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May 22, 2017

Book Notes - Susan Rieger "The Heirs"

The Heirs

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.

Susan Rieger's novel The Heirs is a smart and compulsively readable family drama.

Booklist wrote of the book:

"Told both in flashbacks and at the turn of the millennium, there’s something timeless about this family drama; take it back one hundred years, and it would easily fit in among the novels of the Gilded Age. It is a charming, slightly haunting look at a family dealing with the inheritance of legacy rather than money and wondering if what happens after a relationship matters as much as how it was experienced at the time."


In her own words, here is Susan Rieger's Book Notes music playlist for her novel The Heirs:



The family in The Heirs, the five Falkes sons and their parents, are a musical family, except for the mother, Eleanor, who, in the hands of a less fond author, might be called a musical zero. As I wrote in the novel, “Eleanor never listened to music. It made her anxious.” I am like Eleanor that way. Spoken words are music to my ears: plays, public readings, radio stories. After that, I like words with melodies: Sondheim, The American Songbook, South Pacific, Gilbert & Sullivan, requiems, Richard Strauss’ songs, Evensong, 60’s music. For the music I wrote about in The Heirs, I did research, as another novelist might do research on German Expressionist painting. Some of it I learned from my resident expert. My husband, like Rupert, the father in the book, is very musical, and his classical tastes have kept me from sounding like a complete idiot when the subject of Mahler comes up at dinner parties.

For two of the Falkeses, Rupert and his middle son, Jack, music is life-giving. For the middle son Sam, it is sustenance. For the youngest, Tom, it invokes a nostalgia for an era he missed out on. For the two oldest, Harry and Will, it is their youth.

As the novel opens, Rupert is dying; Eleanor is seeing to his care; his five sons, all in their 30’s, are standing by. After his death, a woman comes forward, claiming she had two sons with him. Cue the kettle drums.

As unmusical or amusical as I am, thumbing through The Heirs for this exercise, I discovered music humming its way all through it.

1. Evensong
I think of Evensong, the Anglican sung service of evening prayer, as Rupert’s song cycle. A Dickensian orphan, growing up during the Great Depression in a Church of England orphanage, Rupert sang his way out of poverty and loss. He had “a lovely boy’s soprano voice that made him standout from the unruly, runny-nosed, scabrous little boys he lived with.” When he was eight, he won a scholarship to a choir school. This lead to a scholarship at an English Public School which lead in turn to a scholarship at Cambridge. A churchgoer all his life, Rupert never sent his sons to Sunday School, only to proper Church services. He didn’t believe in Sunday School. “Religion was music, mystery and ritual. Bible stories were no different from Greek myths. He left both to the D’Aulaires.” The Evensong Service includes canticles in a variety of settings, anthems and psalm chants, all in Latin. There are readings from the Old and New Testament and, at the end, the priest delivers a very short prayer, distilled as: God save the Queen, God help the poor. The choir at Kings College, Cambridge, Rupert’s college, has made several recordings of the Evensong service.

2. "Jerusalem"
At Rupert’s funeral at St Thomas in New York City, the choir sings the great English anthem, Jerusalem, as a kind of Christian Kaddish for an Englishman dying abroad. Exuding a muscular Christianity, Jerusalem is the most English of anthems, less a hymn to God than to the British bulldog spirit. “Of course,” Eleanor said, the service would include "Jerusalem." At his death, Rupert had been living in America for forty years. He insisted he’d become thoroughly American, “no sense of history anymore,” but his Englishness shone through, undiminished to the end. The English composer Hubert Parry set the music to William Blake’s poem. Chariots of Fire, the 1981 Academy Award winning film about the English track and field team at the 1924 Paris Olympics, takes its title from the Blake poem. It opens with "Jerusalem" being sung in full throat at an aged athlete’s funeral. For a misty-eyed performance, there is a YouTube recording of the Last Night of the Proms, September 10, 2012.

3. Bird & Diz Album 1950
When he was five, Jack heard the album Bird and Diz at a friend’s. He came home and announced to his mother that she needed to buy him all of Dizzy’s record, all of Bird’s, a record player and a horn. He started trumpet lessons when he was six. He loved Coltrane and Parker too much to play the sax. “I cry when I hear a great sax. It’s like a human voice,” he said. “Chet, Dizzy, Miles, Louis, they make me glad to be alive.’” Jack becomes a professional trumpet player. I think, though never say, that Bloomdido, the first song on the Bird and Diz album, set him on his way.

