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October 8, 2009

Book Notes - Marc Estrin ("The Good Doctor Guillotin")

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Marc Estrin's The Good Doctor Guillotin examines the lives and times of the five men who invented the guillotine, and finely blends history, fiction, and political commentary.

Foreword wrote of the book:

"The story of these five men is accompanied by facts about French society during the Age of Enlightenment, including a discussion of the rampant taphophie--or fear of graves and being buried alive--and an account of the first hot air balloon flights. Readers with an interest in history and politics will find the story especially fascinating."

In his own words, here is Marc Estrin's Book Notes music playlist for his book, The Good Doctor Guillotin:

Being a musician, I think in musical terms and often structure my work guided by musical forms. As a teenager, I was completely bowled over by Thomas Mann's chapter on Beethoven's last piano sonata, op. 111, early in his Doctor Faustus. "I'd love to be able to write something like that," I thought. Fifty years later, I gave it a try with my chapter on a fictive Charles Ives sonata in my debut novel, Insect Dreams.

Since then, my every novel has some composer or some piece of music as part of its story or structure. In various books, I have engaged Ives' Fourth Symphony, Handel's Messiah, Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, Zelenka's Lamentations of Jeremiah, Mahler's Second Symphony, Gilbert & Sullivan's Yeoman of the Guard, Scarlatti's piano sonatas, Messian's L'Ascencion, Prokofiev's First Violin Concerto, and Beethoven's Grosse Fugue. I have planned books to be in sonata form, in rondo form, and as themes and variations.

The Good Doctor Guillotin was structured and driven by the songs of the French Revolution: The main sections are Ça Ira -- a revolutionary song meaning it will happen, it will work out fine; Allons enfants de la patrie -- the beginning of the Marseillaise -- let's go!; and La jour de gloire est arrivé -- the glorious day has come. Unfortunately, the glory turned out to be the Terror.

Realizing that a young composer who lived and died during the Revolution's genesis and birth -- Mozart -- had to be part of the picture, one of the first scenes I conceived of was that of the good doctor Guillotin, progressive, humanist member of the National Assembly, playing a Mozart sonata with Tobias Schmidt, the German piano maker who built the early beheading machines. "Why are you crying?" Schmidt was to ask. "Why are you crying?" was to be the answer. While both characters were real, it was I who made them both musicians. The discussion that followed would concern not only the music, but the revolution occurring around them.

Not being a violinist, and not well-acquainted with the violin literature, I emailed my many musicians friends -- folks I play chamber music and in orchestras with. "If you were going to cry over a moment in a Mozart violin sonata, what would it be?" I received a variety of answers, but the one that came up most commonly was the E major trio in the minuet of the E minor sonata. I listened to all suggestions, and decided that not only was that most popular suggestion eminently cryable-to, but that it would give me the most thematic connection with the social complexities of the revolution. It is now the context of the chapter "Tempo di Menuetto".

So, anyway -- to my "playlist".

First, the French revolutionary songs:

The Marseillaise needs little explanation. The one intriguing fact is that it was written by C-J Rouget de Lisle on April 25, 1792, the very day our hero Nicholas Pelletier, the patient, the package, was executed. Claude-Joseph wrote it at his table in Strasbourg -- childhood home of the builder of the execution machine.

Ça ira is an enthusiastic, if bloodthirsty, tongue twister in which we find the aristocrats swinging from lamp posts and Marie Antoinette in hell. It was the most popular "people's song" during the Revolution.

La Carmagnole was a popular revolutionary song and dance again concerning Marie Antoinette who, by the way, was unpopular not only because of her "Let them eat cake" attitude toward the poor, but because her Austrian family was likely to attack France to preserve its own and Europe's monarchies. Listen at Wikipedia. There is a wonderful Kathe Kollwitz drawing and set of sketches ("Carmagnole") of a revolutionary crowd dancing around a guillotine in Paris.

Next, Mozart:

Of primary use was the E minor sonata mentioned above. But equally important thematically is a piano piece played by beginners, a little set of variations on the French folk song, Ah, vous dirai-je Maman. We know the tune as "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star". In French, there are bawdy lyrics (probably more to Mozart's liking) about what a young daughter would like to, but can't tell her mother about her new lover, but the original may have been a simple children's song, which I find thematically more interesting:

Ah! Vous dirai-je Maman
Ce qui cause mon tourment ?
Papa veut que je raisonne
Comme une grande personne
Moi je dis que les bonbons
Valent mieux que la raison.

Mama, should I tell you what is tormenting me? Papa wants me to reason like an adult, but I think bonbons are worth more than reason.

There, in a nutshell, the fate of the Enlightenment Project, and our own predicament.

Musically, what is of musical/thematic interest here is that in the midst of the upbeat, tongue-in-cheek compositional facility of the twelve variations, plunked down in the middle, is one of the darkest moments in Mozart. Perhaps this crucified minute is no "worse" than some of the tortured moments in the late symphonies, but here, in the midst of a nursery rhyme tune, it is particularly devastating. The darkness concealed in the light. Both Guillotin and Schmidt would have noticed that. And they do.

