Book Quote:

“Jessold was an embarrassment. His name became proverbial, signifying a kind of artistic dementia, a byword for murderous obsession: the same fate Gesualdo had suffered. The works, best dismissed on grounds of taste, were completely unrevivable. These were his missing years, not in life but in death. Nothing of the real man (the charismatic, genius Jessold) survived: only the cartoon, the caricature, the parody, the deluded monster.”

Book Review:

Review by Roger Brunyate  (FEB 4, 2011)

Wesley Stace’s ample new novel — half murder mystery, half music criticism — opens with a press report on the death of the talented young English composer Charles Jessold in 1923. He appears to have shot himself in his apartment after poisoning his wife and his wife’s lover and watching them die. The murder-suicide has not one but two ironic precedents. It reproduces the story of the Renaissance composer Carlo Gesualdo, who similarly killed his wife with her lover. It is also the subject of an English folk-ballad, “Lord Barnard and Little Musgrave,” which Jessold had taken as the subject for his operatic magnum opus, due to premiere the following night. Given the circumstances, the opera was canceled and Jessold’s posthumous reputation ruined. It seems clear that he was a man obsessed by the career of Gesualdo, his near-namesake, as he squandered his own talent in alcoholism and excess. The facts are not in dispute; it only remains to trace the sorry path that led to this debacle, and ascertain the composer’s possible motives.

This task is left to Leslie Shepherd, a gentleman of independent means who writes musical criticism for a leading London paper. Meeting Jessold at a country-house weekend, he takes it upon himself to promote the young man and guide his early career. It is the period of the English folk-song revival, when composers such as Vaughan-Williams and Holst would go out into the countryside to transcribe ancient versions of the old ballads as sung by aged countrymen, in search of a home-grown nationalism to combat the dominance of German music. Jessold is staying with Shepherd and his wife Miriam when they hear the “Little Mossgrave” ballad (sic) sung by an old sheep-shearer, planting the seed for the eventual opera, for which Shepherd will write at least the first draft of the libretto. But a decade must pass before that. Jessold attracts attention with a number of smaller compositions; he makes two trips to study in Germany, but is trapped there by the outbreak of the 1914 war, and
spends the next four years in an internment camp. There, he manages to write music of ever greater brilliance, and returns to London in 1918 as a musical celebrity and clearly the next great hope for British music. But he also becomes personally unreliable, rejecting his old friends, and turning to drink.

Wesley Stace is clearly a musician; in fact he has a separate career as a singer-songwriter under the name John Wesley Harding. But he knows the classical repertoire too. Unlike virtually all novels about musicians that I have read (Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music being the sole other exception), the musical background to this one is impeccable. Stace understands the conflict in prewar British music between pastoral Englishism and dilettantish daring. He is also aware of the great movements on the continent; he has superb passages on Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and especially Schoenberg’s second string quartet, the work in which he renounced tonality. Shepherd sums up his experience of the latter: “Yet I had to admit that I too felt the wonder of the music, its power, its horror. I had laughed at Jessold’s ‘breeze from other planets,’  but I had experienced it, that chill wind blowing from the future, in the hairs on the back of my neck, in my soul.” Stace is brilliant at showing how Jessold steered his way between these various influences. He makes the composer always plausible, but very much his own man. If there is any one composer whose early music one thinks of more than others, it is Benjamin Britten, and the 1945 premiere of Britten’s Peter Grimes is another of the brilliant musical set-pieces in the book.

I do have problems, however. There are many times when I am not sure whether the music is just the background to the personal story, or whether the story has been devised solely to enable Stace to write about the music. As a musician myself (including as an opera librettist and former critic!), I was fascinated by everything, but other readers might find the book slow. Stace also goes out of his way to imitate the mandarin style of a lot of English writing at the beginning of the century, flowing with the stately amplitude of a Henry James, and there are times when you just wish he would get on with it. This is especially so in the second part of the book, after Jessold is long since dead, and Stace continues into the later years of his biographer, Leslie Shepherd. The musical details continue to fascinate, but when Hamlet has left the scene, who is interested in Horatio? Yet stick with it while Stace goes through the same events again but from an intiguingly different perspective. Some of his surprises come close to narrative cheating, but in the end they transform the book into a different kind of psychological study altogether, still very much worth the reading.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 16 readers
PUBLISHER: Picador (February 1, 2011)
REVIEWER: Roger Brunyate
EXTRAS: Excerpt

Charles Jessold website

MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: More music in fiction:

Paganini’s Ghost by Paul Adams

Blue Duets by Kathleen Wall


February 4, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: Facing History, United Kingdom

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