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April 23, 2019

H. S. Cross's Playlist for Her Novel "Grievous"

Grievous

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

H. S. Cross's novel Grievous is a compelling book that takes us back into the world of her debut, Wilberforce, five years later.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

"Five years after the upheaval depicted in Wilberforce (2015), life at St. Stephen’s Academy has returned to its version of normalcy. That is to say, its public school boys talk a strange slang while enduring bullying, caning, and countless other rituals . . . Cross is a good writer who draws on a Kipling-esque nostalgia in her entertainingly peculiar picture of the public school as crucible for young male Brits."


In her own words, here is H. S. Cross's Book Notes music playlist for her novel Grievous:



Grievous takes place, as my first novel, Wilberforce, did, at St. Stephen’s Academy, a fictional boys’ boarding school in England. Grievous spans nine months in 1931 and focuses on teacher John Grieves (nicknamed Grievous) and his student Gray Riding. Gray begins a secret correspondence with John’s 13-year-old goddaughter, while John is in love with her mother. The action—at the Academy and across England and the Continent—includes love, betrayal, illness, grief, Quakers, morphine, theater, and second chances. It’s also shot through with music, both popular and sacred, so I created a playlist to accompany you as you read the book.

(Incidentally, many of the selections for Wilberforce apply to this novel, too, so I commend those Book Notes to you if you’d like more of this world.)

Bolling Suite for Violin and Piano Jazz Trio: Romance

The novel opens on a wet day during Lent; the characters are bored and stir-crazy, so when the rain lets up, Gray Riding and his friend go on an adventure out-of-bounds, an adventure that turns into a conscious imitation of the opening chapter of Kipling’s The Compete Stalky & Co., a novel with which they are obsessed. This movement of Bolling’s Suite has long been my soundtrack for the novel’s opening, from the piece’s meditative beginning when the characters are languishing in class, to the youthful, exuberant main theme, which always sounds to me like boys running across the wet countryside. The piece has a bright, almost innocent energy to it, like these boys and their hijinks. The novel itself throws readers in at the deep end; you’ve got to sink or swim in the first few chapters as you acclimatize to the school, the many characters, and their crazy slang. In the meantime, this piece conjures the atmosphere to make you feel at home there.

“Moon of Love”

“Moon of Love” comes from the musical Very Good Eddie (1918, music Jerome Kern, lyrics Schuyler Greene), but it became a popular song on its own afterwards. Trevor, one of the schoolboys in the barn, sings it in chapter 2 to mock his friend Gray when Gray displays at bit too much loyalty to their housemaster. It’s a fun, upbeat period song with a nice patter.

“Dear Lord and Father of Mankind”

Back at the Academy later that night, everyone gathers in the chapel for evening prayer and sings the gorgeous “Dear Lord and Father of Mankind,” tune Repton by C. H. H. Parry, words by the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier. We experience the hymn in chapter 6 through John Grieves, housemaster and Quaker, as he wishes for calm amidst the problems that beset him.

Magnificat in G

Charles Villiers Stanford’s setting in G of the Magnificat contains one of the great treble solos in the choral repertoire, and our young soloist at St. Stephen’s, Timothy Halton, gets to sing it. The solo happens “offstage”, but there’s preparation in chapter 14, including by Kardleigh, the school’s physician and choirmaster, as he tries to jury-rig the Academy’s decrepit organ to manage the accompaniment.

“There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy”, “My Song is Love Unknown”

These two pieces are sung in chapter 17 at the end-of-term assembly before everyone leaves for Easter vacation. Some rough things have gone down since the jaunty opening of the novel, and few people are in the mood for these hymns. “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” is actually an anthem based on the hymn “Souls of Men.” Some of the characters, who are Anglican, consider its sentiment soppy and/or contemptibly Roman Catholic. “My Song is Love Unknown,” words Samuel Crossman (1664), tune John Ireland (1918), is typically sung on Good Friday. It first appeared in the Public School Hymnbook in 1919, the same hymnbook used at St. Stephen’s. When Dr. Sebastian became Headmaster in 1926, he made it the school hymn. It’s a weird choice for school hymn—more typical might be something rousing and martial such as “He Who Would Valiant Be”—but Sebastian is a maverick, and he had a whole dream about this hymn. (You’ll have to read the third book to hear about it.)

“Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams”, “Let’s Do It”, “Let’s Have Another Cup of Coffee”, “Keep Your Sunny Side Up”, “Happy Days Are Here Again”

Leaving the school for the Easter holidays, we travel to London, Kent, and Paris, where the air is freer and the music upbeat. These popular songs are on the tongues of many characters, and though copyright restrictions prevent the novel from quoting much of them (sometimes they’re only described obliquely), you can listen to them anyway and know what the characters are humming. Kardleigh sings a bit of “Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams” in chapter 13, and John’s goddaughter, Cordelia, is au courant with all the best numbers even if John doesn’t follow when she sings “something about rainbows and coffee and pieces of pie.” Read chapters 20 and 23 and see what you hear.

“Dream a Little Dream”

Later in the novel, John visits his best friend, Meg, and her family. He’s been secretly in love with her since he met her and loves her still, even though she’s married. In chapter 37, “Dream a Little Dream” (music Fabian Andre and Wilbur Schwandt, lyrics Gus Kahn) is playing on the gramophone, and it echoes in his mind across the whole brandy-and-morphine-infused evening.

“Try to Learn to Love”, “Ye Holy Angels Bright”, “Fantasia on Christmas Carols”, “Faire is the Heaven”

In chapters 34 and 35, some of the boys decide to put on a play, a whimsical thing they write themselves called Flight. In one of its scenes, Orville and Wilbur Wright sing Noel Coward’s “Try to Learn to Love,” a sweet, hopeful song that our friend Halton, musically gifted but academically a disaster, finds encouraging. Halton is inspired by a dream to set an excerpt from Saint-Exupéry’s Courrier Sud (Southern Mail) to music; creeping down to the choir room in the middle of the night, he takes a monologue (in French, which he doesn’t understand) from the script and sets it to Darwell’s 148th, the traditional tune for the hymn “Ye Holy Angels Bright.” We experience the play itself through the eyes of John Grieves, who finds it bizarre in the extreme but also compelling. He describes it in a letter to Meg and compares it to Vaughan Williams’s “Fantasia on Christmas Carols.”

The day after the play is Michaelmas, and Gray Riding (who wrote the play) encounters “Ye Holy Angels Bright” sung in chapel. He feels the hymn is far better than what he had written and falls into despair listening to the other music of the service, including William Harris’s “Faire is the Heaven” (which he mishears as Fairies in Heaven). He believes “the greatest stories had already been told. No concoctions of a schoolboy could be more than a speck on that eternal face.”

“Lead Kindly Light”

Halton has another solo in chapters 43/44 with the haunting “Lead Kindly Light,” tune Alberta. The hymn is based on the poem “The Pillar of the Cloud” by John Henry Newman, a fact that Gray learns in theology lesson when forced to study it. The hymn’s language exactly echoes what he had felt the night before, and he starts to get a little paranoid thinking about the coincidence. When it’s finally sung in chapel, several characters feel broken apart by the beauty of it.

The Litany, “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus”

As the school assembles for the start-of-Advent service, the choir sings the Tallis setting of the Litany, John rethinks his approach to discipline, and in a balcony above, John’s goddaughter and his student… I won’t spoil it for you, see chapter 45. They also sing “Come Thou Long Expected Jesus” to the tune Cross of Jesus.

“Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending”, “Adam Lay ybounden”, “Puttin’ on the Ritz”, “People Look East”, “Once in Royal David’s City”, “O Little Town of Bethlehem”

As the story careens towards the end of term and its traditional Carol Service, the choir is rehearsing several pieces, including “Lo He Comes With Clouds Descending” and “Adam Lay ybounden,” pieces that worm through everyone’s minds.

In chapter 50, Cordelia gets Gray to dance with her to “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” which they hear on the wireless. He can’t dance, and it’s too fast, but “she smiled at his missteps and pulled him in a way that made his heart beat in his mouth. His ears drank and his hands held hers and he no longer cared what might happen to the old life.” Meantime, our friend Halton is bitterly disappointed not to get the famous solo at the beginning of “Once in Royal David’s City” because his voice is changing. He gets busy composing again, though, this time a descant for the Advent hymn “People Look East” (words by Eleanor Farjeon), which he teaches to another boy and plots to insert, unannounced, into the Carol Service.

The book closes with the sound of church bells playing a Christmas carol, not specified, but I’ve always imagined “O Little Town of Bethlehem” to the tune Forest Green.


H. S. Cross and Grievous links:

the author's website
excerpt from the book

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Work-in-Progress interview with the author


also at Largehearted Boy:

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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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