When music goes through the story

Some will think that an instrument is only related to music.

Oliver Thansan
Oliver Thansan
26 May 2023 Friday 22:29
24 Reads
When music goes through the story

Some will think that an instrument is only related to music. That it is an object isolated from the rest of the industries and arts, and that its history is nothing more than the story of a musician who plays it, an orchestra that gives life, a score that speaks.

Crafts, industry, beauty, are some of the words that come to mind after reading for a while stories that are shaped around music. An instrument in a certain place does not speak only in a musical key, it also speaks in a historical, professional, cabinetmaker key. Contemporary poetry is the result of hundreds of events that took place in the past and that have shaped societies to the point of shaping today's.

After falling in love with the sound of a violin, Helena Attlee (Kent, 1958), felt an irrepressible desire to learn about the origins of the instrument. The writer's life has always been linked to art.

After graduating in Art History, Atlee gradually gained prestige as a curator and organizer of exhibitions. The author's relationship with music had barriers to hers in the past, and it wasn't until she heard the sound of Lev's violin that her passion for classical composers was explosively awakened.

Determined to discover the origins of the instrument, she traveled from Scotland to the south of Russia, passing through Cremona, where the best luthiers in history lived. On the journey towards those origins, she was recounting her steps and she ended up giving birth to Lev's violin (Cliff). While she opened hidden cabinets full of victims and culprits, owners and gangsters, she saw herself illustrating the memory of a war.

Although Helena Attlee's story was born from an irrational impulse to discover the history of an anonymous instrument, she soon realized that the violin's trail allowed her to open up to lives that had experienced a past plagued with violence. Holocaust victims, Nazi soldiers, Russian military and propaganda strategies that used music to subdue entire nations. As she wrote –and walked– her own story, she discovered the ability of music to influence the course of history and project a unique vision.

Reading Lev's violin is to fly over the splendid past of Italy and its courts full of music, with nobles waiting for the great composer. The ecclesiastical world and its Venetian churches that saw the influx of faithful grow after incorporating music into their ceremonies. Also vagabonds who fled to Europe, knowing that their reputation as Italians would allow them to gain a place in the world of music.

But we do not only find orchestras. Also alpine forests that are home to the best trees, whose wood is worked by renowned cabinetmakers, who later deliver their pieces to a luthier, who will work on the instrument that will give voice to a musician.

Lev's violin is a journey to the heart of Italian culture from music, capable of changing people's lives and shaping an entire culture, but it is also an urgent invitation to reflect on the value of stories and also that of objects.

The universality of music also inspired the writer Akira Mizubayashi (Sakata, 1951), who takes us into a language full of lyrics, capable of crossing cultural and linguistic barriers. Mizubayashi studied at the University of Tokyo and later moved to Paris, where he settled permanently and obtained a doctorate in French literature from the Sorbonne. Today he is a university professor and his literary work explores themes related to cultural and linguistic identity, migration and memory. His best known work is Une langue venue d' ailleurs (Gallimard, 2009), where he reflects on his own identity as a Japanese that he writes in French. Mizubayashi has been awarded several literary prizes and in 2011 received the Prix du Rayonnement de la Langue et de la Littérature Françaises for his contribution to culture and literature.

His last book Alma partida (Edhasa) is set in 1938, with a story that takes place within the framework of the Japanese dictatorship. Political and cultural tensions stifle the country and four musicians find a refuge in music, which they must keep silent if they want to avoid military control. The Japanese Yu and four of his friends meet to rehearse Schubert's sonata, Rosamunda. With their ropes they create a friendly oasis that allows them to disconnect from the atmosphere of terror that pervaded the country during the dictatorship. In one of their sessions, they are discovered and captured by the Japanese military patrol. Rai, Yu's son, will observe the scene from under his bed and see how one of the soldiers smashes his father's violin to pieces. The little boy will be orphaned and will be adopted by a French family in Paris, but music will never disappear from his DNA and he will become the best luthier in the capital. Still tormented by that scene that marked his childhood, Rai will restore his father's violin and travel to Japan, where he will close the circle of justice.

Music appears in the novel as a language that runs through the character from beginning to end, as a torment and as a relief at the same time that allows him to hold on to his roots in a strange continent. It also helps him to heal the pain of the past in a country that took his father from him with the worst of violence. Memory and music dance hand in hand in Mizubayashi's novel based on a story that crosses borders, and which ended up winning the French Booksellers Prize in 2020.

