Jim Fleming: But first, Wesley Stace on his new novel "Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer".
Wesley Stace: 24th of June, 1923. A double murder, followed by the suicide of the perpetrator, had taken place in a cul-de-sac off of Kensington High Street. Jealousy is the principle motive for the crime. The police were summoned at two o'clock yesterday morning when witnesses at Kuduggen Mansions were startled by the report of a revolver. Constable Williams, forcing the door open, found the body of the composer Charles Jessold, aged 35 years, holding a blood stained five chambered revolver which he had discharged into his jaw. On the bed lay the bodies of his wife, mezzo soprano Victoria London, and Edward Manville, a married man. The Jessold's two-month old baby was found awake in his crib.
Jim Fleming: That's Wesley Stace, reading the opening of his new novel, "Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer". Stace leads a double life, he's also the singer songwriter John Wesley Harding. His new novel is the first to be specifically about music. Stace told Anne Strainchamps about his inspiration for the book.
Stace: I saw a a Werner Herzog documentary about Gesualdo this composer in the renaissance who murdered his wife and her lover. With the Herzog documentary, you can't tell how much is fact and fiction. I loved it, I immediately went to try and kind of find out the facts, and they're extremely as startling as Herzog could have possibly made the mark. And I suddenly thought, I want to write a novel about that but I didn't want to write a novel that was period novel to that time in history set in Italy. So I thought, oh, well how about a modern composer, and these two ideas kind of artist-critic co-dependency and also an artist who murders his wife and her lover. Those two things became entwined for me.
Strainchamps: So anyway, we've got this very promising beginning here. Adultery, revenge killing, and a suicide of famous composer and a boarded musical performance. Sounds like the stuff of melodrama.
Stace: Well, yeah it is. I tried to structure the novel in a rather operatic way so it has kind of an act. What happens is, Leslie Shepherd, my rather buttoned up ideal of critic, tells the story to the police as it happened, and then he kind of revisits it from a more personal perspective. It's a classic novel structured to look at the same events from a different point of view, and the novel is called, "Charles Jessold Considered as a Murderer", and the point is if you would consider it another way would his art mean something different. And I think there's a way in which the novel in a sense is a critique of the kind of biographical approach to criticism. Which I see in rock music writing a lot. Where people, say, Dylan had a heart attack therefore his next album was all about death. You know, and you can tell that he had this heart attack and it's like, all his albums are about death, you know, but that's a way that criticism works. And I think there are pitfalls in that, and so, if you want to take a piece of art and use it as your text you can approach that in a number of ways. And people's biographies and lives, the authors, the creators of it, can lead you up blind alleys and garden paths and that's kind of what the book's about.
Stace: Shepherd and Jessold, the critic and the composer, discover as was completely normal at the time, a folk-song in the field. It's a time when nations were just about to go to war and were rediscovering their own national music. It's a very rich time for English music, particularly because at the time England's favorite composers were Faulkner, Strauss, Mendleson, and Handle. You know, and they're all German. And England is just about to go war with Germany, so England wants to find it's own national music, and as many other nations had before it, the composers turn to the folk songs to find the kind of national heritage of melody. And that was the meleur [SP?] that I chose to set this in because it seemed a very rich time musically and culturally. And so it starts off with them finding this folk-song, and the folk-song is little musgrave, a song that I've recorded myself because I love it and it's an incredible great song, one of the greatest of the folk ballads.
Strainchamps: So, what is this ballad?
Stace: Now, a lot of ballads, what happens is, they're rather mysterious, because one always seems to end up in the fifth act of them. As though everything has already happened and you've come in at the climax. Little Musgrave is quite unique and it's known to rock music fans as Matty Groves by Fairpolk Convention, which I believe is an American version of it. But it's quite unique in that you get the whole three or five act tragedy as it were, and it's about little musgraven, a young man who gets the glad-eye from lady bonnet while her husband is off hunting. and the lord is told, and he comes back, well, I'm going to read it to you because I've written it down and I've written it down so carefully that it seems a shame to be fumbling through. Here we go, here we go. "To scholars the ballad is known simply as child 81, after it's numerical designation in Francis Jane Child's monumental collection. The basic story has the tragic pull typical of the big ballad. The lord is hunting, his lady seduces a young man, a page runs to alert the lord who returns to confront the lovers in bed. He slays them both. That is all."
