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October 5, 2017

Book Notes - Bradford Morrow "The Prague Sonata"

The Prague Sonata

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.

Bradford Morrow's novel The Prague Sonata is a compelling epic with music at its heart.

Publishers Weekly wrote of the book:

"Music infuses Morrow’s descriptions of war, revolution, peace, love, friendship, and betrayal. Finely crafted storytelling . . . The reading pleasure comes from both Meta's pursuit and the prose, which brims with musical, historical, and cultural detail"

In his own words, here is Bradford Morrow's Book Notes music playlist for his novel The Prague Sonata:

I always wanted to write a novel in which music was at the center, all manner of music from classical to heavy metal, a book that would harmonize with my own eclectic tastes. It wasn't until I first visited Prague in the mid-1990s that I discovered the perfect setting and began sketching ideas around this theme. One of my favorite Czech sayings goes, Where there's a Czech, there's a musician. Prague was a city literally humming with music. In its recital halls, churches, jazz cellars, and puppet theaters, in its public squares and on its ancient bridges—everywhere I walked I heard organs, guitars, violins, accordions, saxophones, and singing. I even attended a performance of "Don Giovanni" in the Estates Theater, where Mozart himself had conducted its world premiere in 1787.

The Prague Sonata is a novel steeped in all kinds of music, from the first line to the last. Its two main characters, one a young American female musicologist in contemporary New York, the other a Czech woman whose life we follow through both World Wars and beyond, are each classical pianists. But like their author, who once was a classical pianist himself, both of them have tastes in music that range well beyond Bach, Beethoven, and Brahms. Meta, whose promising concert career was cut short by an accident that left her hands injured, compelling her into the alternate study of musicology, listened as much to heavy metal, jazz, rap, and rock when she was attending Juilliard as she did the three B's. And Otylie, whose father taught piano in a Czech conservatory and collected music manuscripts of the great composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, becomes a reluctant (at first) aficionado of another venerable Bohemian music, the polka.

During the many years it took me to finish the novel, I listened to thousands of hours of recorded and live music, some of which made it into the book itself, while most of it simply worked its way into my subconsciousness. This brief catalogue, then, is as much a soundtrack as a playlist, since all of these works have a role in The Prague Sonata. Imagine a prodigious sonic atmosphere hovering around the book, though, and you'll have a clearer idea of how endless this playlist really could be!

Joseph Haydn. Sonata no. 52 in E-flat Major
During a research trip to Prague in November 2007, I heard one of my favorite pianists, András Schiff, perform an all-Haydn bill in the majestic Rudolfinum concert hall on the bank of the Vltava river. Not having planned ahead, I was lucky to get pretty much the worst seats in the house. The finale was Haydn's Sonata no. 52, the composer's last piano sonata, written in 1794. Schiff played its middle movement, an adagio, so beautifully that I had to force back tears. I managed to talk my way into a small reception backstage, where I shook his hand and thanked him. I don't really collect autographs as such—though I treasure my inscribed books by writer friends—but without giving it much thought, I asked him to autograph the concert program, which he kindly did. However foolish, it's a memento I cherish.

Frank Zappa. "Brown Shoes Don't Make It"
The ultimate skip-school-and-screw-work song, by the great Frank. One of the reasons it belongs on my playlist is because of a story, perhaps apocryphal, about Zappa's first arriving in Prague just after the Velvet Revolution at the invitation of Vaclav Havel who, like so many others in Eastern Europe, revered his music and politics. Thousands of newly liberated Czech fans turned up at the airport to welcome him, chanting and holding up banners that adoringly read "Fuck off, Frank! Fuck off, Frank!" Zappa was moved to tears.

Ludwig van Beethoven. WoO 47, the "Electoral" sonatas
Although, like Mozart, Beethoven was a genius, he wasn't, unlike Mozart, a precocious genius. These three early forays into writing sonatas, a musical form that Beethoven would revolutionize over the course of his career, have their flaws. They are somewhat derivative of Mozart and display little of the subtlety and bravura of later works—he was only twelve when they were composed in 1783—but they nevertheless offer insights into the master's youthful ambitions. "Try and write down for once the harmonies of your soul!" he wrote in his dedication letter to his early supporter, the Elector Maximilian Friedrich, "I was almost shy. But my Muse wished it—I obeyed, and wrote." Despite moments of juvenile awkwardness, these earliest sonatas are worth a listen. Young Ludwig's "Muse" never failed him and put him on a trajectory that, despite every kind of human misery—from dipsomania, loneliness, and persistent ill health to deafness—only mortality could bring to an end.

