May 9, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Linda Kass's debut novel Tasa's Song is a moving account of the power of music against great tragedy.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Across decades and continents, Tasa follows a song of hope that is uplifting even in the face of great adversity, proving that an indomitable spirit can transcend the greatest hardships. Kass depicts a heartbreaking time with great sensitivity and detail in this beautifully rendered historical drama."
A Book in Concert: Tasa's Song
In my novel, I write about a Jewish violinist, Tasa Roskinski, growing up in a small village in eastern Poland during World War II. Tasa dreams of someday playing her violin like Paganini, and when her secure life unravels, she transports herself into the music: playing the pieces that remind her of home or filling her mind with melodies that keep her spirit alive.
I had several reasons for choosing the violin. Tasa's character is based on the true events of my mother's early life, and my mother played the violin. Also, it's a small instrument, one that Tasa can carry in her knapsack even when trekking through a dark forest in the middle of the night. I needed music that fit my narrative, that evoked emotions Tasa struggles with, that helped her process her feelings and, at times, soothe her. There's a trove of work written for violin, and the instrument's agility, power, and melodic range made this an easy choice.
Not being a violinist myself, I had to research how to play a violin and even how to hold the bow. And while I've enjoyed classical music for many years, I needed to learn more about music and composers Tasa would have played at that time as her talent develops. I listened to a great deal of music. It often felt like a discovery when I finally hit on the exact piece that made a scene come alive. I was sifting through so much music that, at some point, I created an iTunes playlist so I could keep track of music I had used or was considering for inclusion. When I completed Tasa's Song, I decided to have my final playlist included in the back of the book, so the reader can refer to each piece referenced chapter-by-chapter.
In a way, the music helped me tell this story, one inspired by true events. I'm excited to share several musical and dramatic highlights of Tasa's Song with you now.
Souvenir d'un Lieu Cher ("Remembrance of a Beloved Place") by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
The novel begins in March of 1943. Tasa and five relatives, all Jewish, trek through the frozen forest that stretches beyond their rural village of Podkamien in eastern Poland—avoiding certain death—and find refuge in a bunker beneath a barn built by their longtime employee, Josef Gnyp. At the close of this first chapter, Tasa lay, shivering, on a cot, her eyes adjusting to the dimness of her surroundings. Her mind trails backward, through months of fear, to a time when her world felt whole and filled with promise. As she closes her eyes, she hears Tchaikovsky's penetrating and lyrical melody, "its echo of a beloved place blurring into her own memories."
24th Caprice by Niccolo Paganini
For Tasa, Paganini was her ultimate violinist role model. And this piece was her North Star since it contained the entire arsenal of technique within its measures. Even as a ten-year-old (the novel reaches back to 1933), she imagines herself playing 24th Caprice, "bringing forth the double and triple stops and lively staccatos." She tells her mother, "Grampa Abram told me Paganini could play three octaves across four strings in a hand span!" She looks down at her small hands, spreading apart her short fingers in frustration.
Zigeunerweisen, op. 20 (Gypsy Airs) by Pablo de Sarasate
When Tasa is 12, she leaves home for a private boarding school in a nearby town called Brody that educates Catholics and Jews. Two years later, in the spring of 1937, she plays first violin in the school orchestra and is selected to play the solo of Gypsy Airs at the final concert of the school year. Months prior to her performance, Tasa participates in a religion class, where the Biblical interpretation of judging others, found in a Leviticus passage, is discussed in relation to perceived anti-Semitism among townspeople in Brody. The classroom lesson looks to another group with a history of persecution, the Romani people, then links the spirited Jewish klezmer music with Gypsy musical history, foreshadowing the fates of these two groups that become increasingly marginalized. Gypsy Airs became the perfect piece for Tasa's first public recital. At this point in the story, its gaiety and emotional range parallel Tasa's feelings. "She moved along the span of the fingerboard, from the deepest valleys to the highest pitch like a single bird in song, a quick pluck of her strings, then plunging downward again. Her brisk fingering, plucking, bowing, and articulation, the pulsating rhythm, vibrato trill, and force of the double stops, transported her to a Podkamien wedding at the center of a spirited dancing circle. She felt the wild freedom of gypsies dancing, of the klezmorim playing their violins."
Ma Vlast: Sarka, Bedrich Smetana
In early 1940, Tasa is sixteen. She arrives at her boarding home in Brody to find her mother's housemaid, Julia, distraught. Julia brings a handwritten note from Tasa's mother and Tasa learns that the Soviets came in the middle of the night and put her mother, aunts and cousins on a cattle train destined for a work camp in Siberia. Tasa's father is a landowner, her uncle an attorney, and the women were being deported along with other families of Polish landowners, attorneys and officers. Her mother tells Tasa not to worry, that she will be safe. She urges Tasa to stay close to her endearing landlady, Frau Rothstein, and to play her violin and draw pleasure from her musical gift. Tasa is devastated, inconsolable, and finally falls asleep from mental exhaustion. After she awakens, her eyes raw and gritty from crying, a melody begins playing in her mind, music that feels assured and steady. Tasa thinks about her mother and begins to focus on the courage that had come through in her note: ". . . like that of the female warrior at the heart of Smetana's third movement, Sarka. From the height of cymbals crashing to a single melody, then a chorus of instruments converging into the deep tone of horns, Tasa sought, like the music, a satisfying resolution."
Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute), Amadeus Mozart
In 1942, Tasa is back in Podkamien living in her grandfather's home with her father, her cousin Danik, and several other relatives. The village is now under German control, policed by Ukrainians. Jews all must wear identification armbands displaying a yellow star and they are, for the most part, confined within their living spaces. Most evenings, the family gathers in the parlor. They read, play chess, and talk. On one particular evening, as a discussion of war drives tension within the family, Aunt Sascha suggests they hear music. Danik, who has a beautiful baritone voice, suggests he sing from Mozart's famous opera, The Magic Flute, playing the character of a love struck bird catcher named Papageno, and asks that Tasa accompany him on the violin. Danik inhabits his character's reckless frolic. The singing and playing become an act of gleeful communion. At a time when Tasa and Danik are falling in love with one another, the lyrics of this scene parallel Papageno's longing for a wife or lover.
Nocturne no. 7 in C-Sharp Minor, Frederic Chopin
Peter and the Wolf, op. 67, Sergei Prokofiev
Almost a year into the family's hiding, in the increasingly claustrophobic bunker, Nazi officers take shelter in the Gnyp barn, directly above Tasa and her family. Separated by a panel covered with hay—the soldiers' floor is the bunker's ceiling—Tasa finds herself directly under enemy footsteps and gripped by fear. First, the morbid and grating opening bars of Chopin's nocturne pulse through her mind—a dark melody that matches her own agitation and begins to calm her. The climax descends into melancholy, then into what she imagines "as dancing streams converging under the the umbrella of sunshine." Listening closely, barely breathing, and in a heightened state, Tasa imagines the man standing above her "not a man at all but an animal." She thinks him to be a predator, a bear or, more frightening, a wolf. Exhaustion intensifying her fear and panic, she begins to organize the noises in her head into a familiar tune, one in fact her orchestra had performed before the war. "She could hear the carefree melody of violins, their high notes meandering forth as Peter opened the gate from his home, a staccato array of sounds bringing to her mind the young boy frolicking and jumping in an open meadow. She saw the bird he met in that meadow, the chirping and singing of flutes, the music swirling just like the bird flying in circles of delight." Tasa hears a cacophonous dialogue among the instruments and animals: "meandering violins, chirping flutes, quacking oboes, the creeping clarinet…" A full story emerges with Peter's grandfather warning him that the meadow is a dangerous place, and that a wolf could come out of the forest. In the end of this symphonic story, Peter captures the wolf and frees the animals, freeing Tasa's mind to consider the Nazi to be a man, and perhaps a man like her father and uncles. She begins to wonder what had happened to turn this man into a hunter of Jews. Her mind's wanders, and she loses herself within vivid images of her past. She drifts in an out of consciousness only to awaken to learn the Nazis are gone.
Violin Concerto in D Minor, op 47 by Jean Sibelius
Just two months later, in March of 1944, Tasa's father and Danik leave the safety of the bunker, and Tasa who they will call for later, and return east to Podkamien, having heard it was liberated by the Soviets. They believe the village near Josef Gynp's property is also free of Germans. Days later, the sound of gunfire from the west proves otherwise. Josef is determined to get Tasa to her father and freedom, just 10 kilometers away. They leave together at night by foot, running through the fields, the harsh winds hissing at their backs, low clouds as a veil along the horizon. Tasa hears a whine and a shrill just as Josef pushes her down into the ground and rockets swish over their heads. A thundering boom shakes the ground as the Katyusha rocket explodes toward its German target far in the distance behind them. The warlike third movement of Sibelius's violin concerto enters Tasa's consciousness, "the showy and melodic passage evoking for her the expanse of a battlefield. . .She became a cog within this grand machine, the music so powerful it pulled her inside beginning with its march-like percussion." She found herself merging into the violins and the steady layering of horns until Josef's terse commands to move broke into her musical trance. Tasa now dashed ahead without hesitation.
G'schicten aus dem Wienerwald (Tales from the Vienna Woods), op. 325 by Johann Strauss Jr.
After the war, Tasa's Podkamien is under Soviet control. The family is staatenlos—without a country—living among other displaced persons in Vienna awaiting visas to immigrate to the United States. Tasa's transitional home is just two kilometers northwest of the center of Vienna, known as Innere Stadt or District One. While seeing herself as a nomad, not unlike the gypsies, Tasa begins to heal during her stay, attending university and embracing the sights and smells of this international city. She is initially dismayed when, after eighteen months, she learns their visas have been approved and their departure is imminent. To bid farewell to a city she has grown to love, she takes an early morning stroll along Vienna's still silent streets and finds herself inside Vienna's expansive public garden, Stadtpark, face-to-face with the bronze figure of Johann Strauss Jr., the Waltz King. She takes in his full, wavy hair; his thick mustache that curls upward; observes how he holds a violin to his chin, his bow high, touching the strings of his instrument as if he were about to play. Tasa leans against the edge of the limestone arch as the long introduction of Tales from the Vienna Woods plays in her mind. She evokes the wooded eastern foothills of the Alps. Sounds of birds in song and the flowing water of rivers conjure for her images of the countryside. "She could hear the distinctive plucking of a zither, drawing her further into that world of peasant living in wooded playground, its clear and high-pitched twangs gentle at first, then moving faster. Just as with the wedding dances she'd watched long ago with her grandfather—as klezmorim played their violins—she could visualize the peasants' gaiety and whirling movements. Their wide and wild steps became shorter and more elegant as the folk music crossed to city life—from stamping to gliding, from hopping to sliding." With the imagined sound of crashing cymbals and a snare drumroll, Tasa is brought back to her surroundings: the landscape around her, the people now walking along the footpaths. She grasps her reality that a ship will soon be waiting and she would need to find her path, again.
I hope, through this music, I've allowed you to experience Tasa's journey—Tasa's song. As the Helen Keller epigraph I placed at the beginning of this novel acknowledges:
"Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it."
Linda Kass and Tasa's Song links:
also at Largehearted Boy:
Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (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
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