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July 19, 2013

Book Notes - David Margolick "Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns"

Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns

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, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

David Margolick's new book Dreadful is a fascinating and meticulously researched biography of the tragic life of the brilliant author John Horne Burns.

The New Yorker wrote of the book:

"A] vivid biography...Margolick reveals a fascinating, troubling character: Catholic, closeted, and alcoholic, charming and cruel, Burns inspired admiration and confusion...By placing Burns's witty, elastic prose front and center, Margolick's account makes a case for him as one of the best writers of his generation."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In his own words, here is David Margolick's Book Notes music playlist for his book, Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns:

Music played a crucial role in the life of John Horne Burns (1916-53), a vital but undeservedly forgotten figure in the history of gay, and American, literature, and so it's critical in Dreadful. It was perhaps Burns's greatest passion -- Burns was a fine pianist and singer, and knew the classical music canon thoroughly -- and it comes up continuously in his letters, most of them written during his years in the army during World War II, when he served in an intelligence unit in Morocco, Algeria, and, mostly, Italy. One of his most faithful correspondents was a vocalist named Beulah Hagen, whom he had accompanied on the piano back in New York, so he frequently discussed music with her. And another was a former student named David MacMackin, who was every bit as passionate about music as he.  Burns was not your ordinary soldier: while others had pin-ups of Betty Grable or Rita Hayworth, his was an opera star named Maria Pedrini. (When he writes of Frank Sinatra, it is only to ridicule him.) "The mercies of military intelligence saved me for a happier fate—perhaps to expire on a piano bench during a Schumann Lied," he wrote in a typical letter, from North Africa, in September 1943. "Hope so, hope so."

My playlist:

1) Finale chorale from Bach, St. Matthew Passion. Burns was in the Harvard Glee Club when it recorded this magnificent piece with the Boston Symphony under Serge Koussevitsky in 1937  -- the first time, apparently, it had ever been recorded. Thus, this is one of the few instances in which Burns's voice can actually be heard, if not exactly made out!

2) Anything from Gilbert and Sullivan: After Harvard, while teaching English at the Loomis School in Windsor, Ct., Burns helped put on several musical productions, including various Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, among them the HMS Pinafore. He clearly knew the whole oeuvre thoroughly, and quoted from it often in his letters. Once, for instance,  explaining a long hiatus in his correspondence with MacMackin -- he'd suffered a concussion after a night of drunkenness -- he began his letter with a (slightly mangled) quote from Iolanthe:

We apologize
With humbl'd head [sic],
And ev'ry hope laid low...

3) Aaron Copland, El Salon Mexico. Like everything else Burns did at prep school, there was something edgy -- and irreverant -- about his chapel talks. No pious sermonizing for him! Nearly seventy years later, one of Burns's students recalled his playing this newly-written Copland piece for the school.

4) Robert Schumann, Frauenliebe und-leben. Shortly before shipping overseas in 1943, Burns spent many evenings at the Bechstein piano belonging Beulah Hagen on Sutton Place South on Manhattan's East Side, accompanying her as she sang this song cycle. Burns could be -- in fact, usually was -- very cynical and sharp, but something about this tender song cycle about the milestones in a woman's life touched him deeply. In moments of loneliness, both in North Africa and Italy, he'd recall those evenings wistfully for Hagen, and savor the chance, once the fighting stopped, to return home and perform the cycle once again, which he did.

5) Johannes Brahms, Alto Rhapsody. For Burns, this was not just a magnificent piece of music, but a statement about his own life. He'd have known the text, Goethe's Harzreise im Winter, from his days studying German at Harvard. So when he needed to describe to a friend the sort of desolate, misanthropic person he had been before the war had humanized him, he turned to one of Goethe's phrases from the poem: ungenugende Selbstsucht, meaning 'narcissism' or 'excessive self-love.' When, following the piece's (and the poem's) violent and disturbing beginnings, a male chorus comes in to sing (with surging hope and sweetness) of the relief a man can find when he subordinates his ego to the glories of life around him, it's clear that Burns was thinking of himself. That Burns himself could not sustain the wave of warmth and compassion he felt only makes this wondrous piece even more more moving in this circumstance.

