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May 2, 2014

Book Notes - Melissa Pritchard "Palmerino"


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

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Melissa Pritchard skillfully blends the past and present in her novel Palmerino, a book both richly lyrical and highly imaginative.

Shelf Unbound wrote of the book:

"In a mere 192 pages, Melissa Pritchard has created a rich, lush, and riveting story of two women writers in different eras."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In her own words, here is Melissa Pritchard's Book Notes music playlist for her novel, Palmerino:

Inspired by the life of late Victorian British writer, Violet Paget/Vernon Lee (1856-1935), Palmerino is a novel of desire and loneliness, of cross-century seduction and haunting. Taking place at Villa il Palmerino, Vernon Lee's former home near Florence, Italy, the novel pays particular tribute to her famous supernatural tale, "Amour Dure."

Upon the publication of her first book, Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy, twenty-four year old Violet, who adopted the male pseudonym, Vernon Lee, became a literary sensation. During her lifetime, many of the celebrated writers and artists of her time made their way to Villa il Palmerino, among them Henry and William James, Edith Wharton, Oscar Wilde, Rainer Maria Rilke and Aldous Huxley. On the afternoon D.H. Lawrence arrived, Vernon was too ill to see him, and the anecdotal history of literature is the poorer for it. Other friends were Joseph Conrad, Robert Browning, Walter Pater and John Singer Sargent. A brilliant monologist, intellectually assertive, self-taught and frequently controversial, Vernon Lee wrote over forty books, including novels and short story collections, as well as hundreds of articles on music, art, travel, history and aesthetics. Her informed enthusiasms were legion, but her abiding passion was eighteenth century Italian music, opera and literature. In Vernon Lee's final major work, published in 1932, Music and Its Lovers, she drew from over twenty years of research, articulating her theories about music's emotional appeal and salutary effects, comparing traits of the Apollonian "Listener" to those of the Dionysian "Hearer."

Eighteenth and early nineteenth century music ornaments many of the scenes in Palmerino. Vernon's mother, Matilda, plays the piano incessantly, and concerts are frequently held in the Paget salon or in the villa's lush garden. Haydn and Mozart accompany Vernon's outdoor production of Venetian playwright Carlo Gozzi's L'Augellino Belverde. Music was as indispensable to Vernon Lee's intellectual and emotional life as were the books she read and wrote. As she grew older, near total deafness isolated her. Deprived of music and conversation, a remaining consolation was her ability to "hear" music perfectly through "il chant interieur," the memory of music.

1. "Pallido il sole," aria by Johann Adolph Hasse, sung nightly for ten years to Philip V of Spain by the most famous of Italian castratos, Farinelli to alleviate the king's depression.
Recommended interpretation by Greek countertenor and sopranist (male soprano) Aris Christofellis.

In late adolescence, Vernon Lee lived with her parents and paralyzed brother in an apartment near the Cascine Park in Florence. In one of the novel's scenes, she has just received a packet of music, part of her research for Studies of the Eighteenth Century in Italy. Included in the packet is "Pallido il sole." She has never heard it, yet has staked her intellectual reputation and the fate of her book upon the merit of this aria. Asking her mother to play it on the piano but unable to remain in the same room, she runs into the garden to listen as Hasse's song drifts through an open window. "Pallido il sole" proves sublime; Vernon's book is saved.

2. Sonata No. 43 in A Flat major, first movement, Franz Joseph Haydn
Recommended recording by Nadia Reisenberg, 1958

In Palmerino, Vernon's mother, an accomplished pianist, plays at all hours, especially when she cannot sleep. She plays the crisp first movement of this sonata in the villa's upstairs salon on a cool morning in April, the windows flung wide, the sonata's crystalline notes floating out over neighboring vineyards.

3. Six arias by Metastasio, written for the celebrated castrato, Farinelli
Recommended: Greek countertenor Aris Christofellis with the Ensemble d'Instruments Anciens

As an adolescent, Vernon Lee was fascinated by the Neapolitan musical school of opera composer Nicola Porpora and by Italian poet and librettist Metastasio, who wrote for two of the most famous castrati and pupils of Porpora, Farinelli and Caffarelli. Because of a ban on women singing in the Catholic church, over 4,000 boys were castrated in eighteenth century Italy, many in Florence's Oespedale di Santa Maria Nuova, in order to achieve, with rigorous training, an ethereal soprano purity to their voices.

4. "Ombra mai fu," written by George Frideric Handel for his favorite castrato, Caffarelli.
Recommended: Italian coloratura mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli from Sacrificium, The Art of the Castrati

When Vernon first meets Kit Anstruther-Thomson, staying with her at Charleton House, Kit's ancestral home in Scotland, Vernon discovers a white rose on her pillow one night, placed there by Kit. Thus begins their love story, and I like to imagine this song's lyrics and melody capturing those early hours and days of intoxication and surrender. "Never was there a shadow of branches sweeter, more refreshing or gentle…" - "Ombra mai fu di vegetabile cara ed amabile soave piu…"

5. Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D Major, J.S. Bach
Recommended: recording by Akademie fur Alte Musik, Berlin

In addition to 18th century Italian music, Vernon Lee loved the music of 18th century composers Handel, Gluck, Mozart and Bach. For me, this concerto captures the tone of Vernon Lee's happiest years of love and companionship at Villa il Palmerino with Clementina "Kit " Anstruther-Thomson.

