I listened to a lot of classical music while I was writing Dying in the First Person. Mostly ABC Classic FM – so whatever they were playing when I sat down to write seeped into my consciousness and infected the prose. Perhaps as a consequence the main characters also listen to, and talk about, and write about, classical music. The writer in the book also talks about the influence of the motet, as a form, on one of their works (The Box of Beautiful Things).
Though I’m not a musician, or even an expert listener, music is crucial to my writing practice, and to the way my imagination works. One day, I’ll write about that, I suspect.
For now, here’s a list of the main pieces of work the characters in Dying in the First Person listen to or talk about, along with some relevant excerpts from the novel. A soundtrack, if you like, to the movie in my head:
Edward William Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor
I had opened a bottle of wine and was listening to a recording of Yo Yo Ma and the London Symphony Orchestra playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto in E Minor, Opus 85. When I had my tonsils out as a boy, my mother had come to the hospital and given me a recording of the concerto to listen to while I recovered. She put the cassette into the player and pressed play. During the opening movement – that elegant, dramatic recitative – she told me that Elgar wrote the first theme for the concerto after having his tonsils out, and that he had woken groggily from the anaesthetic and asked for pencil and paper. It was 1918, and he was in a hospital in London, but throughout the war years he had lived in a little cottage in Sussex where, night after night, the sound of artillery had crawled across the channel and into his dreams.
‘All of his earlier work,’ my mother said, ‘was different. Before the war there was hope, celebration, a great flourishing of art and politics, but afterwards … ’ Here, she turned her head and closed her eyes; in that small, antiseptic room we listened to the viola hand off the theme to the orchestra and then to the cello. The sounds swelled mournfully in the heat. (page 12)
Or watch the superb Jacqueline du Pré perform the first movement with the London Philharmonic in 1967.
Camille Saint-Saëns Ave Verum in D
Morgan often played Saint-Saëns’s Ave Verum in D, a keyboard reduction of the four-part motet, in the mornings. The women’s voices stepping through the tragedy of the Eucharistic hymn, buoyed up by the sombre suck and lift of the horn and organ. He often hummed along with the parts, or sang the words under his breath while he made coffee. His heavy male voice lengthening and deepening the sounds, as though longing the true body of Christ into being. (pages 262-263)
Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin: Menuet
Her doctor had found a shadow on her chest. She had an appointment with a thoracic surgeon the next morning. ‘So soon?’ I said. The radio in the background: Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin: Menuet, tinnily echoing around her kitchen. (page 37)
George Frideric Handel’s Messiah (HWV 56)
My mother had cooked a turkey every year for us when we were boys. Rising before dawn to avoid the worst of the heat as she plucked and washed the bird, and prepared the stuffing. When we woke, it was to the mixed scents of lemon, bacon, oranges and frying onions, and the sound of Handel’s Messiah. Played quietly at first, but swelling a little, growing louder as the sun first pinked and then burned away the night sky. (page 14)
Johann Sebastian Bach’s Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D Minor
Her breath, when I leaned in to kiss her cheek, smelled excessively sweet: a dark, thickly layered perfume of rot and apples. The radio was still on, turned low and tuned to the same channel. They were playing Isabelle Faust’s thoughtful and balanced performance of Bach’s D minor Chaconne. (page 199)
Gregorio Allegri’s Miserere Mei, Deus
When we were fourteen my mother played the Miserere on our birthday, waking us by setting up her portable record player in our room and dropping the needle at precisely 3.00 am: the time when the service began in the Sistine Chapel in 1770. We woke to the scent of twenty-seven burning candles, and the soft, blended voices of the first choir. ‘At fourteen years old,’ she said, ‘Mozart was travelling through Italy with his father. Leopold was taking him to Bologna, to the music teacher Padre Martini. By Easter they were in Rome. Wednesday was the day of the Tenebrae: one of only two days of the year when the Miserere would be performed in the Sistine Chapel. The Miserere was considered so sacred, so precious a Roman secret, that the performers were threatened with excommunication if they smuggled a transcription of the music out of the church. Mozart listened carefully to the nine voices in two choirs: one with four and one with five parts, to their elaborate performance of an improvised counterpoint, the ancient but simple falsobordone style with its substrate of Gregorian plainsong. That evening, as he and his father sat in their hotel, Mozart transcribed the entire Miserere, from memory. On Good Friday, the boy and his father returned to the chapel. Mozart had his illegal manuscript rolled up in his hat; he had come to listen, and to make any corrections to his first transcription.’
Our mother stood and opened the windows to let in the scent of the earth softening towards morning, and to turn up the music. As the choirs sang, she extinguished the candles as they had done in the chapel centuries ago, until only one remained, guttering in the window, set into a cupcake. ‘Happy birthday, little men,’ she said as the final words of the concluding Miserere were sung. ‘May your fourteenth year be as wicked and courageous as Mozart’s.’ She held the cupcake before us and we blew out the candle and then she leaned over it and kissed our foreheads. It was almost light. Almost day.
What music do you love listening to? Which music do you associate with the most important moments of your life?