chapter of Mozart's Last Aria, so this is where the soundtrack starts. But it doesn't end in that chapter. I used this full sonata as the conceptual structure for the entire novel. Wolfgang wrote it when he was alone in Paris, after his mother died there while on tour with him. It's the soundtrack of a man struggling to make sense of death, loss of love, and the continuation of his life. I divided my novel into three sections, as Mozart did his sonata. It opens with this discordant Allegro maestoso, which is quite disturbing, particularly if you think of Mozart – as many do – as a purveyor of chirpy tunes. In the novel, this is where Nannerl hears of Wolfgang's death.
Piano sonata in A minor. Second movement (Andante cantabile con espressione)
This is Act II of the book, the central section in which Nannerl explores the Vienna Wolfgang left behind and investigates his death. It's a more contemplative, exploratory piece than the first movement. She finds out about the delicate relationship with his wife, the fears of his friends, and the dangers that may have hounded her brother.
Piano Sonata in A minor. Presto
Act III of the novel is the final Presto movement, in which the disturbing themes of the first movement are resolved, just as Nannerl uncovers the truth over the last couple of chapters of the book. The A minor sonata gave me an emotional framework for the plot. Given that it was written in response to a death and that I wanted to explore Nannerl's feelings about her dead brother, it seemed natural to use this sonata.
"Vienna" by Ultravox
This was the first pop record I ever bought back in 1981. Its sound is deeply atmospheric and unique even today. It made Vienna a city of mystery for me. When I was writing the scenes of Nannerl on the streets at night and down in the crypt of the Michaelerkirche where the bodies of the dead are mummified by the dry air, I had this in mind.
Symphony 42 "Jupiter"
At the concert in Chapter 8 of Mozart's Last Aria, the orchestra plays this last and greatest of Wolfgang's symphonies. Nannerl hasn't heard it before the concert (evidence suggests Wolfgang died before he heard it performed, too) and is inspired by it.
Piano concerto in C. Second movement
At the concert in Chapter 8, Nannerl feels touched by her brother through the music she hears – Jupiter – and performs, this most lovely of his concertos. It's the first time in years she has performed and it gives her a new belief in herself. This is how I was able to create the idea that a woman would have the drive to investigate something powerful men wished to keep secret.
"Vorrei spiegarvi" (I wish to explain to you)
Nannerl sings this aria by her brother to Baron Swieten midway through Mozart's Last Aria. In the aria, a woman tells her lover, who is promised to another, that he must go to her, though it's painful to both of them. Nannerl is fighting against her own desire to send the same message to the Baron. As with all the other Mozart arias in the book, I made my own translation of the original language. Just as studying the music helped me inside his style, so these translations led me into the emotional insights he intended the music to convey.
I think of Mozart as a very contemporary musician. He was the first great composer to make a living as an entrepreneur, selling tickets to his own concerts on a subscription basis, instead of being at the beck and call of a particular patron as, say, Haydn was. For that reason, I started my Poisonville crime-fiction music project with this song. It's a reimagining of "Vorrei spiegarvi." I took the theme of Wolfgang's aria and turned it into a rock song. It helped me connect to the emotions Nannerl's experiencing around her duty to her husband and her love for the Baron.
Requiem, Confutatis maledictus
This is the most harrowing section of the Requiem, which Wolfgang was writing when he died. It's supposed to tell us of the souls of people pleading with God that they be spared Hellfire. But Nannerl thinks it sounds like the suffering voices of the damned. It gives her an impetus to find out what happened to the soul of her brother, who is now beyond life.
"Un aura amorosa," Cosi Fan Tutte
When she experiences love, Nannerl thinks of Wolfgang's music. In Chapter 31, it's "Un aura amorosa" (A loving breath), an aria from Cosi Fan Tutte, which signals how much love is connected with the simple rhythms of life, like breathing itself.
Don Giovanni. The Commendatore scene
I wrote Mozart's Last Aria to have three climactic scenes – the reader thinks, "Oh, that's solved it," only to enter another and then another chapter in which they see what's really been happening. It's a structural idea I took a while back from Chandler and have used with increasing complexity in my novels. In this case, the first of these climactic scenes is a performance of the finale of "Don Giovanni," in which Nannerl and the Baron hope to trick the man they think is responsible for Wolfgang's death. The ghost of the Commendatore, who has been killed by Don Giovanni in a duel, comes to his house to invite him to dinner in Hell. Giovanni accepts and is dragged down into the flames. For me, Don Giovanni was my real introduction to the genius of Mozart at the English National Opera "Don Giovanni" in 1988. I was spellbound by Wolfgang's incorporation of wit and drama in his music.
"Rock Me, Amadeus" by Falco
Talking of wit and drama, I had this in my mind often when I was working on Mozart's Last Aria. It reminded me not to take myself too seriously and also to remember that Mozart was a lot less stuffy than the kind of people who tend to be the guardians of classical music these days. ("Er war ein Mann der Frauen / Frauen liebten seinen Punk.") Unfortunately Falco died in a car crash in the Dominican Republic when he wasn't much older than Mozart.
Matt Rees and Mozart's Last Aria links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
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