A Bibliophile’s Miscellany: Books on Music
When I was nine years old my parents gave me a choice between playing the violin, starting Spanish lessons, or taking karate classes. Can you guess which one I picked? Alas, not music. I chose karate – a no-brainer for a tomboy with ‘cool’ friends to impress – but stuck with it for only a couple of years, finishing with a yellow belt. How I wish I had opted for the violin instead. As it is, I now can’t play a note of music. I might be able to plink out some simple songs on a recorder, or a one-handed melody on a keyboard, given the chance, but I fear my skills are permanently stuck in the realms of grade-school music class.
I’ve also never been great at music appreciation: that is, recognizing classical music styles, time periods, and composers. Usually I can pick out Mozart or Beethoven, but certainly nothing more advanced. Nevertheless, I consider myself a music lover, with moderately diverse tastes running from indie rock to British folk, and there’s something beautifully relaxing about putting on a recording of a Liszt symphony or a Chopin étude. It makes me feel civilized and grown-up. The five books listed below will make you feel similarly elevated; pick one up on a warm June evening, and let the music begin.
Alan Rusbridger has been editor of the Guardian newspaper since 1995. If his job sounds extremely stressful – those endless meetings and briefings, long hours, late nights, and little sleep – it also seems like it would be incredibly rewarding. Rusbridger is also an amateur piano player, and over the year and a half between August 2010 and December 2011 he undertook the challenge of learning to play Chopin’s Ballade No. 1 in G Minor. It is a notoriously difficult piece, both technically and emotionally; when the score presents “a page which, on first glance, is all a nightmare,” it “can be broken down into stuff that’s merely difficult and stuff that’s unspeakably horrible.” The ludicrously fast coda, for example, looks like a bunch of “squashed flies” on the page. And all along there is the test of capturing the right mood for a piece that alternates despair and lightness – ranging from jaunty waltz steps and a metronomic heartbeat to a furiously pounding tempo.
With the kind of hectic life that often made finding even 20 minutes a day for practice impossible, Rusbridger soon came to wonder if he would ever complete his quest in time, especially as this period proved to be one of the busiest and most newsworthy periods of the paper’s life, let alone his own: there was the Wikileaks scandal, including direct dealings with the mercurial Julian Assange, the UK phone hacking scandal (involving the take-down of News International and Rupert Murdoch), the start of the Arab spring, the London riots and Occupy movement, and, of course, ongoing debates about the place of the press – especially traditional print media – in the modern world.
Rusbridger’s memoir of learning the Chopin ballade is full of delightful surprises. He chronicles his attendance at an amateurs’ ‘piano camp’ in France plus weekends spent at his second home in the Cotswolds, where progress on the ballade often kept pace with construction on his custom-build music shed. He visits the Fazioli studio in Venice to have his piano repaired, and is also talked into buying a revamped 1978 Steinway – at more than double his original budget. He seeks advice from many different piano teachers, and also interviews a myriad of musicians and brain specialists on how music is learned and what is feasible in middle age. He was 56 years old when he began this challenge, and was consistently encouraged by scientists who heralded the plasticity of the brain and the possibility of building new procedural memory. His wildly varied references – everything from a chat with piano-loving Condoleezza Rice to a Japanese manga series on Chopin – only serve to prove that when you set off on a journey like this you never know where it will lead.
Even for someone like me who has never taken a single music lesson, this book is a fascinating, unpredictable, and wide-ranging gem. It’s also a reassuring tale of setting a seemingly unattainable goal at a (somewhat) advanced age and a frantic time of life – the stereotypical triumph of the human spirit, but with a melodic and pleasant freshness that will keep you reading.
2. A Garden of Eden in Hell: The Life of Alice Herz-Sommer by Melissa Muller and Reinhard Piechocki (2008) [republished in 2012 as Władysław Szpilman (author of The Pianist), Herz-Sommer is a Holocaust survivor who attributes her endurance, at least in part, to the power of music. She was born in Prague in 1903, to well-educated, well-connected parents who were in contact with Franz Kafka and his literary circle. Her husband Leopold was also an amateur musician and they had one son, Raphael, who would go on to work as a cellist and conductor. In 1943 all three family members were sent to Theresienstadt concentration camp. Along with other professional and amateur musicians, Alice played over 100 concerts at the camp, which was touted in German propaganda as a model of how to integrate Jews into a civilized settlement but in reality was just as brutal as any other Nazi death camp.
