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May 18, 2016

Book Notes - Lauren Belfer "And After the Fire"

And After the Fire

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, Lauren Groff, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Jesmyn Ward, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Lauren Belfer's ambitious And After the Fire is an immersive and important historical novel.

USA Today wrote of the book:

"[Belfer's] virtuoso novel…epitomizes Faulkner's epigram that the past is never dead—or even past. Susanna and Sara's storylines inevitably merge, across centuries and continents and gathering suspense. The novel swells with life’s great themes—love and death, family and faith —and the insistent, dark music of loss."

In her own words, here is Lauren Belfer's Book Notes music playlist for her novel And After the Fire:

My third novel, And After the Fire (HarperCollins, May 2016), begins with the discovery, in the ruins of Germany at the end of World War II, of an unknown choral masterpiece by Johann Sebastian Bach. This masterpiece is both beautiful and inflammatory, and the characters in the novel must confront its meaning and decide what to do with it. The book unfolds across hundreds of years, on two continents, with a broad range of characters — but it is actually one story, told through the prism of a problematic artistic masterpiece.

During the process of writing the novel, I listened to the music of Bach nonstop. I also filled the novel with his music, as well as the compositions of his son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, and of Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn, who are all characters in the book.

I think of the music as an integral part of the story, moving the plot forward and revealing the inner lives of my characters, consoling their suffering and accentuating their joy — exactly as Bach's music has done in my own life.

I'm now working on my next novel, but I still listen to Bach's music every day, for the focus, solace, and exuberance his incomparable compositions impart.

Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan, BWV 100, by Johann Sebastian Bach; first movement — Bach Collegium Japan, directed by Masaaki Suzuki

I first heard this cantata in a church basement where my husband, who's a musicologist, was giving a lecture. The piece immediately took hold of me, and it's never let go. It seems to play in my mind long after I've stopped listening to it. After that first hearing, I was angry at my husband for not sharing this piece with me earlier in our relationship. How could you keep this remarkably joyous work from me all these years? I asked him. He replied that Bach wrote over a thousand compositions, many of which are filled with such astonishing moments. I look forward to discovering many more.

Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan is the first piece of music presented in And After the Fire. My fictional character, Susanna Kessler, sits in a dark church during a vespers service, her feet cold and wet from a heavy rain outside. The church choir and orchestra begin performing this piece and suddenly everything changes, and she experiences a moment of transcendence.

Concerto in C minor, BWV 1060, by Johann Sebastian Bach; three movements — Marcel Ponseele, oboe; Ryo Terakado, violin; Bach Collegium Japan, directed by Masaaki Suzuki

This concerto for oboe and violin is most compelling to me because of the second movement, a love duet of intense yearning, melancholy, and intimacy. If my husband and I had to name "our song," this would be it.

Suite in G major, BWV 1007, by Johann Sebastian Bach; six movements — Jean-Guihen Queyras, cello

I listened to the cello suites continually as I worked on the novel. Their drive and energy provided me with the focus and clarity I needed to move forward, day after day, during the five years I worked on the book. In this performance, Jean-Guihen Queyras gives the suites an irresistible vitality.

Concerto in A minor, BWV 1041, by Johann Sebastian Bach; three movements — Amandine Beyer, violin; Gli Incogniti, directed by Amandine Beyer

I love Amandine Beyer's performances of the Bach violin concertos because of her crispness, speed, and technical virtuosity. I especially love the gentle yet propulsive rhythms of the second movement from the A minor concerto. The closing 35 seconds or so — which my musicologist husband describes as "an unexpected incursion of a plaintive valedictory solo cresting the structurally required final group refrain" — creates a moment of almost overwhelming longing.

Partita in C minor, BWV 997, by Johann Sebastian Bach; four movements — Jakob Lindberg, lute

I often listen to Bach's serene lute music at bedtime. All the concerns of the day melt away, and only this captivating, soothing music remains.

Sonata in G major, BWV 1027, by Johann Sebastian Bach; four movements — Vittorio Ghielmi, viola da gamba; Lorenzo Ghielmi, fortepiano

Bach's high-spirited viola da gamba sonatas are my music of choice while dressing up to go somewhere special. In the novel, both Daniel Erhardt and Susanna Kessler love the viola da gamba sonatas. My favorite performance is this one by Vittorio and Lorenzo Ghielmi, and I especially admire the silvery, crisp sound of the early eighteenth-century piano replica used in their recording.

Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, by Johann Sebastian Bach; two movements excerpted — Simone Dinnerstein, piano

The Simone Dinnerstein performance of the Goldberg Variations is marvelously poetic. I was lucky enough to hear her perform the Variations live, in an intimate recital at Swarthmore College. This was a remarkable experience: seventy-eight minutes of exceptionally complex music, performed from memory, with a lightness of touch that seemed effortless.

The second track included on my playlist from this recording, Variation 30, entitled "Quodlibet," has always been intriguing to me. Legend and scholarship has it that this variation was inspired by several frivolous folk songs. This has never seemed right to me. Listening to the Quodlibet, I have a sense of the sacred, not the jocular. After I came to know the first movement of Cantata 100, the piece which opens my playlist, I suddenly began to hear similarities between its main tune — the Lutheran chorale melody "What God does is done well" — and the Quodlibet. This link to the sacred seems right to me, and in And After the Fire, pastor Frank Mueller makes this association while sitting on his terrace one morning listening to the Goldberg Variations.

Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D major, BWV 1050, by Johann Sebastian Bach; three movements — Diana Baroni, flute; Pablo Valeti, violin; Céline Frisch, harpsichord; Café Zimmermann, directed by Céline Frisch

Sara Itzig Levy, a renowned harpsichordist and one of the main characters in And After the Fire, plays this piece at a concert in Berlin during the Napoleonic Wars in 1808 — as historical records show she actually did. In creating this scene, I especially tried to place myself inside her mind, as she gathered the focus and the strength of memory to play through the astonishingly virtuosic solo in the first movement … in a frigidly cold concert hall, the candles guttering in their stands, in a city suffering under enemy occupation.

Recently I learned that the Brandenburg Concertos are often played over the loudspeakers of shopping malls and transportation centers (several times I've heard them piped into Penn Station in New York), because teenagers tend not to linger anywhere that classical music is heard. I wish the opposite were true, so that more young people would experience the transforming music of Bach.

St. Matthew Passion, BWV 244, by Johann Sebastian Bach; aria "Mache Dich, mein Herze rein" — Peter Kooy, bass; Orchestra of the Eighteenth Century, directed by Frans Brüggen

This is the most intensely melancholic and yet comforting music I've ever heard. The piece seems to say, no matter what hardships one is facing, there is hope. In the novel, Daniel Erhardt listens to it over and over after the death of his wife, and this music returns to him when he visits the concentration camp at Buchenwald. The aria is about the Sacrament of Communion, about burying the body of Jesus inside one's heart. I'm Jewish, so of course I've never taken Communion, but even so, I often find comfort in listening to this aria when I'm upset. The music of Bach, although centered in its time and place, also transcends its time and place. Listening to this excerpt, I understand why some Jews carried pocket scores of the Matthew Passion with them on the cattle cars that took them to Auschwitz.

Vergnügte Ruh, beliebte Seelenlust, BWV 170, by Johann Sebastian Bach; title aria — Andreas Scholl, alto; Orchestre du Collegium Vocale, directed by Philippe Herreweghe

This opening movement from Bach's Cantata 170 is heartbreaking. Performed by a countertenor (an adult male singing in the alto range), the quality of the voice here is filled with a kind of exquisite grace. In my novel, Scott Schiffman is soothed by this aria during difficult times.

Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit, BWV 106, by Johann Sebastian Bach; two movements excerpted — Ricercar Consort, directed by Philippe Pierlot

This cantata figures prominently in the novel. Historical records indicate that Fanny Hensel did in fact perform this cantata at the Sunday musicales in the Garden House of the Mendelssohn family estate, and I plausibly depict her great-aunt Sara Levy as a member of the audience. In my narrative, when Sara hears this gorgeous cantata about the passage of time, she decides to give one of her most closely-guarded possessions to Fanny.

Concerto in C Major, BWV 1064, by Johann Sebastian Bach; three movements — Pieter-Jan Belder, Menno van Delft, Siebe Henstra, harpsichord; Musica Amphion, directed by Pieter-Jan Belder

I adore this concerto for three harpsichords, especially the first and third movements. The celebratory joy and exuberance are almost rapturous, the ecstatic emotions accentuated by this remarkably fast-paced performance by Musica Amphion.

