WRITING THE MUSIC AND COMPOSING THE PLOT

Chord of EvilMusic has frequently been a catalyst for me in the creating of a plot, and it seems to have found its way into a good many of my books.  There’s the eerie death lament, ‘Thaisa’s Song’ in The Bell Tower, and the music hall songs in Ghost Song.  More Death Notes currentrecently, there’s the Phineas Fox series, with a music historian and researcher as the central character – although it has to be said that while Phin certainly gets entangled in music mysteries, he also finds himself drawn into other intriguing situations

But one of the difficulties with using music as a frame for a plot, is the embarrassment of riches that music’s history offers.                           There’s the macabre – such as the legend of how Paganini’s body was refused burial because of alleged participation in satanic rituals, and was apparently trundled across Europe for the best part of four years, before an appeal to the Pope finally allowed conventional burial.  That practically presents itself as a complete plot, there for the writing.     Or, if an author happens to incline towards the realms of the supernatural, there’s the dark tale of piedpiper2the Piper of Hameln to draw on – that infamous figure from the Middle Ages, who, when the townspeople reneged on payment for his rat-catching services, wrought his grisly revenge by luring the children into the mountains by his magical music.  You do have to be wary of sinister strangers offering peculiar deals, although the legend has certainly provided material for such diverse names as the Brothers Grimm, Robert Browning, and Walt Disney.
And, staying with the supernatural, might there really be a ‘Curse of the Ninth Symphony’, given that a surprising number of composers died after completing their ninth? The composer Philip Glass was convinced of it – to the extent that he insisted on completing his tenth symphony before allowing his ninth to be performed in public.

Moving away from the macabre, there’s the humorous, such as the Elizabethan Kempcaperings of one Will Kemp.  Master Kemp was a Shakespearean comic actor and ‘purveyor of mad jests and merry jigs’, and he accepted a bet that he could not dance from London to Norwich – roughly 80 miles (132 km).  He won the bet, although it took him nine days to do it – which he later chronicled as ‘The Nine Daie’s Wonder’ [sic].  Happily, though, the nine days don’t seem to have been entirely without a few lighter moments;  one version tells how, at one part of his journey, a young lady came out and danced a mile with him, to keep him company.  Some versions suggest slyly that caperings of a different kind took place, as well.  But that would be a tale for an entirely different kind of book, and in any case, Shakespeare, if he heard about his actor’s exploits, would have instantly spotted the potential for a bawdy romp scene, and very likely used a version of it in several of the plays.  (He probably did just that, although probably not in Hamlet or King Lear).

There are other, more straightforward mysteries, of course.  There’s a definite whodunnit flavour in the question of whether Salieri really did murder Mozart – witness Peter Shaffer’s play/film ‘Amadeus’, and also Alexander Pushkin’s 1830’s poetic drama, ‘Mozart and Salieri’.  There’s the question of why Schubert never finished his ‘Unfinished Symphony’.  To come more up-to-date, there’s surely a lively quest to be mapped out in solving the meanings and identifying the characters in Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’.

And so Phineas Fox, in his second outing, might have found himself imbroiled in any one of half a dozen plots, ancient or modern, classical or rock or jazz, any of which could be based on true stories.  I considered and discarded and researched and re-considered.  I tumbled half-forgotten books from my shelves, dispossessing armies of indignant spiders in the process, and I trawled libraries and the internet.

Then I latched onto the infamous tritone – the ‘Devil’s Chord’.

If we’re going to be technical (which always sounds nicely scholarly and looks impressive in this kind of article), the devil’s chord is an augumented 4th, or Tritonus, and spans three steps in the scale.  It’s been described as one of the most dissonant music intervals around – so much so, that it was banned in Renaissance church music.   Church music was supposed to be a paeon of praise to God, and the tritone was considered so ugly that it wasn’t thought suitable.  Medieval arrangements even used it to represent the devil, and Roman Catholic composers sometimes used it for referencing the act of the crucifixion. Its dissonance can work to advantage in some cases, though. It’s remarkably effective as background music in films, where it can serve as a warning to the audience that something bad’s about to happen. That harsh discordance that tells you the killer’s outside the door with an axe.  Think shower curtains in Psycho.

It occurred to me that the devil’s chord might make a guest appearance in a composition that had become part of music legend.  But what could that legend be?
Well, as somebody once said, if you can’t find a genuine legend, create one of your own.

Music has often been composed to celebrate great events – coronations, births, victory in war.  But what about a legend in which a piece of music was written to celebrate not a happy, or a triumphant event, but something far darker?  Something so menacing its existence was kept secret?

