The Sound in Silence: In Praise of Song in Books

Or, The post with many links.

I was on a rereading kick lately and came across, in the Vancouver Public Library, a few new Ellis Peters mysteries I’d never read before. I borrowed and read them, and found myself musing on why I continue to read Ellis Peters’s murder mysteries. The characters, aside from the few main and continuing names, tend to be somewhat cast types: The beautiful (good) woman. The sinister man. The currently ambivalent but ultimately good man. The precocious child. The conniving and demanding but not malignant woman. The patient sufferer. This pattern holds more or less true whether the mysteries are solved by Brother Cadfael in Shrewsbury in the 1100s, or by George and/or Dominic Felse and Tossa Barber in the 1950s.

I exaggerate slightly, surely I do. There are surprises in her (Ellis Peters is a pseudonym) works, always there is a surprise I had never foreseen and was not guarded against, some plot twist that casts an entirely different light on characters and circumstance and upsets all my cherished, prematurely smug, theories.

However, in mysteries where only half a dozen characters, at most, continue from book one to book twenty, most of which are off-stage for the duration of the story and consequently cannot grow as persons, while the bulk of the principle and minor actors flourish and vanish either to death, obscurity, or a happy ending over the course of one slender volume – what holds the reader’s interest?

I came to the conclusion that the answer was love. Not the reader’s love, the author’s. I keep reading about Brother Cadfael because Ellis Peters writes about turmoil and tentative peace in England and Wales with such care and fascination that I ignore the parade of beautiful, clever maidens and handsome, desperate youths in favour of seeking the individual in each circumstance, of witnessing the slow, oh so slow, changes in the abbey and its denizens – even cold, fastidious Prior Robert.

More, I reread the George Felse/Dominic Felse and Tossa Barber mysteries and Peters’s other, freestanding mysteries, because the love of the author for music. Peters’s love of music pervades the Felse series; hardly a book goes by without a mention, usually remarked upon and repeated, of song (and I say hardly only because I might be wrong, there might be one story without music, though I cannot think of any). Each book almost has its own theme song or set of songs. Whether the song is a Czechoslovakian piping tune or an Indian raga, a classical German art song or from British folk, sung by mischievous choirboys or by professional operatic soprano, by tuba and full orchestra or lone hermit, according to the setting and theme of the story, song is always there.

Music is so vividly present – if the book was a pastry, music would be the syrup drenching it, dripping in gleaming gold – that reading these books over the years has induced me to learn the music, has introduced me to music I would never have found by myself.

Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Heart led me to Black is the Colour of my True Love’s Hair* and a host of other folksongs in English, Scots, Welsh, and French. The House of Green Turf brought me Mahler’s Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grunen Wald and Schubert’s FruhlingsglaubeMourning Raga inevitably meant hours listening to different recordings of Raga Ahir Bhairav. And since many all folksongs and many songs in translation are known regionally or by translator under different names, every search leads to more and more beautiful melodies – and splendid new performances of these songs.

Some of these songs I would never have found if it weren’t for a book prompting the search. Some I might have come across but would have had no reason – no particular attachment – to care for them if it weren’t for the stories attached. Some melodies demand effort before they fit easily in the ear; others fall into the heart instantly.

It isn’t just Ellis Peters. Rachel Hartman’s Seraphina begins with a prologue: Seraphina’s memory from before her birth.

There was no light, but there was music: joints creaking, blood rushing, the heart’s staccato lullaby, a rich symphony of indigestion. Sound enfolded me, and I was safe. (p. 1)

The first chapter, which brings the story to its present setting, launches with a soaring, lyrical passage in which Seraphina plays the flute in an echoing, vaulted church for the funeral of a prince – one of the most moving descriptions of pre-performance nerves and the terrifying, glorious minutes of creating music in front of others that I have ever read. The national epic of Belondweg is also supposed to be, at least originally, in song; two songs from Seraphina have been set to music and can be found, among other songs, on Rachel Hartman’s blog.

Diana Wynne Jones has introduced hundreds, perhaps thousands of readers to the Welsh song Sosban Fach**; I suspect that it is because of Calcifer’s humming in Howl’s Moving Castle that the song is as popular outside Wales as it is:

The demon at length fell to singing a gentle, flickering little song. It was not in any language Sophie knew – or she thought not, until she distinctly heard the word “saucepan” in it several times – and it was very sleepy-sounding. Sophie fell into a deep sleep, with a slight suspicion that she was being bewitched now, as well as beguiled, but it did not bother her particularly. She would be free of the spell soon… (p. 31 in my copy; end of chapter 3)

(Is it just me, or does this paragraph also slyly reference Bewitched, bothered, and bewildered?)

And it doesn’t stop there:

I heard Heather Dale’s Mordred’s Lullaby and tweeted to Elizabeth Wein, who replied that My Lullaby from Lion King II also reminds her of Medraut in her The Winter Prince. (Sorry I can’t find the exact tweet; here’s the subsequent one.) During an interview, Terry Pratchett sang a folksong and spoke about Thomas Tallis’s Spem in alium, thereby introducing not just me but hundreds of other readers to both.

Meliara, the protagonist of Sherwood Smith’s Crown Duel, together with her brother and their new ally comes down with a violent cold shortly before the decisive battle which will either bring Mel and her rebels to victory, or see a corrupt king destroy the nation. Mel remembers the old songs of heroes that she loved to sing, a passing reference which implicitly builds a whole nation’s folksongs and national epics. None of them ever mentioned head colds, she thinks. If we win, will the songs mention how sick we feel?

Here’s to music in books. May authors long go on introducing readers to beautiful and extraordinary songs, and celebrating the interplay of music and words.

* And subsequent memorization of both the folksong and Liri Palmer’s version. Naturally.

** There is a wealth of interpretations to listen to for Sosban Fach; here is a ukulele rendition, a clubbing version (!), a marching band and men’s choir version, and one by the Cowbois Celtaidd.

  • Lovely! I never knew what Calcifer’s saucepan song referred to until now.