Jimi Hendrix. "Star Spangled Banner"
Anybody who wants to have a deeper understanding of the American side of the war in Vietnam should see Apocalypse Now, read Michael Herr's Dispatches, look at some vintage file footage television reporting, and crank up Hendrix's live version of the "Star Spangled Banner" from his performance at Woodstock. The screaming jets with their payloads of bombs and napalm, the screams of victims too, the craziness of war and, to some degree, of blind patriotism—it's all there in Hendrix's feedback and bravura playing. It might be a stretch to call this an antiwar anthem, but it's a raw, blindingly brilliant counter-take on what was originally an anthem of pride that our flag was still there. In Vietnam, Hendrix seems to be telling us, our flag was still there too long.

Richard Bruno Heydrich. Amen
The notorious "Butcher of Prague" and one of Hitler's favorite Nazi leaders, Reinhard Heydrich grew up in a musical family in Halle an der Saale, Germany. His father, an accomplished tenor, composed a number of ambitious, Wagner-influenced operas, among which Amen was a great favorite. The work had its premiere in Cologne in 1895, where it was positively received by the critics of its day. It was still well known enough to Germans during World War Two that as Reinhard lay dying in a hospital after assassins ambushed his car, none other than Heinrich Himmler quoted lines from the opera as he and other high-ranking SS men gathered around their colleague's deathbed. "The world is just a barrel organ," Himmler is said to have uttered, "played by God himself. We all must dance to the tune that happens to be on the roll." What an odd scene this is to imagine! Murderous Gestapo bigwigs waxing sentimental over a lyric that essentially exonerates them of responsibility for their savage criminality. The idea of Hitler as God with the Holocaust as his barrel organ tune didn't play out during the Nuremberg trials.

Anthrax. Cover of Joe Jackson's "Got the Time"
There are brilliant covers, like the Butthole Surfers' version of Donovan's "Hurdy Gurdy Man." Mellow-it-down ones like José Feliciano's "Light My Fire." Classic ones like Joe Cocker's powerful version of Traffic's "Feelin' Alright" and Crosby, Stills and Nash's "Woodstock" by Joni Mitchell. Pointless ones like Phil Collins' all but verbatim take on the Beatles' "Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight." Collaborative ones like George Michael's live duet with Elton John on "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me." And then there's Anthrax's 1990 thrash metal cover of Joe Jackson's "Got the Time" from my protagonist Meta's favorite heavy metal album, Persistence of Time. Simply put, this is an original cover—loud, complex, textured, precise, compelling—that moves the music in a brand new, unexpected direction, making it impossible to listen to the prototype the same way ever again.

Eric Satie. Trois Gymnopédies
The dreamy soundscape that the first waltz of Satie's popular three-part set produces is one of almost excruciating serenity. In the party scene of The Prague Sonata, where most everyone takes a turn at the piano while celebrating the discovery of a new movement of the lost sonata, young Andrea most definitely doesn't play this as well as, say, Pascal Rogé. But her encore, "a noisy version of ‘Louie, Louie'," makes up for any shortcomings.

Jaromír Vejvoda. "Beer Barrel Polka." Also known as "Roll Out the Barrel"
This little ditty, written in the late 1920's by a wannabe composer who tended bar at his father-in-law's pub in a suburb of Prague, went on to achieve worldwide popularity during the Second World War. The tune was so catchy that it became as famous among Germans as it was with the Allied forces, and after the war only became more popular. Everybody from Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman to Billie Holiday and the Andrews Sisters recorded it, and in its various incarnations it sold many millions of copies, making it sort of the Ninth Symphony of polkas. By the way, the original 1934 Czech lyrics for the "Beer Barrel Polka" (then titled "Wasted Love") had nothing to do with beer.

Mort Dixon and Ray Henderson. "Bye Bye Blackbird"
This jazz standard from 1926 has been recorded by everybody from Ella Fitzgerald to Nina Simone to Miles Davis and even Tiny Tim, but when my character Meta wanders around Prague on her first day there, she finds herself enthralled by a street singer's rendition of it in Old Town Square. With a cardboard megaphone in one hand and his trumpet in the other, this Czech manages an almost pitch-perfect imitation of the gravelly-voiced Louis Armstrong who happens to be buried in the same Queens cemetery as the woman who gave her the sonata manuscript. The lyrics of "Bye Bye Blackbird," which begin Pack up all my care and woe, are cryptic and valedictory. I imagine their underlying message of saying farewell to a past life, especially when sung in a soulful voice like Satchmo's, isn't lost on Meta, there at the beginning of her quest.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Die Zauberflöte
The Magic Flute, conducted by Sir Colin Davis in Dresden in 1984, featuring the soprano Margaret Price and tenor Peter Schreier, makes a late appearance during a very important scene in the novel. I'm fond of the passage cited because it poses one of the key themes, as I see it, in the novel: Who are you, what's your purpose? Besides, who wouldn't want The Magic Flute on their playlist?

Bradford Morrow and The Prague Sonata links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Kirkus review
Publishers Weekly review

Lincoln Journal-Star profile of the author
Zing Magazine interview with the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

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