Concerto in D Minor, BWV 1063, by Johann Sebastian Bach; three movements — Pieter-Jan Belder, Siebe Henstra, Menno van Delft, harpsichord; Musica Amphion, directed by Pieter-Jan Belder

Fanny Hensel and two others performed this Bach composition for three harpsichords in one of her Sunday musicales in June of 1846. In the novel, I've allowed myself to imagine that Fanny's great-aunt Sara Levy participated in the performance.

Trio in B-flat Major, Fk. 50, by Wilhelm Friedemann Bach; three movements — Patrick Beuckels, flute; Sayuri Yamagata, violin; Guy Penson, harpsichord; Hidemi Suzuki, cello

Wilhelm Friedemann Bach was the eldest son of Johann Sebastian Bach. He had a difficult personality, and scholars have speculated that he may have been what nowadays we call bi-polar. He had trouble holding onto jobs, and he died in poverty. Toward the end of his life, he was the harpsichord teacher of the young Sara Itzig. She married Samuel Salomon Levy, a banker and apparently gifted flutist. It delights me to imagine Sara and her husband performing this beautiful trio sonata together.

A Midsummer Night's Dream, Op. 61, by Felix Mendelssohn; "Ouvertüre" [Op. 21] — The Silver Garburg Piano Duo

I tried to make And After the Fire as true to historical facts as I could. One of the first performances of the "Midsummer Night's Dream" overture was in fact a piano four-hands version presented in the Sunday musicales held at the Mendelssohn family home. I loved imagining young Fanny and Felix (she was in her early twenties and he was only a teenager) sitting side by side at the piano to perform this breathtaking masterpiece.

Variations concertantes in D major, Op. 17, by Felix Mendelssohn; three movements — Nancy Green, cello; R. Larry Todd, piano

Felix Mendelssohn composed this moving cello composition for his brother, Paul, a gifted musician who was forced by their father to undertake a career as a banker. In the novel, I imagine Paul playing this piece at different stages of his life and meditating on his family and on the path his life has taken.

Das Jahr: 12 Charakterstücke für Fortepiano, by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel; No. 6: "June" (first version) — Els Biesemans, piano

As I researched And After the Fire, I learned about the tragic life of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. Like her famous brother, Felix Mendelssohn, she was considered a musical genius when she was young. She received a terrific musical education. But when she was an adult, her musical endeavors were confined to the domestic sphere, to private concerts in her home and garden. She was a gifted composer who wrote over four hundred works. However, her father and then her brother discouraged her from publishing her musical compositions — except for six songs, which her brother, Felix, published in his collections, under his name.

Why did Fanny accept this injustice? Her husband and her mother both supported her desire to publish her work. But for complex reasons that I explore in the novel, she let her father's and her brother's point of view take priority. Only as she entered her forties did she begin to take steps toward publishing her music. But she died of a stroke at age forty-one, and after that, her work was essentially forgotten. Just in the past twenty-five years, due to the efforts of committed scholars and performers, her compositions are gradually being rediscovered and receiving the recognition they deserve. I made her struggles part of the novel, and so included three examples of her music on my playlist.

This track is a marvelous example of Fanny's lyricism in writing for the piano.

Andante cantabile in D-flat major, by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel — Els Biesemans, piano

Here, too, Fanny's music delights with its romantic lyricism.

Prelude and Fugue in E minor, by Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel; fugue movement — Joanne Polk, piano

In her youth, Fanny and her brother Felix were thoroughly educated in the musical techniques for which Johann Sebastian Bach was revered. This track shows how deeply she understood the fugal style perfected by Bach.

Gloria in excelsis Deo, BWV 191, by Johann Sebastian Bach; title chorus — Bach Collegium Japan, directed by Masaaki Suzuki

Bach's Mass in B minor, BWV 232, is (if I may be so bold) the greatest piece of music ever written — and I think any listener, regardless of religion, can appreciate its staggering grandeur. I've ended my playlist with the version of the "Gloria in excelsis Deo" chorus from the Mass in B minor that is found in Cantata 191. I've placed this chorus here in homage to Johann Sebastian Bach and to all that he and his music have given to my life and to And After the Fire.

Lauren Belfer and And After the Fire links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

BookPage review
Buffalo News review
Publishers Weekly review
USA Today review

Book Club Girl essay by the author
Buffalo News profile of the author
WBFO interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Largehearted Boy's 2016 Fundraiser

Book Notes (2015 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2012 - 2014) (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

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