Archive for the 'Music' Category

Venice Pieta

Monday, September 17th, 2007

Vivaldi’s Virgins, Barbara Quick, 2007

Set in Venice in the early 18th Century, this novel is based on the well researched lives of the red priest Antonio Vivaldi and his most famous musical student, the foundling, Anna Maria dal Violin for whom Vivaldi composed a number of works, including the Six Violin Concertos for Anna Maria.
vivaldiPierLeoneGhezzi1723. Six Violin Concertos for Anna Maria

The Ospedale della Pieta was a long established Catholic orphanage and school where orphans and foundlings, some the illegitimate children of aristocrats and priests, were sent to be raised in a safe environment. The children’s identity and parentage, if recorded, were closely guarded secrets of the Pieta. Girl children, if they had an aptitude for music, were trained as singers and musicians and they performed in churches throughout Venice. Antonio Vivaldi, a non practicing priest, was retained by the Pieta as a teacher and composer of choral and instrumental works for the students.

Ospedale della Pieta Ospedale della Pieta
Vivaldi Tafel

This novel is largely a coming of age story of Anna Maria who desperately wants to know her parentage and is encouraged to write letters to her unknown mother. She has adventures where she sneaks out to attend Operas and balls, where contemporary luminaries such as the Saxon George Frideric Handel and Italian Giuseppe Domenico Scarlatti perform. Anna Maria’s best outside friend is the gay assistant to the Pieta seamstress, a wise Jewish woman living in the Ghetto. Gives a lot of detail about the decline of the Venice aristocracy, life in Venice and the Pieta, and the music of the period.

Bengal Voice

Monday, August 20th, 2007

A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth, 1993

Born in Calcutta, Bengali Seth was educated at Oxford and Stanford, even attended school in Nanjing.

This massive 1500 page novel, one of the longest ever published, is centered on four very different families in the early 50s just after Independence.

The mother of 19 year old Lata is determined to find a suitable boy to marry Lata, just as Lata is determined to make up her own mind in the matter. She is to choose among three suitors; Kabir, Haresh and Amit.


Calcutta House

Amit is a British educated, published Bengali poet, belonging to a wealthy Anglicized Calcutta family headed by an influential judge. Brother Dipankar is drawn to the mystic, and beautiful and amoral sisters Meenakshi and Kakoli, continually exchange verse couplets in a match of wits. Meenakshi is married to Lata’s brother.

Burning Ghat Varanasi

The Kapoor’s charming son Maan, falls hopelessly in love with a Muslim singer and courtesan.


Haresh is a somewhat crude but good hearted and ambitious shoe manufacturing executive determined to break into the Czech dominated Bata quality shoe company near Calcutta.

The novel covers the period’s inter-sectarian animosity, the status of lower caste peoples such as the jatav, land reform and the eclipse of the feudal princes and landlords, politics, and academic affairs.

An Equal Music, Vikram Seth, 1999

This novel has nothing to do with India or Indians. It is a tale of the inner life of an English string quartet, Maggiore. The leader of the quartet, Michael, a poor working class boy, plays a valuable violin on permanent loan to the quartet. We see the jealousies and frictions among the members of the quartet forced to travel and spent most of their time together. We see the inner workings of booking agents and arranging tours for a successful but far from famous group.

Sheet Music

The central plot starts when Michael discovers a version of Beethoven’s String Trio in C Minor, op. 1, no. 3 arranged for a string quintet in a dusty music store in London. The piece has not been performed in recent history or recorded by a modern string group. He wants the group to perform the challenging work in Vienna and to record it, but he must play second violin to make it work. He wants to play first violin. The Beethoven piece turns out to be a part of Michael’s romantic history from when he was studying in Vienna ten years ago. The group breaks up after the recording.

The novel really succeeds in taking you into the inner workings of a string quartet and the world of concert performances. Of the experience of writing this novel Seth has said “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.”

BW Quartet Instruments

The Poet as Novelist

Thursday, July 12th, 2007

Divisadero, Michael Ondaatje, 2007

We have art, Nietzsche said, so that we shall not be destroyed by the truth.

In this new novel, Ondaatje brings his skills as poet to the novel as never before. In an incredible 38 pages, Ondaatje creates a universe populated by three unrelated children raised by a single father on a farm near Petaluma and then blows that universe to smithereens. For most writers, this 38 pages would be a heavy, black slog of a several hundred page complete novel (see Larry McMurtry’s or Cormick McCarthy’s latest).

Petaluma Downtown Petaluma

From this beginning, over the next 20 pages we follow the farm boy into the amazing world of card hustling in Santa Barbara county, Tahoe, and Las Vegas.

Santa Maria Inn

…Tolstoy was able to walk into a room that held a small group of people and understand everything about them in fifteen minutes…The only person in the room he could not understand was himself.

Lake Tahoe Lake Tahoe Lodge

Followed by 35 pages in a French manoir, former home to an obscure French writer in the early 20th Century, now rented by the biological daughter of the Petaluma single Father, a French literature academic with a new name and identity. On the manoir she meets an older Roma man who grew up on the manoir, knew the French writer as a boy, and still lives in his caravan. They become lovers.

Gascony Manoir Gascony Manoir

We take a short breather to catch up with the remaining girl who works in San Francisco as a researcher for a public defender and returns to Petaluma to visit her “father” every weekend. We then jump quickly back and forth between the stories.

The three of them…made up a three paneled Japanese screen, each one self sufficient, but revealing different qualities or tones when placed beside the other. Their lives, surely, remained linked wherever they were.

Suddenly we are dropped into France around the first world war, following the full arc of the obscure writer’s life, his mother, the young neighbors, the war, his children, his writings. This is the longest continuous part of the novel, a little over 100 pages.