6) Franz Schubert, Der Erlkonig, and Robert Schumann, Ich Grolle Nicht (from Dichterliebe #8).  Burns sang these two extremely difficult songs in a concert he helped put on in an army base outside Casablanca on the evening of December 2, 1943. Also on the program that night: selections from Chopin, Bach, Debussy, and Brahms, performed by Burns's colleagues. That productions of such sophistication could have been put together by soldiers in the middle of a war in the middle of North Africa is really quite miraculous. (What, indeed -- as Burns asked his mother, would General Patton have thought of the proceedings?) Burns's accompanist that night was a graduate of the Eastman School of Music named Charles Bacharach. Two gay men -- at a time when, officially at least, they did not exist in the American military -- sharing their musical talents and love with everyone else.

7) Robert Schumann, Im Wunderschoenen Monat Mai, from Dichterliebe, #1:  One night in January 1945, Burns went to the San Carlo Opera House in Naples (re-opened shortly after the city was liberated,  largely for the benefit of the occupying soldiers) to hear the familiar opera twin bill of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci. Repeatedly throughout the performance, his friend Michael Patrick, due to return to the front the next day, put his head on Burns's shoulder -- and wept. Afterwards, around a piano, Patrick asked him to play this song of Schumann's, about a young poet in love in springtime. "I thought at first he was going to cry again and think about going back to the front," Burns wrote his mother. Instead, he went on, "all he said was, 'what hope for the human race when somebody can write a song like that.'"

8) Puccini, Te Deum, from finale to Act I of Tosca. While in Naples, Burns saw Tosca at least twenty times at the San Carlo Opera House. He was there on the night of May 2, 1945 when, shortly after this piece concluded and the curtain went up for the second act, something quite extraordinary happened. "Instead of Scarpia at dinner the stage was filled with every last employee of the opera house -- electricians, carpenters, and my favorite fat soprano of the chorus in her civilian house dress and her Wedgies," he wrote his mother. "Well, they sang about every national anthem except the Horst Wessel and then it was announced that the German armies in Italy had surrendered."

9) Hugo Wolf, Kennst du das Land. As his wartime experience wore on and grew more searing, Burns grew quite obsessed with the bleak songs of Hugo Wolf, which he studied and sang, including in one performance at a military hospital. They gave him what he called "the mirror of human suffering." He asked Beulah Hagen to send him a volume of Wolf songs from New York -- it mattered more to him than his books and American cigarettes -- then despaired at the thought it had been lost to German U-boats, then rejoiced when it finally arrived. "The Schumann and the Wolf have burst upon me with the same sweet orgasm as when I first heard the Dichterliebe," he exulted in March 1944. Any one of Wolf's songs, he argued, revealed the differences between what he had always known at home and what he'd come to learn abroad. "The fact is that America has the greatest possibilities of any nation in the world but that so far she has produced mostly unadult materialistic people who are superb in handling machines, but uneasy or bumbling when it comes to any spiritual concept of life," he told his mother. "This is why so far we have produced no art comparable to the European. I become uneasy and, I fear, pussy when I hear Rhapsody in Blue. There’s more in a song of Hugo Wolf or in the Fauré Requiem."

10) Mussorgsky, Pictures at an Exhibition: Opening/First Promenade. Burns structured his first and greatest book, The Gallery, more after a piece of music than any other book, and that piece was Mussorgsky's: a series of 'portraits,' separated by 'promenades' -- variations on what becomes a familiar theme, as the viewer moves from one painting to the next.

11) Liszt, Deux legendes, #2: I include -- and conclude -- with this only because when I first encountered Burns's reference to it, in a letter from May 3, 1944, I gave it little thought: I did not know the piece, for solo piano. Later (quite coincidentally, without recalling Burns's having mentioned it) I heard it performed at Carnegie Hall, and it moved me deeply: it recounts the miracle of St. Francis of Paola walking across the storm-tossed Straits of Messina. Once again I felt -- even more than I had already been feeling -- as if Burns and I were communicating: he was also teaching me something -- something about music.

David Margolick and Dreadful: The Short Life and Gay Times of John Horne Burns links:

Bay Are Reporter review
Kirkus review
Lambda Literary review
Minneapolis Star Tribune review
New Yorker review
NY1 review
Publishers Weekly review
San Francisco Chronicle review

WYSO interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
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)
musician/author interviews
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

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