Thursday, 8 September 2016
While the Music Lasted Kitty Barne
They enjoyed the wedding with the reception in Rosalba’s music-room. Enjoyment is infectious. Andy… insisted on Rosalba playing a duet with him. Frightened but fascinated, she did so, and when she broke down, which she did twice, he played her part with his own so that no-one knew. Once at the piano he gave them Wein, Weib, Gesang, and Judy, entranced by such unusual behaviour on the part of a bridegroom, rolled back the rugs and swept him off the piano stool to dance with her. ‘The bride can play for us now,’ she cried, and the bride – most unsuitably as old Mrs Mersey-White protested – willingly did so.
Karen, in a white frock that would also do for the concerto at King’s when the time came to play it, knew nothing of what was or was not suitable for brides. All she knew was that time stood blessedly still for her; the clock had at last stopped.
commentary: We had She Shall Have Music by the same author last month. That book ended with the schoolgirl Karen taking an audition to go to music college: I wouldn’t normally spoiler the ending, but no reader can be in any doubt, and this one starts with her arriving at her new digs to meet the other music students. But the setup is very unusual in that the first book was very much a children’s story, while this one is definitely for grownups.
Rosalba is the music teacher who did Karen such a disservice in the earlier book – but all is forgiven and they have always stayed friends.
It might also be seen as a spoiler that Karen gets married, but the romance here is beautifully done, and refreshingly free from artificial obstacles – no-one would be in doubt from their first meeting. A few older people sigh and say they are too young, but they are well-suited, happy, and don’t have ridiculous arguments and breakups about nothing at all. It’s delightful without being sentimental.
And part of the reason they get married so young is that war is coming: this book is very much set in the late 30s, and is full of political discussions, and questions about whether people should be worrying about music when they should be fighting. There are some odd ways of referring to Jewish people, but there is no doubt where Barne’s heart is, and the story of the German-Jewish composer Steinberg, and his wife, is tremendously affecting. Andy and Karen know what is right, and as their story takes them through the Munich Agreement of 1938 (see also last week’s The Theoretical Foot) and into the early days of World War 2, their thoughts and dilemmas are real and convincing. The promising young musicians are invited to move to the USA – because music is important, they can raise morale and do great things from there. But perhaps they should not go: perhaps they should stay and do their duty.
The pictures of London, and of college life for Karen, are beautifully drawn – I loved the community singing sessions, and the magical trip through a late-night market. The book starts out as though Karen will have the routine tropes of performing-arts-school books: bad friend, good friend, flashy friend, temptation of Mammon, vulgar songs and singing. But the author just ditches all that, doesn’t bother, and she doesn’t even care what Karen wears most of the time – no audition frock frenzy here. Obviously I regret that in my role as Clothes-in-Books monitor, but I loved the way the story evolved in some unexpected ways. The section where Andy gives a talk on Wagner to a girls’ school was hilarious and delightful (‘Wagner must be avoided’ was the original brief), and then moved into something important for him and Karen as he talks about love. A really memorable passage in a terrific book.
Two posh piano pictures are from the programmes of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the first half of the 20th century – the programmes are available online and are strangely fascinating.
The other one is from the wondrous Gottlieb collection of jazz photographs – these are musicians in 1947, and seemed to have a feel of Karen and her friends.