Memory and music also go through the writer Hélène Gestern (Nancy, 1971), this time from a more painful place. Professor and researcher at the University of Lorraine, one of the author's favorite themes is photography and the power it exercises over memory, and this theme articulates her work. In her latest novel 555 (Errata Naturae) –less idealistic than the rest– music is the engine of the worst of greed and a concoction capable of quenching the thirst for revenge in characters flooded with resentment.

The cabinetmaker Grégoire Coblence discovers an anonymous score inside a cello case – the dissonances begin in Gestern's story. The possibilities of attributing the score to Scarlatti, one of the most renowned harpsichord composers, arouses the greed of many who will be fully involved in proving that the composition is of incalculable value. Together with his luthier partner Giancarlo Albizon, the cabinetmaker will get in touch with a famous harpsichordist, a Belgian collector and a musicologist, and with them they will begin a game of chess with a question at the heart of the duel: "Could it be that Scarlatti composed 556 sonatas, instead of 555?

Gestern does not treat music from its romantic side, quite the contrary. In 555 we read an account of a more impure psychology, dominated by the desire for wealth, rancor, lies. The characters in the story seem to be willing to do anything to get away with it, and love –which in the previous novel was the driving force for healing– is here the propellant for revenge. Also the music.

Gestern writes a stylish and absorbing thriller. Assonant, sometimes, although mostly dissonant. Thanks to her, we discover how the power of names and the talent of composers is capable of awakening the worst greed in those who are so blinded by profit that they forget beauty. Through a score, a union of cabinetmakers and luthiers, and a few broken hearts, Gestern delves into the universality of human psychology, with all its lights and shadows.

Until now we have read about music as a historical witness, universal language and promoter of human passions. Pascal Quignard (Veurneuil-sur-Avre, 1948) brings us closer to music as a refuge. The author was born into a family of grammarians and organists and became general secretary of Gallimard and directed the Baroque Opera Festival in Versailles, a career he abandoned to dedicate himself fully to writing. Quignard's literary work is structured around thought and beauty and his books are essays, poems and novels at the same time. He has recently earned him the prestigious Formentor de las Letras award for all of his work, which he will collect in September in Canfranc (Huesca).

Quignard's last novel, Love the Sea (Galaxy Gutenberg), is set in the year 1652, in the middle of a Europe devastated by religious wars. Chaos in a climate of protests, famine and epidemics, inveterate vandalism and brutal revolts against monarchical power flooded Europe in the 17th century. It is at this moment that Pascal Quignard decides to revive great musicians that we had forgotten. We read on stage the German harpsichordist and composer of the first Baroque suite Jakob Frogeber (1616-1667). Also to the lutenist Charles Flery de Blancrocher (1605-1652) who committed suicide by throwing himself down a staircase, and many others whose names we had forgotten.

The music accompanies the sad love story between the violinist Thullyn and the virtuoso copyist and composer Lambert Hatten. She will leave him to retire to Sweden, facing the sea. In a symbiosis between love, the ocean and music, the author achieves a kind of sensory ecstasy with a depressing touch, perhaps the result of the longing he feels for his cellist brother who died during the coronavirus pandemic. They played music together for years and both found themselves in that silent complicity, in unison of beauty. Maybe the book is a way to meet again.

Some of this pandemic memory brings us back to the context of the novel, enslaved by a vital uncertainty due to plagues and violence. Baroque, impulsive, wild and irrepressible music that is still alive today because it is incomprehensible and mysterious, just like Quignard's book. Through endless monologues, works of art, and dreary gray landscapes, the author mixes painting and fiction, art and literature, reality and imagination. We leave the reading somewhat stunned, as we do after listening to baroque music, as if the author has managed to transcribe into words a musical style that evokes so many things.

From Antwerp to Stockholm, from Paris to Ostend until we reach one of the islands of Constantinople, we wander with Quignard through the past and the present as if we were part of a capricious tide that takes us to the Europe of a thousand stories, through which we The lines that would give way to the exchange of scores, the traffic in instruments and, above all, the fusion of a globality that was the result of thousands of ideas, art and love affairs began to circulate.