A Powerful Emotional Combination


Yesterday morning, while at work, I was listening to my local public radio station and a program interviewing the two singer/actors who are playing Tony and Maria in the Guthrie Theater’s production of West Side Story. The movie of this musical is my all-time favorite movie musical but I’ve never seen it produced on stage, so I’m looking forward to attending a performance of it at the Guthrie. As part of the program, the two singers each sang one song alone, then one together. At the first notes of the first song, “Maria,” I was crying.

Maria, the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard.

I knew why. It’s not only the words of the song, but the music. It was Leonard Bernstein’s genius the way he fused music to the words in the songs of West Side Story. After years of listening to this music, I also think the music itself tells the story of Tony and Maria, their tragic love, as well as the tragedy of New York’s West Side in the 1950’s. This musical, though, is a re-telling of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set in a different time, place, and with two families played by two New York City street gangs. I saw a production of Shakespeare’s play at the Guthrie last fall, and despite the tragic story, it didn’t elicit the same powerful emotional response from me as West Side Story does. What little music there is in the Shakespeare, often at the director’s discretion, usually has little to do with the emotional themes of the play.

Composers and writers have known for centuries the power of words set to music. Does that same power exist when words describe or evoke music? I’ve been thinking about this question this week because I’m reading a mystery novel about musicians, music, and murder. I’ve also been writing, with the Perceval series, novels set in the music world in which music plays a role in terms of setting, characterization, and subtext. So, reading Gerald Elias’ mystery Death and the Maiden this week has me thinking about words and music in a different way.

The title of Elias’ mystery is also the title of an extremely famous string quartet by Franz Schubert, which he based on a song he’d composed using the poem “Der Tod und das Maedchen” by Matthias Claudius. The poem is an exchange between Death and a young woman as Death tries to win the young woman’s trust and life. So, as I’ve been reading Elias’ mystery, I’ve had the subtext of the song as well as the string quartet in my mind. However, I’m not as familiar with this string quartet as I am with other chamber music, so I’ve bookmarked a lovely performance of it at YouTube for my own reference. Elias does a good job of describing the music as well as its challenges for the musicians playing it, and using language that is encouraging to the reader to seek out the music and listen to it. I highly recommend listening to it, focused only on the music and nothing else, with eyes closed.  The second movement is the “Death and the Maiden” theme and variations.

Elias uses the interpersonal and musical dynamics of playing in a string quartet as the core of his mystery. Each musician has his or her own perspective on the music, and in a quartet, the four perspectives are melded to form the whole in performance. When there’s conflict about the music, or among the lives, the music can reflect that, often with great intensity.

Looking at Elias’ mystery novel as well as my own Perceval series, I’ve realized that I am using music in my writing to illuminate character as well as making it Evan Quinn’s profession. The emotional connection is more between Evan and the music, not between a reader and the music. So writing about music is one degree removed from words set to music. It would be different if the music I mention in the novels could be playing at the same time of the reading. Elias uses the music to educate about music, music history, and music performance. In Death and the Maiden, he also adds the dimension of the string quartet and its unique performance experience. I’ve enjoyed Elias’ mystery novels, his curmudgeon protagonist, Daniel Jacobus, and the different perspectives on the classical music world that he brings to each book. If you know nothing about classical music, you can still enjoy the stories as murder mysteries, and Jacobus as a unique, entertaining character.

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