July 6, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Christopher Bram's The Art of History is another insightful and informative entry in Graywolf's "The Art of..." series, one that explores the value in reading books on history and historical fiction.
Kirkus wrote of the book:
"An amiable stroll through selected works of history and historical fiction. . . . Though Bram acknowledges how we can benefit from history, learn from it, and deepen our perspective, it's refreshing that he underscores the pure pleasure of reading and that he takes such delight in it."
In The Art of History I explore different ways writers and readers recreate the past, using details, stories and literary devices to time travel to other eras. But I was not able to talk about one of my favorite tools: music. I love music almost as much as I love literature and movies. Music from the past often enables me to visit the past, in both my reading and my writing.
There is nothing like the right song to conjure up a foreign decade or century when I work on my own historical fiction. Bits of music also provide windows when I read about the past. It's a highly subjective business, but I suspect many other readers do the same. Here are a few favorite examples of music that I've found useful as a reader, and other pieces that have fed my imagination as a writer.
"Sing, Sing, Sing"
My second novel, Hold Tight, takes place in New York in 1942, a tale of espionage set in a male brothel on the waterfront. The climax is in Times Square during a bond rally when Benny Goodman and His Orchestra play "Sing, Sing, Sing," with the great Gene Krupa on drums. It's a strong, driving piece of music, the perfect accompaniment for a chase scene. The sailor hero, Hank Fayette, charges through the crowd in pursuit of the Nazi sympathizer who killed his pal, a black houseboy named Juke. I can't guess how many readers know the piece and hear it in their heads when they read this scene, but I certainly heard while I wrote it. It fed my sense of 1940s New York as well as added a frantic edge to the episode in my mind's ear.
The History of England by Thomas Babington Macaulay is a great unread classic, the long, detailed account of sixteen short years in British history. The chief event is the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when the English Parliament rebelled against James II, a Catholic, and invited William of Orange of the Netherlands, a Protestant, to take over the throne. He crossed the channel with a small army and landed on the coast. His army marched to London playing "Lilliburlero" over and over again on fife and drums. The lilting, singsongy march was later incorporated into The Beggar's Opera by John Gay and, later still, used in Stanley Kubrick's movie Barry Lyndon. I already knew the tune when I read Macauley and it brought the campaign fully to life for me. Imagine thousands of soldiers marching over the green landscape to the rolling grind of drums and shrill piping of flutes. (Various lyrics have been written for the tune since the English Civil War, but all are justly forgotten.)
Selections from La Traviata
Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa's wonderful novel, The Leopard, is set in Sicily in the 1860s during the unification of Italy. Because Verdi supported unification, his music was used to celebrate the movement, even when inappropriate. When the Prince (know as the Leopard) arrives in a small town with his family, the local brass band plays a gypsy song, "Noi siamo zingarelle" from La Traviata. In the church the organist plays "Amami, Alfredo" from the same opera. Nobody comments that the opera itself is about a high-priced Parisian prostitute dying of tuberculosis. If you know the music, it's fun to imagine it played by a brass band or church organ. But if you know the fuller context, the incongruity opens a side door into the contradictions of the past.
"The Blue-Tailed Fly"
The Art of History includes a chapter on American slavery, looking at the different ways it's treated in both history and fiction. I mention slave songs in passing but did not have room to explore them. If I had, I would have discussed grand, soulful spirituals like "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Let My People Go," and "Roll, Jordan, Roll." But I also would have looked at snarky, ironic ditties like "The Blue-Tailed Fly." With the refrain "Jimmy crack corn and I don't care/My master's gone away," the song seems to be a slave mourning the death of his master, especially when sung slowly. But pick up the pace and swing it, and mockery comes through. The grief is only crocodile tears. Again, the contradictions and ambiguities bring the past alive for us, making it seem more like the present.
Songs by Yvette Guilbert and Aristide Bruant
In Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Dr. Urbino constantly plays old phonograph records of French music. The good doctor is a Francophile and this music provides a pocket of European culture in the small Caribbean city where he lives with his wife, Fermina. The reader imagines these songs playing on a scratchy phonograph, but also as sung by a screechy parrot. (This parrot will be the literal death of Dr. Urbino.) Garcia Marquez gives us no song titles, but just the names of the singers evoke belle epoque Paris. Both Guilbert and Bruant were sketched by Toulouse-Lautrec. On YouTube you can hear the original recordings (although not the version sung by the parrot).
This is yet another march, like "Lilliburlero"--sadly, too much history is scored to military marches. George Armstrong Custer made this quick-step Irish jig the marching tune for the Seventh Cavalry. Every movie about Custer's Last Stand features it. Son of the Morning Star, Evan Connell's glorious grab bag of Western wonder tales around Custer, provides more stories about this catchy melody. The regimental band stayed behind when the regiment went to the Little Big Horn, but they played the tune one last time as Custer and his men marched away.
My seventh novel, The Notorious Dr. August, tells the tale of a metaphysical pianist--a spiritualist who used the piano as a kind of Ouija board. The story runs from the Civil War to the 1920s and incorporates a ton of music, ranging from Schumann to Wagner to Scott Joplin to Louis Armstrong. There was so much music that I put together a tape cassette--this was the age of mix-tapes--titled "The Music of Dr. August" with samples of work mentioned in the novel.
One of my favorite discoveries was Jacques Offenbach. He's most famous now for his one grand opera, Tales of Hoffmann, but he wrote a score of operettas, playful, witty, musical farces that delighted 19th century audiences and are recently being rediscovered. The sweet candy, tinsel-wrapped orchestrations plunge me into the Europe of 1870 in ways that serious classical work by Brahms and Wagner can't. The giants are music for the ages while Offenbach is music for a particular time, one of pleasure and money. It's as time-bound as the dress fashions, which is what a novelist needs.
I often played his music to get myself into the right mood. (I can't listen to music while I write, but find it useful when daydreaming or plotting a scene.) However, I learned that the "Barcarolle" featured in the Venice episode in Tales of Hoffman was written much earlier as a stand-alone piece. I gave it to my protagonist to play in the New York City brothel where he works as a boy. He sits at a piano, wearing a blindfold so he won't see the cavorting customers as he makes his way through the piece’s exotic, languorous repetitions.
Christopher Bram and The Art of History 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
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)
guest book reviews
Librairie Drawn & Quarterly Books of the Week (recommended new books, magazines, and comics)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists
Word Bookstores Books of the Week (weekly new book highlights)