6. La Clemenza di Tito: "Parto, parto" - From an opera seria in two acts, composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart to accompany an Italian libretto by Mazzola, after Metastasio, first performed in Prague in 1791.
Recommended: Italian coloratura mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli's interpretation

When strain arises in Kit's and Vernon's relationship, I imagine Mozart's song conveying the desire of the loved one to become anything the beloved asks or needs, along with the inevitable failure of such a longed-for metamorphosis.

"I go, but my dearest, make peace again with me. I will be what you would most have me be, do whatever you wish." - "Parto, ma tu ben mio, meco ritorna en pace, saro qual piu ti piace, quel che vorrai fato."

7. Prelude and Fugue No. 5 in C Minor, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Recommended: Recording by Arthur Grumiaux, violin, Georges Janzer, viola and Eva Czako, cello

In the novel, as Vernon's brother, Eugene, draws open the stage curtains on L'Augellino Belverde, a trio of musicians in scarlet and gold-striped frock coats, seated beneath a willow tree in Villa il Palmerino's torch-lit gardens, begins to play Mozart's Prelude and Fugue No. 5.

8. "Sposa son disprezzata" - "I am wife and I am scorned," – Italian aria by Francesco Gasparini, used in Antonio Vivaldi's pasticcio, Bajazet
Recommended: Cecilia Bartoli's interpretation from her album of eighteenth-century songs, "If You Love Me," or "Se tu m'ami."

Beginning in 1886, Vernon Lee and Kit Anstruther-Thomson will live together for nearly ten years, until Kit leaves Villa il Palmerino to return to London, ostensibly to nurse a friend, Mrs. Head. Although they eventually repair their relationship, and Vernon will travel to London to be at Kit's bedside during the last hours of her life, this break-up, the loss of the one great love of her life is devastating to Vernon. She finds solace in work, but her heart is shattered; she feels betrayed. Scholars are not certain of the reason for Kit's leaving Vernon, but in Palmerino, I attribute it, in part, to Kit's inability to go on enduring Vernon's chaste temperament. One longtime friend wrote that Vernon could not bear physical touch, not even an affectionate hug. Still, I like to think Kit and Vernon, at some point, did have a sexual as well as a romantic relationship, but thus far, no scholarly proof supports the moments of passion I give them in the novel.

9. "Winter," or "L'inverno" from The Four Seasons, Le quatre stagioni, Violin Concerto in F Minor Op. 8 No. 4, Antonio Vivaldi
Recommended: Itzhak Perlman with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra

After Kit leaves her, Vernon will never have another romantic relationship. Though she continues to write, to publish, to see her many friends and admirers, she has entered the emotional winter of her life, where beauty and sorrow alike are tinged with loss and the eventuality of death.

10. L'Orfeo, Claudio Monteverdi
Recommended: full-length video version, directed by Brian Large, the Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, featuring La Capella Reial de Catalunya

Vernon Lee adored Italian music of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries and was particularly fond of Monteverdi, Caccini, Frescobaldi, Palestrina and Scarlatti. On her birthday in 1934, Vernon's many Italian friends honor her with an elaborate performance of her own play, Ariadne in Mantua: A Romance in Five Acts, using the music of these composers. By now, Vernon is almost totally deaf, but I like to imagine she heard something of the music she had loved all of her life, accompanying the words of her play.

11. Piano Sonata Op. 27, No. 2 in C-Sharp Minor, "Moonlight Sonata," first movement, Ludwig van Beethoven
Recommended: recording by Vladimir Horowitz, 1956

On the night of February 13th, 1935, Violet Paget/Vernon Lee dies alone in her bed.

I write a foreshadowing scene where she stands on her ironwork balcony and stunned by the beauty of the full moon rising above the dark spires of cypress, sings Ben Jonson's Hymn to Diana, and afterward, hears the distant, divine lamentation that is Beethoven's Piano Sonata Op. 27, No. 2, the famous "Moonlight Sonata."

12. Requiem Mass in D minor, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Recommended: performance by Arsys Bourgogne, French choral group, using trombones and other instruments from Mozart's time

In the long aftermath of death - the discovery of Vernon's body by her one servant, Fortunata, the burial arrangements, letters sent to friends, the cremation and funeral service, her ashes interred in the grave of her brother, Eugene Lee Hamilton, at Cimetiero Agli Allori, and all throughout that first night, as Vernon Lee begins her eternal residence beneath the earth, I hear Mozart's Requiem Mass in D minor.

13. ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo,' from Gloria, RV 589 setting, most popularly known as the "Vivaldi Gloria," Antonio Vivaldi
Recommended: Choir of King's College, Cambridge

"The cypresses of the graveyard, there under the city walls, among the ruins, do not seem to unite folk with the terrible unity Death, so much as with the everlasting life of the centuries."

"Literature is the universal confidant, the spiritual director of mankind."

Violet Paget/Vernon Lee (1856-1935)

Melissa Pritchard and Palmerino links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry
excerpt from the book

Booklist review
ForeWord review
Lambda Literary review

Largehearted Boy Book Notes essay by the author for The Odditorium
Rosemary and Reading Glasses interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
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guest book reviews
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musician/author interviews
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Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists