Book Review: A Musical Offering

“When a child first learns to hum a melody, the child stops being music and instead becomes a receptacle for remembering it.”

A Musical Offering, by Luis Sagasti (translated by Fionn Petch), is a challenge to define. It tells numerous stories but in short vignettes that weave into and around each other – a sort of counterpoint style of writing. Its frame is music and the effect various pieces have on a variety of listeners. As with a new musical composition – however enjoyable – it is not until the finish that it may be fully considered and appreciated.

The opening chapter explains why Bach was commissioned, by a Russian Count, to compose what became known as the Goldberg Variations. In the twentieth century these gained a wider audience thanks to recordings made by Canadian pianist, Glenn Gould. The importance of the length of the silence between each variation is explored as is the circularity of the work.

The discussion segues into the story of Scheherazade. I had to look up who this character was – she is a storyteller in the collection of Middle Eastern tales brought together in One Thousand and One Nights, often known in English as the Arabian Nights.

There follows a series of reflections on lullabies, then the music of the Beatles. This is the first of several threads that weave in contemporary culture and historical figures. The work of artist, Jackson Pollock, is included.

By the end of this first chapter, the structure and style of writing had been established but I was unconvinced that the stories being told were worth pursuing. Early on certain similes and opaque suggestions had grated.

“an extraordinary harpsichordist who not only is capable of playing anything that is put in front of him but can also read a score upside down, like a rock star playing a guitar behind his back”

“the slower pace of the later version is that of someone who knows we only leave a circle before taking the first step”

I was also irritated by the assumption that the reader would recognise and understand references to people and artistic endeavours. As well as Scheherazade, I had to look up Virgil and Dantes to puzzle out their inclusion. I pondered if the author was writing for someone better read than me (whatever better read actually means).

There were, however, thoughts being shared that I enjoyed despite their sometimes tenuous conjunctions.

“Every mother carries a Noah’s Ark in her womb (after all, there are forty weeks of gestation and forty days of flood). We’ve all been the animals in the Ark before descending to the earth.”

The second chapter delves deeper into how silence is perceived and completely hooked me. The discursions teased out fascinating accounts of people’s behaviour. Revered art is depicted as merchandise – investors driving up price then storing the work in a warehouse. The tales of two of John Cage’s musical compositions – 4′ 33″ and ASLSP – are as bizarre as they are brilliant to share. It is pointed out that there is never true silence if we pay attention.

The tale of The Great Organ of Himmelheim had me checking if it was true – not that it mattered given the joy of considering why such a thing would be built.

A poignant chapter on music in a time of war again kept me fully engaged. Man is capable of such atrocity yet also beauty.

As well as sharing interesting stories, the author philosophises on wider issues. I enjoyed his thoughts on sending music into space. I also learned about the wood used by Stradivarius – why it was special. I didn’t look up if this factoid was true – by now I was engrossed in each of the digressions and interested in how they would be brought together. The denouement adds an element of circularity to all that has gone before.

After my initial concerns I was drawn into this work and thoroughly enjoyed reading each interwoven tangent. Fact and fiction may have been blended – I remain unsure – but it has been done to impressive and immersive effect.

A Musical Offering is published by Charco Press.

Book Review: The Goldberg Variations

The Goldberg Variations, by Robert Hainault, is a work of fiction presented in thirty chapters framed by an aria. The musical work that inspired this structure was written for harpsichord by JS Bach in 1741. It was named for one of the composer’s pupils at this time who, at fourteen years of age was already an accomplished keyboardist.

The story’s protagonist is a harpsichord teacher named William Goldberg who, following a successful public recital in London, is persuaded by a lecherous stranger, Jack Borge, to take his talented young student on a concert tour of Poland. The boy, Daniel, is fourteen years old, although the mannerisms attributed to him appear more fitting of a younger child. He is gauche and malleable, easily led by the men despite his obvious discomfort at their actions.

Daniel’s mother trusts William to look after her son and he eagerly takes on the role of father figure on the tour. He hopes that Daniel may achieve the success that eluded him and that, as his teacher, he may bask in the boy’s reflected glory.

Jack Borge is a repulsive character. He is prurient and ill-mannered, making frequent inappropriate observations about Daniel and William. He plies them with drink and tries to take them to clubs where young boys are paid for sexual favours. When left alone, William takes Daniel for gelatinos, the sweetness and innocence of the treat offering a contrast to the disturbing imagery of the time spent with Jack.

The tour of Poland does not go as planned, although William appears first oblivious and then undeterred. The longer he spends with Daniel the less he can countenance being deprived of the boy’s company. He grows jealous when Daniel shows any interest in girls. The reader is left to interpret what is happening, the gradual contamination of the disturbing suggestions.

Like the music, the plot soars and crashes, wave after wave of beauty and melancholy. In a programme note the author explains:

The forms, figures, styles, moods and overall architecture of the piece have been integrated into the novel according to a system of symbols, puns, references, ciphers and plot points that comprise a musicological companion to the Bach.

Although competently written and offering an intriguing structure I found this book troubling. The thoughts and actions were too raw and unpleasant, what is pure overwhelmed by the grotesque.

The sexual fantasies involving a child brought to mind Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, indeed the book is referenced. However, this tale offers less subtlety, the transformation an intriguing puzzle but too sordid for my tastes. There is much about the content that is clever but I was overwhelmed by horror at the abuse described. It may be ‘daring’ and ‘phantasmagorical’, but was not enjoyable to read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Ampersand.