Two other Mozart pieces make their appearance, both in the context of the contemporary fad for Mesmer, his healing clinic, and his animal magnetism. (Though he was run out of Paris by the good doctors of the Sorbonne, he was one of the earliest practitioners of the "energy medicine" now widely practiced in its eastern and western forms.) There was a lot of "new age, woo-woo" music played in his clinic during the healing sessions, and Ben Franklin's design for the "glass harmonica" was the Wurlitzer in the theater. Mozart wrote an Adagio and Rondo for Glass Harmonica, which was very likely part of the mix. Woo-woo.

The inveterate Wolfgang clown wrote a send-up of Mesmer himself in Così fan Tutte, where, at the end of Act One, fake Albanians are killed by fake poison, and are revived by a fake doctor, using a giant, all-healing magnet.


Hard to escape him. As Bach developed his keyboard works, it became obvious to many -- including the old man -- that the clavichord and harpsichord could no longer contain or express the range of emotion and intensity of passion he and his works had grown capable of. Music history was screaming for a pianoforte, and organ builders and harpsichord makers put their minds and tools to it. For purposes of the story, I made Schmidt one of them, a child so inspired by his own understanding of the Kantor's needs as to make a life project of piano building. Too bad that during the Revolution, aristocrats weren't buying pianos anymore, and of course the poor never could. Find a hole and fill it. Beheading machines. That's the ticket! Makes for a sardonic consciousness.

Schmidt was not the only character involved with Bach. Sanson, the executioner of Paris, was the historical figure with the most written about him. It turned out that he (like me) was a bad cellist, but bad enough -- that, mixed with his profession -- no one (I thought) would play with him. What do cellists do when they have to play alone? They play the Bach cello suites. Today, any cellist anywhere can go to the nearest music store and buy any of many editions. But then? Would Sanson have been able to get his hands on them? Yes, they were written by then. And there were musical manuscripts flowing, largely through Strasbourg, between Germany and France. And any suite would be easy enough to copy in the pre-xerox age. So -- it's possible that Sanson, a self-styled noble, and member of the court, might have been able to get hold of some of them. That's the best I could come up with from my musicological friends -- "It's possible". Time for my author's rights: I gave him a copy to nurse his cellistic wounds with. I imagine him loving the Saraband from the D minor suite.

My soulmind is so often filled with Bach that the moment I sat down to write the Acknowledgements, I translated "I acknowledge" into Confiteor -- which, in spite of the many settings of the latin Credo, first and formost means the enormous fugue/plainsong "Confiteor" movement of the B minor mass. So I wound up dividing my acknowledgements into Bach's components -- the marching continuo, the fugue and the chant -- and the form served me well to acknowledge the many aspects of the novel that needed acknowledging.

Minor characters

Bert Brecht and Kurt Weill's opera masterpiece, Mahagonny, was bound to show up in any work of mine about the Enlightenment. After all, it concerns a planned city -- planned by criminals, of course -- which, like the French Revolution -- was to be devoted to human happiness -- happiness in this case consisting of eating, drinking, whoring and boxing. It ends with the electric chair. Sound familiar? Early on, Jimmy Mahoney, like my Schmidt, senses the limitation of the project. He and his friends get together and sing a barbershop quartet (barbering, anyone?) about how wonderful, noble and beautiful their new world is. "But," Jimmy continues to observe, "Something is missing." The moment sang itself right into my text.

As did Richard Peaslee's "Fifteen Glorious Years" from Peter Brooks's astonishing Royal Shakespeare Company production of Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade. Many of the elements of this remarkable play prompted moments and larger musings in my text. Peaslee's music has that kind of memorable rightness which will forever prevent me from thinking of any other settings -- much like Tenniel's drawings for Alice, or Cruikshank's for Dickens.

As did two epigraph references from The Mikado -- inevitable in a book about beheading as punishment. "Now though you'd have said that head was dead" speaks directly to the fierce eighteenth century debate about whether the guillotine was kinder than the gallows. We are currently in the midst of an equally barbarous debate concerning our procedures for lethal injection. And we, unlike other advanced democracies, are also still debating whether the punishment fitting the crime must necessarily involve state murder to convince the public that murder is a bad thing to do.

There is a piece of music which did not, and could not, get into The Good Doctor Guillotin, but which I would also recommend to the interested reader/listener: the final scene from Poulenc's Dialogues of the Carmelites, in which a convent of Carmelite nuns, condemned for resisting the Revolution's disenfranchisement of the Church, are led serially to their deaths, singing a prayer to the Virgin while the mob screams and denounces, and the guillotine cuts, and cuts, and cuts through their serenity.

My wife and I stayed with an orchestral conductor in Paris one of whose proudest plumbing creations was his invention of how to do the guillotine sound.

Marc Estrin and The Good Doctor Guillotin links:

the author's website
the book's website

ForeWord review
Publishers Weekly review

Dissident Voice interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes submissions (authors create playlists for their book)
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
guest book reviews
musician/author interviews
52 Books, 52 Weeks