I can’t wait to read the latest Julian Barnes novel, The Noise of Time, published this month in the UK. The American edition is due out on May 10, but I’m too impatient to wait and have ordered the hardback direct from Britain. The book is a fictional biography on the life of Dmitri Shostakovich and the artistic compromises he was forced to make during Stalin’s reign of terror, leaving the composer humiliated and scarred. By all accounts, the book is a meditation on how art is produced in a climate of fear. The Guardian is already calling this short novel a masterpiece.
Barnes wrote about a composer once before in a short story called “The Silence,” published in a collection called The Lemon Table in 2004. The story deals with an unnamed composer, easily identified as Sibelius, who suffers a 30-year creative drought. I heard Barnes read an excerpt from this story in March of 2014 when he teamed up with the pianist Angela Hewitt to present an evening of words and music at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge. The format was quite effective, I thought, and opened my eyes to prose and poetry on the subject of “classical” music. In advance of the concert, I interviewed Barnes in the Spring of 2014 for Listen: Life with Music and Culture, a magazine published by Steinway, who muses on the importance of classical music in his life and art. I’m posting this link to it again.
Here’s one of the selections he read that has stayed with me.
“The Stillness of the World Before Bach,” by Lars Gustafsson.
There must have been a world before
the Trio Sonata in D, a world before the A minor Partita,
but what kind of a world?
A Europe of vast empty spaces, unresounding,
everywhere unawakened instruments
where the Musical Offering, the Well-tempered Clavier
never passed across the keys.
where the soprano-line of the Passion
never in helpless love twined round
the gentler movements of the flute,
broad soft landscapes
where nothing breaks the stillness
but old woodcutters’ axes,
the healthy barking of strong dogs in winter
and, like a bell, skates biting into fresh ice;
the swallows whirring through summer air,
the shell resounding at the child’s ear
and nowhere Bach nowhere Bach
the world in a skater’s silence before Bach.