A Novel Invents a Musical Masterpiece

Lauren Belfer: Over ten years ago now, I received in the mail an announcement for an adult education class on the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. At that moment, I didn’t know much about Bach’s music beyond the piano lessons I’d taken when I was young. Nonetheless I had an odd hunch that I should sign up for this class, that somehow it would turn out to be important to me. I sent in the registration form and check that very day.

What I learned in the class surprised me. Bach’s music turned out to be more transcendent and compelling than I’d ever imagined possible. But some of his church music – not all, but some – carried in its librettos a message of religious contempt, not mere religious disagreement, lashing out against Catholics, Muslims and at Jews. This wasn’t a surprise, given the era when Bach lived, but I was particularly disturbed by it because much of my family was murdered in the Holocaust. The religious prejudice presented through the vehicle of Bach’s sublime music was hard for me to come to terms with.  

At the time I was taking the class, more and more articles began to appear in the news about the rediscovery of works of art that had been lost or stolen during the war. The restitution of the works to their rightful owners became an important issue. I found myself drawn to these stories.

My subconscious must have been weaving together strands of information about stolen art and Bach’s music, because one evening as I was walking to the subway after my class, I suddenly thought – what if I found a work of art that had been lost or stolen during World War II? Not a painting, but a previously unknown masterpiece of music, a sacred cantata, by the great Johann Sebastian Bach, and what if its libretto reflected the religious intolerance prevalent during the era of its creation? What would I do with it? Make it public? Hide it? Destroy it? 

This was the moment of inspiration for the novel that became And After the Fire. The idea for each of my three published novels has come to me this way: I’m walking down the street, and all at once I feel as if a door is opening in my mind, into another place, into a story that didn’t exist the moment before and now begins to take shape. Waiting for inspiration to strike while walking down the street is not a reliable way to earn a living, but what can I do? 

YZM: The research for this novel must have been extensive; how did you go about it?

LB: Whenever I decide on a topic for an historical novel, I begin to read widely in histories and biographies relevant to the era, looking for a narrative focus and simultaneously trying to conjure up the characters who will tell my story. During these initial months of research, I often feel as if I’m searching for a needle in a haystack … not knowing exactly what I’ll find, but trusting that I’ll recognize what I’m looking for when I stumble upon it.

In the case of And After the Fire, I wanted to tell the story of my fictional musical masterpiece from the time of its creation in the 18th century across two hundred years of German history, through the Holocaust and into the present. To do this, I decided to combine real-life personalities with fictional characters.

I began reading everything I could find about Bach. Nothing grabbed my interest in the sense of saying, here’s the place to begin. Eventually I began reading about Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, a difficult man who, toward the end of his life, went to Berlin and was hired to teach a young Jewish woman to play the harpsichord. This woman was Sara Itzig, Sara Levy after her marriage. Through continuing research, I learned that Sara was an extraordinary woman, a highly skilled musician who hosted an influential salon in Berlin for over fifty years. When I discovered her, I knew intuitively that I’d found the person to be at the center of my novel. Following her life story opened to me an entire world of 18th and 19th century German Jewish culture that I’d known nothing about.

Once I know the focal points of my novels, I try to put myself into the shoes of my characters as they lived from day to day without knowing what the future would bring them. I try to recapture the confusions and anxieties they must have felt as they faced the unknown. In order to do this, I read contemporary letters, diaries, documents and newspapers. I look at drawings and paintings from the era. Bit by bit, I piece together the clues that tell me what life would have felt like for people living at a particular moment. This was my process as I researched And After the Fire.

I traveled to Germany several times to research the novel. Because of my family’s history, I felt anxious when I went to Germany for the first time. After I arrived in Berlin and saw the many Jewish memorials in the city, however, my anxiety dissipated. I sensed that the Germans have tried to confront and somehow atone for what happened during the war.

And After the Fire took about ten years to write, both because the research was so extensive and also because subject matter was emotionally searing.

 YZM: Did you see a connection between your Jewish characters of the past, like Sara Itzig Levy, and those in the present, like Susanna Kessler?

LB: This is an interesting question. As I think about it, I have to say that no, I didn’t see a direct connection between the Jewish characters of the past and those of the present. However, as the narrative of the novel moved back and forth in time, I was careful to make certain that the past and present illuminated each other. Thus, the characters in the past know things that the characters in the present can never know, and vice versa. The reader knows all, and I hope gains a deeper understanding of the issues involved in the novel by following two narratives rather than simply one.

YZM: Your handling of Susanna’s sexual assault was both poignant and unexpected; can you say more about this?

LB: When I create fictional characters like Susanna Kessler, I try first and foremost to listen to what they tell me about themselves. I don’t want to paste false personalities onto them. When my characters begin talking back to me, I know that they have become, in a sense, alive – living their own lives, experiencing their own dreams, escaping from their own demons. Once they begin to come alive for me, I know they’ll be alive for the reader.

When Susanna took shape in my mind, I understood from the beginning that she’d experienced a rape, and that this rape caused the break-up of her marriage. Through conversations with women friends over the years, I’ve learned how common sexual assault actually is, and I’ve also learned that men often have difficulty accepting that a woman they love has been sexually assaulted.

For readers, the rape scene at the beginning of the novel has been controversial, and many readers have asked me about it. Some wonder if the rape is a metaphor, perhaps for anti-Semitism; I assure them that it is not a metaphor. Other readers have found the scene so distressing that they’ve stopped reading, and they question why I would have put such a wrenching scene at the beginning. 

I can only respond that when I developed Susanna as a character, when she began to speak to me, this was part of her. I couldn’t deny who she was by deleting this part of her, or moving it to the end of the book; to do so would be, in a sense, to betray her and her experiences. 

YZM: I can imagine a whole novel about the musician Fanny Mendelssohn. Can you tell us a little bit about her and her Jewish background? 

LB: I’m fascinated by Fanny Mendelssohn, who was born in 1805 and became one of the real-life people portrayed in And After the Fire. I, too, can imagine an entire novel about her! She was the great-niece of Sara Itzig Levy, and the sister of the renowned composer Felix Mendelssohn. Fanny and Felix were born into a Jewish family, but when they were quite young, their parents arranged for them to be converted to Christianity. Many German Jews converted to Christianity during this era, primarily, I believe, to assure their futures in a culture that was, in many ways, hostile toward Jews.  

Fanny was a gifted composer who wrote over four hundred works, most of them performed only privately, in her family’s musical salon. Historians today tend to say that creative women of the 19th century were suppressed by a patriarchal culture. In some ways this was true of Fanny – but in other, crucial ways, this stereotype is not true of her: Fanny’s mother and her husband both urged her to publish her works and take on a more public role as a composer. I know this because I’ve read the letters exchanged among family members about this topic. Unfortunately Fanny’s brother, the world-famous Felix, discouraged her from publishing her work, and his opinion was the only one that mattered to her. He did, however, publish several of her compositions under his name, shocking to contemplate. 

Despite extensive research, I haven’t been able to comprehend the psychological battle between these siblings. Tragically, Fanny died of a stroke at the age of forty-one. After her death, her music was essentially forgotten. Within the past few decades, musicians have been rediscovering her wonderful work and performing and recording it. I urge you to seek out these recordings. 

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.

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