Thursday 9 June 2011

Guest Posting - Making Music in my Mozart Crime Novel

Making Music in my Mozart Crime Novel

By Matt Rees

A few years ago, I was at a small dinner in Tel Aviv with Zubin Mehta after one of his performances with the Israel Philharmonic. I happened to ask him which composer he considered most indispensible. “I’d find it very hard to live without Mozart,” he told me.

I had been pondering a crime novel about Mozart – more precisely about the composer’s sister Nannerl, whose story had spoken to me very strongly when I visited the tiny village in the Salzkammergut where she spent her married life. So Maestro Mehta’s comment started me thinking.

What had it been like for Wolfgang’s contemporaries to lose him? For those who had lived with Mozart and would’ve had to come to terms with life without him? What would that have been like, particularly if one considers that the great man told his wife and friends he had been poisoned? I knew that though I would draw on new historical research into the period and Mozart’s life I’d have to put his music at the centre of the mystery. I’d have to write convincingly about the great composer’s music. About its structure. Its performance. And the intellect behind it.

I’ve played music all my life, but I’m no musician. After my initial childhood music lessons I parted ways with the playing of classical music. I’ve been a guitarist and bassist in various rock ensembles in New York and elsewhere. Less sexily, I played glockenspiel in my high school band.

So for the book, first, I learnt to play piano. This demonstrated that I’m not much good on the piano. But it gave me a way to see inside Wolfgang’s music, because the piano study made me think more deeply about musical theory than my experience as a rock guitarist. (Surely THAT doesn’t surprise anyone, but it was worth demonstrating anyhow.)

Then I turned to some great musicians, to quiz them about Mozart and the way they perform him.

My main guide in this was my dear friend Orit Wolf, a fabulous concert pianist who has taught at the Royal College of Music. (You can see her dressed up as Nannerl and hear her version of Mozart’s Fantasia in D on this video . The Fantasia was incomplete on Mozart’s death, but it’s perhaps even more freighted with intimations of doom than the Requiem). Orit’s best-known for her heartfelt interpretations of romantic composers. But her insights into Mozart were startling.

Our discussion of Wolfgang’s piano sonata in A-minor gave me the idea of building the entire novel around the mood and structure of that piece, so that the novel should seem somehow musical even when the characters aren’t making music.

The A-minor sonata was written when Wolfgang was in Paris, mourning his mother who had died while chaperoning him on tour, so it’s as much about death as is my crime novel. It begins with an Allegro maestoso that is disturbing, almost discordant. I thought of this as the introductory theme of Act I of my novel, in which the calm world around Nannerl collapses with news of her brother’s death and she resolves to find out what happened to him.

The thoughtful second movement (Andante cantabile con espressione) is Act II of the book, the central section in which Nannerl explores the Vienna Wolfgang left behind. Act III is the final Presto movement, in which the disturbing themes of the first movement are resolved, just as Nannerl uncovers the truth over the last chapters of the book.

My friend Orit also introduced me to some of the techniques great musicians use when they prepare for a performance. For example, she told me that when she first looks at a piece for a performance she decides what colour the music makes her think of. Before each performance, she’ll visualize that colour and it will create a mood in her. In turn that mood will be reflected in the music as she plays it. It isn’t just about hitting the right keys.

So I did the same thing. Before I wrote about Nannerl Mozart performing a piece of music, I listened to it for a long time. I’d identify a colour and a season brought to mind by the piece. I’d hold those in my head as I wrote.

I still have the colour-codings noted on the index cards I used to plot the book. It’s a technique I’m intending to use for future books, even if they aren’t about music. A writer needs to keep himself very close to the emotion of his narrator and it isn’t always easy to concentrate on, say, sadness for the extended period it takes to write a chapter.

So from now on, thanks to my experience with the music of Mozart, my novels will be colour-coded.

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