Monday, April 3, 2017
Guest Blogger JONATHAN TAYLOR on MUSIC and FICTION . . .
Christal Ann Rice Cooper
Excerpt from KONTAKTE and Other Stories
By Jonathan Taylor
Preface: On Musical Fictions
Over the last 250 years, thousands of short stories, novellas and novels have explored musical themes, or revolved around musical characters. The late-eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, particularly, are full of such stories and characters. Wackenroder’s ‘Joseph Berlinger,’ Hoffmann’s tales, Poe’s fiction, Balzac’s musician ‘Gambara,’ Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Hardy’s stories, Du Maurier’s Trilby, Leo Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata, all include musical images, themes and characters. No doubt this literary fascination with music and the figure of the musician originates in their Romantic elevation to the highest spiritual realms by philosophers like Schopenhauer and Pater, and real-life musicians like Richard Wagner.
As Friedrich Nietzsche writes in :
With this extraordinary inflation in the value of music, which seemed to follow from Schopenhauer’s philosophy, the musician too suddenly rose in value: from that moment on he became an oracle, a priest, even more than a priest, a sort of spokesman of the ‘in itself’ of things … from that time on he ceased to talk just music, this ventriloquist of God – he talked metaphysics.
Some things have changed since Nietzsche wrote this in 1887, but the fascination in fiction with music and musicians remains. There are numerous twentieth- and twenty-first-century authors who write about music and musicians, from Thomas Mann and Anthony Burgess, to Roddy Doyle, Rose Tremain, and Nick Hornby; there are whole anthologies of stories about music, such as those edited by Peter Wild, and inspired by The Smiths and The Fall; there is even a publisher in New York, , which specialises in publishing ‘musical fiction’.
There is arguably a difference, though, between earlier and later portrayals of musicians in fiction: Thomas Mann’s composer in cuts a very different figure to some of the more idealised portrayals of musicians in the high-Romantic era.
Wagner’s posthumous association with Hitler and Nazism, coupled with his own egotism and avowed anti-Semitism, have inevitably had their effects on later fictional musicians. Arguably, one such effect is a disillusioned, and partly self-conscious, turning away from perceived Romantic ‘high’ cultural models of music and the musician – so that many writers of the later twentieth-century preferred to focus on ‘popular’ music and musicians of one kind or another.
Of course, this survey is all rather generalised, and history never quite works in such a linear way. The emphasis on popular culture, and the corresponding suspicion of musicians and musical power, was actually with us long before – in the nineteenth-century fiction of Poe, Balzac, Du Maurier, and Hardy.
Conversely, the later twentieth- and twenty-first centuries have not entirely turned away from earlier idealisations of music; Vikram Seth’s beautiful writing on music, for example, owes a great deal to Romantic conceptions of music, translating Schubert’s or Bach’s music into the rather blunter medium of the English language.
Many fiction writers have attempted this – to write musical fiction which is not merely about music, but which somehow echoes that music within the constraints of written prose. This is the kind of musical fiction which interests me – fiction which is not just musically themed, but which, in its style, its punctuation, its cadences and its imagery, attempts to capture the strange and elusive narratives of music; and not just any music, or music in general, but the particular music with which the fiction is concerned – whether that music is Stockhausen or The Smiths, Puccini or Piaf.
Short stories, I think, are particularly good at this, partly because the time taken to read a short story is often similar to the time taken to listen to a piece of music; one can mirror the narrative structure of the other quite closely. The very compression and intensity of short fiction means that it lends itself more readily to the portrayal and simulation of the compressed intensity of musical works.
In stylistically simulating musical techniques, fiction often comes very close to poetry, which, after all, self-consciously uses musical elements of language as part of its repertoire. Like poetry, musical fiction will often use alliteration, assonance, onomatopoeia, rhythm, allusion, refrains, even rhyme, to simulate the music it is describing. And the more like poetry it becomes, the more musical fiction inevitably starts to bend and then break some of the basic ‘rules’ of prose, such as conventional uses of grammar, punctuation, lineation and paragraphing. To attempt to describe music, to encapsulate its fluid structures and timbres, it would often seem necessary to write in a more fluid, flexible, poetic way; and examples of this kind of poetic prose abound in musical fiction.
However weak we may feel that words are in comparison to music, many composers have struggled in the opposite direction to that of writers, attempting to connect their art form with written language. Schubert’s songs, Wagner’s Gesamtskunstwerk, Berlioz’s, Liszt’s and Strauss’s tone poems and other programmatic works – all appropriate written narratives and texts, and, in their very different ways, attempt to shape these narratives and texts into music.
This act of shaping material from words into music had – and maybe still has – the same kind of distorting effects on musical language as the reverse has on written language. The nineteenth- and early twentieth-century composers most credited with writing music informed by written texts are the same composers who are usually credited with stretching, bending and sometimes even breaking conventional musical language. It would seem that the very attempt to cross between different art forms necessarily distorts, bends, breaks and transforms the languages of those art forms. But then, I believe that this is precisely what artists of all kinds – whether musicians, short-story writers, novelists or poets – should be attempting to do: challenging, subverting and reinventing the conventional languages of their chosen art forms.
(A version of this Preface was originally published on Thresholds: International Short Story Forum, 2013. http://thresholds.chi.ac.uk
The quotation from Nietzsche is in The Genealogy of Morals, trans. Douglas Smith, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008, p.83)