It was at that point that I saw the whole plot.  I could see Phineas Fox peeling back the layers of a secret that had lain undisturbed for three quarters of a century – glimpsing edges and corners of it, and ending in delving into a very grisly fragment of musical history indeed.

And so, Chord of Evil was born.

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A MATTER OF A NAME… and an unexpected piece of theatre lore

 

death-notes-currentWhile writing Death Notes, (Book One of the Phineas Fox series), I was initially delighted to discover the existence of the Opera and Ballet Theatre of Odessa – a building that had the splendid address of No 1 Tchaikovsky Street.
The theatre had been burned down towards the end of the 19th century, and it seemed that this might all fit beautifully into a plot that wove in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. (Less well-known than the butchery meted out to his grandson, Nicholas and family in 1917, but sufficiently documented to make it possible to disinter the salient facts).

odessa-theatre
Odessa Theatre today

I wrote four chapters, with happy diligence, making use of this Russian theatre.  Then I discovered that it had burned down in January 1873 – which was eight years too soon for the plot. I cursed the person who had struck the matches (tinder box?) in 1873 for not waiting just a few more years before consigning a beautiful old theatre to blackened rubble, and then I muttered imprecations against the tsar’s assassins for not bringing their dastardly plot forward, and committing the foul deed in 1873 instead of 1881.
And since the dates of assassinations can’t be shifted, any more than the burning of illustrious theatres can be put forward, in the end I resorted to the ploy of most writers in such a situation.  I set about creating a fictional theatre.  This seemed a very good idea, until I hit the problem of what to call it.  Names matter, and the theatre I was conjuring up, the theatre that would stand somewhere in Tchaikovsky Street (because I wasn’t going to lose that terrific street name), had to sound authentic and romantic.
ghost-songAn English theatre mightn’t have been difficult.  A few years earlier, writing Ghost Song, I had created the Tarleton Theatre, the name a nod to the memory of the Elizabethan clown actor, Richard Tarleton.  I had even called the theatre yard Platt’s, from the old word for a stage plot (layout).  But this was Russia.
I rummaged the bookshelves, scouring dictionaries and reference books and encyclopediae to find a suitable name. I trawled the internet.  Chapter 11 lay abandoned and incomplete on the hard drive. Chapter 12 was still worryingly embryonic (scrappy notes in Word), and Chapter 13 was a mere hope somewhere on the horizon, with no Word or, indeed, words to its name.  Chapters 4-10, all containing the infuriatingly inaccurate references to the Odessa Theatre, patiently awaited amendment.  My agent and my editor patiently awaited a manuscript.

Then I discovered a wonderful piece of Russian theatre folklore – that of the ancient skomorokhs_02people called the skomorokhi.
The skomorokhi appear to be part of an astonishingly old tradition – dating to around the ninth or tenth century, and there are frescoes portraying them in Kiev, thought to date to the 11th century.  They were medieval, East Slavic harlequins – actors, who could also sing, dance, play musical instruments and compose for their oral/musical and dramatic performances.
Traces of them and their legend are sprinkled over the centuries, and the Tale of Bygone Years, sometimes known as the Primary Chronicle which covers about 850 to 1110, uncompromisingly denounces the skomorokhi as devil servants,
Several authorities suggest that the word, Skomorokh, is linked to the Italian Scaramouch – the clown character of Italian commedia dell’arte, which literally translated as Little Skirmisher.  Harlequin and Columbine are known to most people, but that third character, Scaramouch, is perhaps not quite as familiar.
And yet Scaramouch is still around.  In the 1906 fantasy play, Love in a Dutch Garden, (filmed silently in 1918 as Prunella,) a character says, ‘Scaramel, I am tempted…’   Scaramel’s reply is, ‘Always yield to temptation.’  Which may well be borrowed from the infamous Oscar Wilde line, but does go to prove that Scaramel/Scaramouch, knew that if you’re going to plagiarise, you choose the best loot you can.

In Freddie Mercury’s mind-blowing Bohemian Rhapsody, he gives Queen a line that asks, ‘Scaramouche, Scaramouche, will you do the fandango…?
It’s likely that Scaramouche and certainly the long-ago Skomorokh performers, could indeed do the fandango and any one of a dozen other dances.

So there it was, the theatre’s name.  Never mind that I couldn’t pronounce it and that I had to enter it into the spell-checker on the computer for auto-completion of the word, it was undoubtedly the Skomorokh Theatre.  The charismatic 19th century violinist, Roman Volf, whose mysterious and scandalous life lay at the heart of the book, could wander through the ruins, weaving plots of his own, possibly in company with a suitably alluring lady.
Best of all, The Skomorokh Theatre itself could burn down in the right year for the plot of Death Notes.
Fiction is frequently so much more easy to manipulate than fact.

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