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April 19, 2017

Book Notes - Emma Richler "Be My Wolff"

Be My Wolff

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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Emma Richler's ambitious novel Be My Wolff is innovatively crafted and broad in scope.

Library Journal wrote of the book:

"Jewel-like bits of fable and fact are interwoven with modern-day conversations . . . as the tale of the Wolff family unfolds and reaches back into history in adroit and surprising ways."

In her own words, here is Emma Richler's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Be My Wolff:

I love music, but I never listen to it when writing, because music is so emotionally manipulative and I cannot have that kind of influence playing on me while I work. This is not to say musical ideas do not influence my work in other ways, but these are self-generated, and character driven. There is, for instance, a great deal of music in Be My Wolff, meaning that during the many years it took me to write this novel, and especially in early stages, I listened to the music that arose from the story. Who knows how this process begins, this exchange of predilections between character and author? I'd rather not know. There is music in this novel that I loved as a child. There is music in this novel I knew little about, but was obsessively drawn to before starting to write. In Be My Wolff, Katya Wolff, mother of the protagonists and a Russian émigrée, is a conductor of a Russian male choir. Her sister is a composer. This novel is full of music! When I listen to music out of hours, it is usually a very concerted occupation; I sit and listen and do nothing else. I listen over and over to the same piece and then I am able to play it while exercising or doing chores. In recent times I began to sing in Russian while cooking and cleaning, and also in my dreams, though I sing poorly and do not speak Russian.

1. The Foundling Hospital Anthem, G F Handel, HWV 268

Handel became a governor of the Foundling Hospital in London, influenced by his friends Captain Thomas Coram and William Hogarth. Coram campaigned for the founding of the Hospital for many years and eventually won a Royal Charter from George II in 1739. Hogarth persuaded some of his famous artist friends to donate works to the Hospital in order to attract patrons and charitable donations, and Handel conducted his first benefit concert in the chapel there in 1749. He attended these yearly performances until his death and they continued thereafter until the 1770s. He also wrote the hospital anthem, which includes his Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah. He left a copy of the great oratorio to the Foundling Hospital in his will. Listening to the Hallelujah Chorus is doubly moving for me now.

2. Peter's Theme from Peter & the Wolf, Sergei Prokofiev, Op.67

Prokofiev was commissioned by Natalya Sats, director of the Central Children's Theatre in Moscow in 1936 and the piece had its debut at a children's concert at the Moscow Conservatory in that year. I've always loved this work and grew up with the version narrated by the great Sir Ralph Richardson. I've listened to other narrations, but love this one above all. The music resurfaced and rang in my ears before I began this novel. I listened to it endlessly, not quite understanding how strongly it would figure. Sometimes an author waits a lifetime for a passion to find its place.

3. Zemlyanka, music, Konstantin Listov. Lyrics, Alexei Surkov

There are a number of versions of this available to hear on the internet and the oldest are the most delectable. Basically, this is a sentimental war song written during the Battle of Moscow in 1941. A 'zemlyanka' is a dugout, used by many a Russian soldier. The song is quoted several times in the novel, both Lev Wolff and his wife Katya having had young fathers who fought on the Eastern Front. The lyrics are particularly poignant. To quote a few lines:

'In a snow-white field near Moscow/ I want you above all to hear/ How sad my living voice is.'

4. Little Blue Shawl (sometimes known as 'Blue Scarf') is another Russian war song, this one a patriotic number about a promise of eternal love from a girl to a departing soldier. The lyrics are not so distinguished, but it was a hugely popular song and written, ironically and not atypically, by a Jewish lyricist and a Jewish composer. Jewish compositions were much loved, but their authors did not do so well in Stalinist Russia.

5. Oh What Can the Matter Be, or, Johnny's So Long at the Fair is a song shared between the lovers in the novel. It has many permutations and can be traced back to late 18thc England, when it was sung as a folk ballad. I am fond of the traditional lyrics and the song is both playful and full of longing. The main characters Rachel and Zachariah often speak to one another in song and folktale refrains. I think her anxiety for him is sublimated in ballads such as these.

6. Lavender's Blue is an even older English folk ballad, 17thc in origin, and it has many variations and many verses. Of these, the earliest is the one favoured by Rachel and Zach. The song is playful and has an incantatory quality, which suits them, and has little to do with the popular dance version of this nursery ballad, written in 1948-9, some 250 years after the original. This is the refrain Rachel and Zach sing to each other:

Lavender's blue, diddle, diddle,
Lavender's green;
When I am king, diddle, diddle,
You shall be queen.