But for Lucien, writing was a place of emergency. He wanted what he had done those first few times, without awareness, when the page was a pigeonnier flown into from all the realms one had traveled through. There had been the gathering then, the thrill of diversity. There was no judgment. He had not sought judgment when he began to write, but it had somehow become crucial to his life. When all he had wanted was to dance, with no purpose, with a cat.

All this in 273 pages.

In The Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje, 1987

Coming into his own as a novelist utilizing uniquely poetic language, this novel is set in Ontario, mostly Toronto. Focusing on the anonymous laborers who built Toronto’s major public works projects, this novel leaves numerous unforgettable images.

Toronto Waterworks Toronto Waterworks

    The Macedonian acrobat leaping off the Prince Edward Viaduct to take his place under the bridge, under construction in 1917 . (Writer H. S. Bhabra leaped to his death from this Viaduct in 2000.)
    Five nuns walking on the unfinished bridge when one is swept off by a gust of wind, her body never found.
    The self taught logging and mining dynamiter, passing his skills wordlessly to his son, Patrick, as he blows logs effortlessly out of river log jams.
    The millionaire predatory developer who suddenly vanishes in 1919 with a million dollars in cash and his mistress an actress who is the only one to know where he is.
    The dynamiter’ s son, Patrick who is paid to look for the developer and falls in love with the actress, loses her and goes to work on the lake Ontario water works tunnel in 1930 and later in the leather works.
    Caravaggio the thief, and Hana as a young girl comfortable among the immigrant workers who will both reappear in The English Patient (Was Hana’s mother the missing nun?).
    Patrick, turned anarchist bomber, after the death of Hana’s mother, swimming through the water intake of the waterworks with explosives strapped to his body.

This one in 244 pages.

The first sentence of every novel should be: “Trust me, this will take time but there is order here, very faint, very human.” Meander if you want to get to Town.

Coming Through Slaughter, Michael Ondaatje, 1976

Coming Through Slaughter

See Also

A novel based on the real life of early 20th Century New Orleans jazz-man Charles “Buddy” Boldon, Ondaatje says;

There have been some date changes, some characters brought together, and some facts have been expanded or polished to suit the truth of fiction.

Here is old New Orleans, the parades, the barber shop cooled with ice where Buddy works, endless practice on the Cornet, Buddy the loudest horn man in New Orleans, learning tunes by ear then immediately improvising off them, mixing blues and Gospel (will heaven or hell prevail?), pickpocket monkeys, whores, pimps, Buddy’s two women, fights, descent into madness, Buddy’s life in and history of a pre civil war asylum, lost history of jazz and jazzmen with a couple reels of bad film and a few recordings. This one in 150 pages. On the train ride to the asylum;

And all day, the river at our side, Mississippi, like a friend, traveling with him, like an audience watching Huck Finn going by train to hell.

Already Ondaatje is developing his uniquely poetic style of the novel. Only the more long winded Richard Powers comes close: see

The Roma Poetess

Monday, April 23rd, 2007

Zoli, Colum McCann, 2007

The Roma are among the most widely persecuted peoples in the world. Going by many different names including the derogatory Gypsy (The British believed they originated in Egypt), Roma seems to be slowly gaining as the accepted name. Linguistic and genetic evidence puts their origin in the Punjab India which they seem to have left about 1000 – 1050 AD. By the 14th Century they arrived in the Balkans and by the 16th Century they had spread though out Europe. They do not have a written language but their oral traditions kept the culture surprisingly strong and intact until recently. The Nazis in WWII exterminated an estimated 800,000 in an attempt to eliminate the Roma along with the Jews. But the persecution of the Roma exists throughout Europe to this day where even supposedly liberal Norway force ably sterilized the Roma until 1977.

Roma German Interrogation

The novel is about a Slovak Roma poet, Zoli born in the early 1930s who survived the Hlinka (Slovak fascist thugs) massacre of her entire family in the 1930’s. Her surviving grandfather taught her to read and write (secretly) and she gained a reputation among her people as a poet and singer. A communist Slovak poet tracked her down after the war to collect her poems and songs. He hired a Slovak-Irish young man to assist him and the result was a series of recordings often played on the radio as far away as Prague and a book of poems. Zoli was invited to give concerts in halls.

Roma Caravan

The initially benign communist government soon turned to attempts to “assimilate” the Roma by moving them into government apartment blocks and reeducate them. When the Roma resisted, their horses were taken away and the wheels of their caravans burnt. The Roma elders blamed Zoli for their woes and banished her from their tribe. She wanders to Austria via Hungary and is eventually smuggled into Italy in the early 60’s where she marries the Italian aristocrat smugger and has a daughter. The daughter moves to Paris and by 2000 is an organizer of Roma studies and academic conferences.

Today assimilated Roma have their own political party in the Czech Republic and they have elected a number of members of Parliament. There are Roma professors throughout Europe researching and attempting to preserve and record Roma culture.

McCann is Irish but limits the Irish influence to the character of the Slovak-Irish song catcher Stephen Swan. McCann was influenced by A False Dawn: My Life as a Gypsy Woman in Slovakia by Ilona Lackova. His poetess is inspired by the Polish Roma poetess Papusza; 1910-1987.

The Time of Our Singing

Friday, December 31st, 2004

Richard Powers Richard Powers “The Time of Our Singing” is an exploration of music through the eyes of a multiracial family. A German Jewish refugee physicist meets a black Philadelphia doctor’s daughter at the Lincoln Memorial rally in 1939. This rally was made famous by the singing of Marian Anderson. The couple’s connection is music, he with his classical European background, and she with her gospel singing. They have three children and all inherit their parents love of music. This novel follows the lives of each. The language is rich, poetic, and jazzy. Powers is sometimes tough going but this is his most beautifully written work to date.