At the ripe age of 66 I started to learn music. I’m taking singing lessons. It comes as a surprise to learn I have a reasonably good ear and pitch memory, and that I am a soprano. I expected to be more Bonnie Raitt than Julie Andrews. This is all beside the point except it’s made me think about music in all contexts. Also, beside the point is that as I learn to read sheet music and count rhythm I feel as though I’ve learned the secret handshake, that I’m in the club, and that I can join the chorus. I have joined one!
So, that’s all about me. Now, on to how this makes me think and hopefully apply it to writing historical fiction.
We are so lucky to be alive at the time of recorded music (Muzak excepted). Prior to the 20th Century music was heard in church, by minstrels and troubadors, in tribal and formal Western dance, at chamber concerts, in work songs and lullabyes. A person either sang, or played an instrument, or attended a community event where music was performed by others. If you were wealthy you could commission music to be written or attend private concerts. If you were middle class, i.e. possessed something like disposable income, you might attend chamber concerts at Assembly Hall dances. If you were poor you relied on yourself and friends and family to carry on the familiar ballads, folk songs and lullabyes you grew up listening to.
I find it interesting that music plays so minor a role in so much of 19th century literature. And I find it disappointing not to read mention of music in the copious letters of Lady Mary Whortly Montague. Other than a brief description of what we call Belly Dancing which she provided from her time in Turkey we know nothing about her experiences with music. She lived many years in Italy in the 18th century and does not mention opera.
In the effort to find a way into writing about Lady Mary I am reading lots of biographies. I recently finished The Baroness by Hannah Rothschild. This is a wonderful book, and happily filled with music! Hannah Rothschild tells the story of her errant great grand aunt who was born into the wealth, style and expectations of the 19th century Rothschild dynasty. Rebellious by nature and growing up through the tumultuous first half of the 20th century (which century is not tumultuous???), she was an adventurous woman. The music comes in because she was fascinated by the new Jazz. After hearing a recording of Thelonious Monk her life took an entirely unexpected and eccentric turn. She devoted herself to him and to Bebop musicians in New York. It is a fascinating story and was truly fun to read. I am happy to report the author’s POV gave me an insight into how I might approach Lady Mary’s story.
In the great tradition of procrastinating writers I made notes, intended to begin writing, and then decided to read yet another biography. This time the story of Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley called Romantic Outlaws by Charlotte Gordon. One of these days I will begin the Lady Mary book. Maybe when the snow falls!