7. Reuben and Rachel, William Gooch and Harry Birch, Boston, 1871

This is another duet of Rachel and Zachariah's, adopted from memories of childhood bedtimes when Katya, for whom tenderness does not come easily, would sing the song to them, substituting 'Zach-a-ri- ah' for 'Reuben, Reuben'. I too have an emotional association with the song, which my own mother, for whom tenderness does come easily, used to sing to my brother Jacob when he was a baby, substituting Jacob, of course, for the Reuben name in the duet. In my mother's version, as with Katya's, the sea in the verse was the Irish and not the Northern, and so, in my adaptation:

Zach-a-ri-ah, I've been thinking,
What a queer world this would be
If the girls were all transported
Far across the Irish Sea.

8. O My Field/ The Evening Bell/ Steppe, Endless Steppe/ Along Peterskaya Street

These are four Russian choral songs that obsessed me for the dozen years and more I spent in the writing of this novel and they became a recurring theme in Be My Wolff, important for the whole family of Russian émigrés and their children. I heard the extraordinary singing on the EMI recording 'The Male Choir of St Petersburg, conducted by Vadim Afanasiev. who did the arrangements for all the above, but 'Along Peterskaya Street', this last of which is a hilarious drinking song that I fell in love with for its hilarious and exuberant lyrics concerning a fellow riding alone in a troika, drunk on vodka by the half-pail, and bringing a fish home for his girl so she can make him a stew with parsley, hey! When my mother still had her flat in Chelsea, London, I lived with her most of the winters in the desperately sad aftermath of my father's death. I used to drive her merrily crazy singing 'Along Peterskaya Street' in English and Russian and, in fact, by playing this record as a whole. Over and over. Some of the songs are exceedingly beautiful and haunting, 'Steppe, endless steppe' and 'O My Field' especially. The vodka, the fish, the bells, the snow, the love, exile, nostalgia and tragedy in these songs, all figure in the book. These are songs with powerful echoes for the Wolff family. To quote a few:

(From O My Field)

O my field, my open field,
You are my wide expanse.

(from The evening bell)

The evening bell,
How many thoughts it arouses in me,
Of the days of my youth in my homeland,
Where I knew love, where my father's house stands.

(from Steppe, endless steppe)

Give to my wife
A word of farewell
[. . . ]
And tell her that I died here,
In the freezing steppe,
And that I have taken her love
Away with me.

9. Felix Mendelssohn Octet in E-flat major, Op.20

Mendelssohn wrote this when he was sixteen. Mendelssohn, and his love for his sister Fanny, plays a small part in this novel for several reasons. If there is a piece of Mendelssohn's most often mentioned in Be My Wolff, it is The Hebrides (or Fingal's Cave), Op. 26, but it was the immensity of feeling and energy of the Octet that swirled about in my head in the course of writing, however, because it informed me about the boy and the man. I also listened to his sister Fanny's Piano Trio in D Major, Op 11. This man of extraordinary talents and moods and capacities died aged thirty-eight, less than six months after his beloved sister Fanny. I think the tempest of his life and his 'Hebrides Overture' and his loves much affects Rachel Wolff.

10. The writing of Be My Wolff was a compulsive and obsessive and feverish adventure and took up many years of my life. I often lay on the floor with exhaustion and, for relaxation, would listen to Max Richter's Recomposed, his Vivaldi Four Seasons adaptation, published in 2012. It is beyond measure exhilarating and moving and I am attached to it for many reasons, amongst them my childhood memories of listening to The Four Seasons on car journeys to and from our country house in the Eastern Townships, Quebec, and my more recent interest in the man as a music teacher at the orphanage, the Ospedale della Pietà in Venice in the early 18thc, a detail about which I had been ignorant and which fed my fascination for the tardy foundation of the Foundling Hospital in London and the support it found in another remarkable composer and émigré German, George Frideric Handel.

Emma Richler and Be My Wolff links:

the author's Wikipedia entry

Publishers Weekly review
Quill & Quire review
Toronto Star review

Globe and Mail interview with the author
Montreal Gazette profile of the author
Signature interview with the author
Toronto Star profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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