[Song begins-sung in Stace's voice]
"So slowly, so slowly he rose up and slowly he put on. Slowly down the stairs he goes and thanking to be slain. The first stroke little musgrave took it was both deep and sore. Down he fell at bonnets feet and word he never spoke more. And how do you like his cheeks lady, yeah how do you like his chin. And how do you like his fair body, now, there's no life within. Oh it's well I like his cheeks, she said. Well I like his chin. Better I like his fair body that all your given kin. And he's taken up his long long sword to strike a mortal blow. And through the lady's heart, the cold steel there did go. As it fell out upon a day as many in the year, Musgrave to the church did go, to see fair lady's there."
Strainchamps: Do you think you write like a composer in some ways?
Stace: You know there's a very very honorable tradition of fictional literary composers all the way from rather dull ones like Jean Cristoph by Roman Lorlond and then Adrian Levecune and Thomas Mann and Priest's composer Vann Toy of course is central to that big big book, and plenty of recent ones. David Mitchel just wrote about one, Ishiguro did a [xx] . I think what I learned from reading some of those books is that sometimes the composers just become symbols for the artist in the novelist's mind, and I wanted to make Jessold very specifically a composer that was a believable one and a recognizable one to me. And I know that a lot of artistic creation, as you do and lots of everybody else doe,s is haphazard and not as well planned as critics would have us believe, and that things turn on the slightest and most dubious is a rival of the gentleman from pollock or whatever it is, so you know these odd things just feed into our, what we do. So I would say in fact that I really wanted him to be as believable a composer as I am a composer, so a lot of the things that I go through when writing and creating I kind of put on him. And I would hope that would make him realistic. I certainly did want to make him into a very fully fleshed out human being.
Strainchamps: I'm curious what that means if you're going to create a character who's a composer and you want him to be very realistic. What are the possible pitfalls, or what do you think are mistakes that other writers may have made in trying to create characters who are composers?
Stace: Well I think some writers haven't described the music enough. I don't think you have to tell readers very much, but I think they want a very specific idea in their heads of what the artistic creation sounds like. You couldn't write a movie, say, about a comedian and have none of his material in that movie. Do you know what I mean?
Stace: So therefore, you have to kind of write it in you head, and I did find myself, I mean I'm no great music theorist, but I did find myself humming melodies that I found to be Jessoldian melodies. In fact, you know, my friend Daniel Felsonfeld who's a composer in New York, he did me the great honor of kind of being Charles Jessold, and setting one of these pieces of Jessold's set in the book to real music.
Strainchamps: I wanted to ask you about that because here's this song, "Five Song Sweet" in the style of Charles Jessold, which really makes him seem very real.
Stace: Yeah, to be totally clear, this is the music of Daniel Felsonfeld. It's not him writing or...he just wrote the music as beautifully as he could. I just think I picked the right guy because I think the approach is how I imagined Jessold might well have sounded.
[classical song playing]
Strainchamps: One of the subjects that you take on in the novel is questions of musical taste, and what happens when a new musical revolution and style appears and how complicated it's reception is. Both from critics and from audiences, but I was thinking about that tumultuous time in music history. The beginning of the avaunt-garde in music, that is still a form of music that audiences have a hard time accepting. I think perhaps people accept avaunt-garde painting more than they do avaunt-garde music.
Stace: Oh, I think you're absolutely right. I have no doubt at all that you're right. I mean my Shepherd might be a tough bit to find in the book, but okay, here we go. This is Shepherd being taken by Jessold to his , Schoenberg who Shepherd is bound to detest. Schoenberg is Austrian, but he speaks German, and that is bad news to begin with. And then there's the music, and hes listening to it. In the maelstrom I glimpsed Schoenberg's intent, I understood the perverse aesthetic behind his intellectual conclusions. The pulls of tonality and a tonality were reversed. This was the triumph of theory over practice, abstraction over depiction, of cold intellectual though over the urge to give pleasure. It was the end of music as I could possibly know or describe it. To see this progression towards atrocity dramatized before me was too much. The last movement was inhumane, even to the very performers in front of our eyes. It was the murder of the human song. Suprised when the quartet reached the final chord together, I found that I had been holding my breath. For how long I do not know, in an anticipation, I gasped and inhaled in relief. Unable to believe this was truly the end, vaguely disappointed with the final resolution of an F-Sharp triad. Lasting but ten minutes, the final movement had seemed an eternity.
Jim Fleming: Wesley Stace is the author of, "Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer". He spoke with Anne Strainchamps. To hear more of that music we were talking about, you'll find a link on our website: ttbook.org.