4. "Taps"
"Taps," the bugle call at dusk, is also the military funeral tattoo. Jack plays it twice in the novel. He plays it, fittingly, at his grandfather’s funeral, “surprising the priests by reducing most of the mourners to tears. Danny Boy, with bagpipes, was usually the reliable weeper.” Jack was not surprised. He had played it years ago, the night before his oldest brother Harry went off to college. It had been a rousing evening. When Will said it was Harry’s last meal, everyone laughed – except Sam. He protested. “This is serious. This is the end of normal life.” Every one fell silent. Jack, age 12, stood up. “I should play ‘Taps’ ” he said. He left the room to fetch his trumpet. In the lull, Harry poured himself a glass of wine. “To Mom and Dad.” he said. The others replied. “Hear, hear.” The first melancholy notes of the call rang through the apartment. Eleanor and Rupert “looked at each other, then looked away, too happy to speak.” Taps typically takes 59 seconds to play, long enough to lift your heart or break it.

5. Schubert’s Songs: "Winterreise"
Sam, the middle son, is the only one of the five who loved classical music. Songs and chamber music were his favorites. It started early. “He would toddle unevenly into the library where his father was reading and point to the stereo. Rupert would put on a record. As the music filled the room, Sam would sit on the floor leaning against his father’s legs. He never fell asleep.” Even as a small child, Sam couldn’t listen to music and do anything else. He hated background music. All music was foreground. “Music invades my brain,” he would say. When he hummed, as he often did while working on some project, he didn’t notice he was doing it. “My brain does it by itself,” he told his mother. Both Rupert and Sam liked the haunted melodies of Schubert’s songs. I think their favorite is "Winterreise." I picture them in the study, sitting companionably in comfortable chairs, listening to the 1954 Hans Hotter recording, with Gerald Moore on the piano.

6. Brahm’s German Requiem (Ein Deutsches Requirm)
At 38, sad, single, lonely, and childless, Sam’s best friend, Susanna, had a miscarriage. Feeling time was running out, she’d gotten herself pregnant. Hearing the news, Sam rushed to comfort her. He found her weeping and distraught. He settled her on the sofa, gave her a glass of Arneis, and put on Brahm’s German Requiem. For months after 9/11, I played the Otto Klemperer recording, with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and the Philharmonia Orchestra, 1961. I wept every time. Weeping is the only way through grief.

6. "I Heard It Through The Grapevine"
Tom, the baby of the family, was a federal prosecutor. He was the do-gooder in the family, the most sensitive to suffering, his own as well as others. In high school and college, he devoted all his free time to the forgotten and abused: single mothers with three jobs, children with fetal alcohol syndrome, cons, ex-cons, gang members, prostitutes, drug addicts, SRO tenants. “His heroes were the Berrigans. He cursed his ill luck for having grown up post-Selma, post-Vietnam, post-Nixon, post-Attica, with no reason to sit in at lunch counters, burn the American flag, chain himself to a prison fence, steal FBI files, go underground.” His music, like his polititics was rooted in the 60th, The Doors the Stones, the Beatles, and, most of all, Motown. When I think of Tom, I hear "Dancing in the Street," by Martha and the Vandellas, (not David Bowie, not Mick Jagger) and "I Heard it Through the Grapevine," by Gladys Knight & the Pips (not Marvin Gaye, no matter how heart tugging).

7. "The Sultans of Swing"
Harry the oldest and most conventional of the brothers liked the music his friends liked. His favorite album was Synchronicity by The Police, and although it’s never said in the novel, his favorite song was Dire Straits’ "The Sultans of Swing," mostly because everyone at school dances pointed at him when they heard the line “And Harry doesn’t mind if he doesn’t make the scene.” Will liked what Harry liked. “Will had worshipped Harry when he was little, following him everywhere, doing whatever he did. Well into his teenage years, he was under Harry’s thrall, safe and surly in his thralldom.” Harry and Will were not amusical like their mother – they hadn’t had to spend Saturday afternoons at Philharmonic concerts as Eleanor had – but music didn’t mean much to them, not what books and movies meant.


Susan Rieger and The Heirs links:

Kirkus Reviews review
Publishers Weekly review


also at Largehearted Boy:

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