Leopold Sommer was killed in 1944 after spells in Auschwitz and Dachau, but Alice and Raphael survived. She lived first in Israel and then in London, where she has been resident since 1986. For a time she worked as a music teacher, and she has always had a special love for the Chopin études. Her son died in 2001, leaving her with a beloved daughter-in-law and granddaughter. At age 109 she is the world’s oldest living Holocaust survivor, with the kind of doggedly positive outlook that should shame anyone into gratitude.
In fact, Alice attributes the fact that she has outlived her twin sister by nearly 40 years thus far as proof that optimism extends one’s life. A book of Alice’s aphorisms has been published, A Century of Wisdom, and you can view an inspiring video with her here. I will leave you with a few words she spoke in an interview with the very Alan Rusbridger I profile above: “In any case, life is beautiful, extremely beautiful. And when you are old you appreciate it more. When you are older you think, you remember, you care and you appreciate. You are thankful for everything. For everything.”
3. Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro (2009)
Ishiguro is known for his elegant, psychologically subtle novels about class, duty, and memory. If you’ve read (or seen the excellent films of) bittersweet tales like The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, for instance, you might be surprised to learn that in this, his only collection of short stories, Ishiguro relies heavily on humor. In fact, at times these stories are even laugh-out-loud funny, full of slapstick comedy, silly impersonations, and surreal coincidences. The stories themselves are individually precise but also well connected, with the themes of music and failed love affairs running throughout and a couple characters returning in later stories. Although Ishiguro’s familiar theme of regret for what is left unsaid resurfaces, it is with a marked lightness you don’t often find in his writing. I recommend reading these stories on an early summer evening, out on a front porch, with a glass of crisp white wine in hand and maybe some Chopin playing in the background.
4. Pulphead: Dispatches from the Other Side of America by John Jeremiah Sullivan (2011)
John Jeremiah Sullivan is a wonderfully opinionated essayist, and this collection about Middle America has it all: a Tea Party protest, caving in Tennessee, animal attacks, plus a heavy dose of pop culture. There are pieces on going to Disney World with his family, attending an MTV “Real World” reunion (Sullivan seems to have a disturbingly encyclopedic knowledge about this original reality TV phenomenon), and the strange pseudo-privilege of living in a house made famous as a filming location in teen TV drama One Tree Hill.
Most notable, though, are his treatises about musical trends. He writes enthusiastically about Michael Jackson, Axl Rose, and the last surviving member of Bob Marley’s band. My favorite piece, though, is “Upon This Rock,” about a pilgrimage to Creation, the annual Christian music festival in Pennsylvania, in 2007. He is, perhaps, unfairly dismissive of the music itself – “For their encore, Jars of Clay did a cover of U2’s ‘All I Want Is You.’ It was bluesy. That’s the last thing I’ll be saying about the bands” – but the essay is a delightful picaresque about falling in with a group of rednecks who get into fights and cook frogs from the “crik.” He even sees a man keel over and die of a heart attack while waiting in one of the fast food lines. The experience dredges up for him his teenage “born-again” days, when he and his youth group were Petra devotees but a reluctance to witness convinced him that he didn’t really believe all of it. My teen years were full of Christian music, too, so there was plenty here to identify with and enjoy. However, you don’t need to have any interest in the musical styles discussed to find reading these essays a pleasant way of passing a June evening.
In Alex George’s debut novel, James Meisenheimer tells the story of his family clan, from 1900s Hanover, Germany, where Frederick woos Jette with opera arias, to Beatrice, Missouri, where the immigrants settle and become an integral part of the community. It’s a warm-hearted, amusing story full of quirky minor characters (among them a giant and a dwarf), with a definite debt to John Irving. Music is the joy and legacy of many generations of Meisenheimers, who keep a family bar-cum-diner where some of the earliest ragtime is previewed. The 1920s bring Prohibition and racial tension, but also sweet jazz music from Lomax, a black cornet player from New Orleans. From opera to jazz to barbershop quartets, music keeps this family thriving.
George’s novel certainly has its failings – chiefly that his only method for advancing the plot is to periodically kill off a character – but he’s got definite talent and style. Frederick and Jette are terrific characters, and there is an absorbing if gentle mystery about the narrator’s parentage. This attempt at encapsulating the immigrant experience of becoming American (a process George began in 2003 when he moved to Missouri from the UK and started his own small law firm) may not be entirely successful, but it’s a likable tale of family identity and community.