Tag Archives: Gerald Elias

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.

Advertisements

Book Review: “Devil’s Trill” by Gerald Elias

For me, the mark of a good story is if I continue to think about it long after I’ve finished reading it.  Well, Devil’s Trill, a mystery by Gerald Elias has been on my mind since I finished reading it at lunch yesterday.  There are two reasons my mind won’t let go: first, it’s a good, fun story that I enjoyed, and second, it’s a story set in the classical music world like my own novel Perceval’s Secret. Not many writers have chosen to set their stories in the classical music world, so I’m always interested in reading one that is.

The protagonist of Devil’s Trill is violinist Daniel Jacobus, getting on in years, blind, and the ultimate curmudgeon, but still passionate about music and instilling the love of music. Set in 1983 — pre-computers and cell phones and Spotify or YouTube — Jacobus has agreed to take on a young Japanese student sent to him by a good friend in Japan. Yumi Shinagawa turns out to be the real deal in many ways and receptive to Jacobus’ pedagogy. The following weekend, he decides to attend the recital at Carnegie Hall of the 9-year-old winner of the Grimsley Violin Competition, held every 13 years for violinists no older than 13 and run by the Musical Arts Project or MAP. He also attends the post-concert reception where the extremely valuable and rare violin the winner had played, the Piccolino Stradivarius, disappears. Jacobus becomes the top suspect in this theft. Into his life walks Nathaniel Williams, a musician friend who’s become an insurance investigator, who wants Jacobus (along with Yumi, it turns out) to assist him in finding the stolen violin. From this point on, the mystery of the stolen violin intertwines with the political and financial intrigues of the classical music world, along with the murder of the Grimsley winner’s violin teacher.

Elias does an excellent job of illuminating the value placed on certain violins over others, the fine line music organizations walk between pure entertainment and art, and the importance of music to humans. The title refers to a violin sonata composed by an Italian named Tartini. It’s famous for its difficulty, and for its backstory.  Tartini claimed to have had a dream of the Devil playing the violin and when he woke, he tried to capture on paper the music he heard in his dream. The difference between dream and reality is a subterranean stream that flows under this story, giving it depth.  I loved that Jacobus was also a teacher — it gave Elias the opportunity to also illuminate music as well as his knowledge about violin playing and the violin itself.

He took a huge gamble with Jacobus, however.  This character is not at all a lovable curmudgeon.  In fact, for a while I thought he was definitely irritating and stuck at his own pity party. But I was also intrigued by his irritating me, and eventually Elias reveals more of Jacobus’ story — how he became blind, what is important to him and how the world frustrates him at almost every turn. He shouts a LOT. But he also has the kind of rat-terrier-like mind that’s perfect for solving a mystery, especially one that involves a stolen violin. The supporting characters were not nearly as well developed, primarily because they are “seen” through Jacobus’ experience and point of view.

I loved the mystery, though. Certainly not your usual mystery story, it had much different twists and turns to it than usual that grew out of character motivations as well as the reality of the music world in 1983. And the murder mystery turned out to be another twist that upped the stakes for Jacobus to find the Piccolino Strad. I loved also returning to the classical music world.  Not nearly as glam or stuffed shirt as so many people assume, it can get pretty cut-throat and dirty. And when a violin is worth $8 million, it can also involve a lot of money. I will say, however, regarding plot, that Elias provides the reader with a marvelous twist near the end, and then seems to drop it right there. It left me wondering what happened and if Elias knew what he’d done. As it turned out, and much to my relief, he knew what he was doing, but he wasn’t playing completely fair with the reader.  I hope that in his subsequent novels, he does a better job of that.

If there were as many novels about musicians as there are about police officers, doctors, or lawyers, not to mention all sorts of criminals, maybe the reading public would be more inclined to read more books set in the classical music world. Devil’s Trill is definitely a good place for anyone who enjoys mysteries to start.  And I look forward to reading more of Gerald Elias’ books.