October 25, 2016
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Rabih Alameddine's The Angel of History is a poignant and unforgettable novel of loss and assimilation.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"In this provocative portrait of a man in crisis, masterful storyteller Alameddine takes on some of the most wrenching conflicts of the day."
I hated many things about the movie Philadelphia, but the one scene I loathed above all was when a weeping and dying Tom Hanks, wearing a hospital gown at home, if I recall correctly, stood up next to his mobile IV stand, and expounded on the magnificence of opera to the homophobic Denzel Washington, who was so moved by the homo-authenticity and the soprano voice of Maria Calllas emanating from the high-end condo speakers that he turned into a nice homo-accepting person who lived happily every after—without homosexuals, though, because you know, they died.
How clichéd, how sophomoric.
The Angel of History is a novel about memory and forgetting, and I wanted to remember what it was like during the AIDS years, how I felt. Nothing jogged my memory more than listening to the same music I did during those years. And yes, I found myself, over and over, playing the great sopranos and weeping in the dark.
Here's a list:
* "Baïlèro" from Chants d'Auvergne by Joseph Canteloube, sung by the great Kiri te Kanewa. I can't think of a better opening to a list.
* "Aria (Cantilena)" from Bachianas brasileiras No.5 by Heitor Villa-Lobos, sung by Kiri te Kanewa. My heart breaks every time when she begins to hum the melody. You might think that no one would want to hear a great soprano hum. A soprano that is not Florence Foster Jenkins with her mouth closed? Trust me.
* "Bete aber auch dabei" by Bach, sung by Kathleen Battle with Itzhak Perlman. A perfect marriage of voice and aria. I love this so much that it appeared in my first novel all those years ago.
* "Le spectre de la rose" from Les nuits d'été by Hector Berlioz, sung by Jessye Norman. I can't think of the AIDS years without remembering the wondrous 1991 short film RSVP, in which the protagonist returns home after his partner's death, turns on the radio to hear the song, requested by his lover before he died.
* "Ebben? Ne andrò lontana" from La Wally by Alfredo Catalani, sung by Wilhelmenia Fernandez. The Aria was put on the non-opera-queen map by the French film Diva. Divine, it is.
* "Timor di me? . . . D'amor sull'ali rosee" from Il Travatore by Verdi, sung by Leontyne Price. Well, you can't have a list of arias without Verdi and Price, can you?
* "Un bel di' vedremo" from Madama Butterfly by Puccini, sung by Anna Moffo. Her perfectly child-like rendition of this aria is the embodiment of the illusions, assumptions, and dreams that a generation of gay men cherished before AIDS. Moffo's interpretation of this song represents, in my mind, the moment before everything came crashing down.
* "Sì: mi chiamano Mimì" from La Bohème by Puccini, sung by Montserrat Caballé. A must in this list. I mean, come on, a soprano living the bohemian life about to die of consumption?
* "Beim Schlafengehen" from Four Last Songs by Strauss, sung by Karita Mattila. One of my all time favorite songs. It was difficult picking a singer for this one; Norman and Price do an incredible job, as does Renée Fleming. I'm going with Mattila because I haven't chosen one of hers yet, and Fleming is coming up next.
* "Ave Maria" by Schubert, sung by Renée Fleming. I want magic; Fleming gives it in abundance.
* "Aria : Ich habe genug" by Bach, sung by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, of course. Colm Tóibín once called her Saint Lorraine, and to this day, I can't figure why she hasn't been canonized. I have no clue what her religious affiliation is, but really, who cares about such trivialities when you hear this aria? Saint Lorraine, she will always be.
* Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (Symphony No. 3) by Górecki, sung by Dawn Upshaw. The famous recording of this symphony was released in 1992, at the height of the AIDS epidemic. It was both a catalyst and salve for the times. Here's the Wikipedia entry: A solo soprano sings Polish texts in each of the three movements. The first is a 15th-century Polish lament of Mary, mother of Jesus, the second a message written on the wall of a Gestapo cell during World War II, and the third a Silesian folk song of a mother searching for her son killed by the Germans in the Silesian uprisings. The first and third movements are written from the perspective of a parent who has lost a child, and the second movement from that of a child separated from a parent.
Rabih Alameddine and The Angel of History links:
All Things Considered interview with the author
Guardian profile of the author
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for The Hakawati
Largehearted Boy Book Notes playlist by the author for An Unnecessary Woman
New Yorker profile of the author
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)