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  • Written by Norman Lebrecht
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  • Written by Norman Lebrecht
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On Sale: December 18, 2007
Pages: 320 | ISBN: 978-0-307-42938-4
Published by : Anchor Knopf
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Martin Simmonds’ father tells him, “Never trust a musician when he speaks about love.” The advice comes too late. Martin already loves Dovidl Rapoport, an eerily gifted Polish violin prodigy whose parents left him in the Simmonds’s care before they perished in the Holocaust. For a time the two boys are closer than brothers. But on the day he is to make his official debut, Dovidl disappears. Only 40 years later does Martin get his first clue about what happened to him.

In this ravishing novel of music and suspense, Norman Lebrecht unravels the strands of love, envy and exploitation that knot geniuses to their admirers. In doing so he also evokes the fragile bubble of Jewish life in prewar London; the fearful carnival of the Blitz, and the gray new world that emerged from its ashes. Bristling with ideas, lambent with feeling, The Song of Names is a masterful work of the imagination.

Excerpt

1

Time Out


Swimming in a double-breasted suit against the Monday morning incoming tide, I feel a double misfit. The whole working world is flooding into town while I am heading out, and for no good reason. What is more, I am just about the only man on the forecourt in a respectable suit. Times have changed, and chinos are worn to work.

Or whatever they call work. Sitting at a flickering screen, hunting and gathering data, strikes me as a poor substitute for the thrill of the chase, the joy of the kill, the kiss of conquest. There is no romance, no mortal struggle, in digitised so-called work. It is a virtual pursuit, without real vice or virtue. Mine, on the other hand, is a people profession, hence almost obsolescent.

It would not do to enquire too closely into the purpose of my trip. 'Is your journey really necessary?' nagged the railway hoardings during the war. No, not enough to convince the auditors, who will slash my expenses claim on seeing the negligible returns. Nor to satisfy Myrtle, who will raise a quizzical eyebrow and register a connubial debt. There is no pot of gold at the end of my trail nor, truth be told, enough profit to interest a Sunday boot-saler--which is not, of course, what I tell the accountants ('must keep in touch with consumer trends'), or Myrtle ('meeting a familiar face can make all the difference when money's tight'). What matters is that I know why I am going, and I don't have to make excuses to myself. Escape, or the illusion of it, is what keeps me alive and my business more or less solvent.

Survival instinct propels me through the Euston crowds towards a reserved first-class seat on the nine-oh-three Intercity Express, my chest pounding with unaccustomed effort and an absurd anticipation of adventure. Absurd, because previous expeditions have attested beyond reasonable doubt that any prospect of adventure will get scotched at source by my innate reserve and speckless propriety--attributes that are bound to be mentioned in my none-too-distant obsequies, alongside the Dear Departed's musical expertise, mordant wit and discreet philanthropy.

Adventure is, in any case, antithetical to my nature and inadvisable in my state of health. Furred arteries and a fear of bypass surgery have imposed severe restraints. I am limited to six lengths of the health-club pool and half a mile on the electronic treadmill; excitement is strenuously avoided; conjugality is conducted rarely and with the circumspection of porcupines. 'Take care of yourself,' are Myrtle's parting words and, for her sake, I do try. In the absence of marital ardour, it's the least I can do.

Yet, even a rackety, unbypassed old heart can be stirred by departure fantasy. As I board the train, my pulse picks up ten points in fake anticipation. I look ahead breathlessly, with a reassuring sense of déjà vu. It's like watching televised football highlights on a Saturday night when you've already heard the classified results on the radio. The programme may reveal some fine points of form and skill, but any tension has been ruled out by an incontrovertible foreknowledge of the outcome.

Watching stale soccer from the snug of a prized deco armchair is the limit of my permitted thrills--a sad comedown for one who was groomed to make things happen. Sad to have slipped from motivator to spectator, from the wings of great stages to a piece of high-winged furniture. Still, there are compensations. By staying out of the thick of things, I have acquired an aura of what, in small-business circles, passes for timeless wisdom.

Lifelong prudence has reaped its rewards. My town house has a heated indoor pool, I holiday winter and summer in wickedly overpriced Swiss resorts and my pension arrangements are structured to keep me in comfort for three lifetimes. 'Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people,' said the prophet Isaiah--so we made it the tribal aspiration. What greater calm can a man find on earth than the quiet rustling of gilt-edged assets?

At Rotary and Bnai Brith you cannot tell me apart from the rest of the Lodge, and that is how I like it; none of the other brothers has, to my certain knowledge, been invaded by genius and ruined by its defection. Forget I mentioned that: not many people are meant to know about it. 'Mustn't grumble,' my father used to say, when asked how he was; and so do I. Normality is my nirvana. Only within, deep within, at the clotted edge of irreparable loss, do I feel the need for an unnecessary journey that will allow me to avoid devastating self-contemplation and the acceleration of inherited arteriosclerosis.

I wouldn't be surprised if the railways were mostly run for people like me, half-wrecked psyches in perpetual flight from the missing part. I can just see a Development Director springing his brainwave initiative at a board meeting. 'Why don't we run extra Monday-morning services to the boondocks?' he proposes brightly. 'There must be thousands of useless deadweights, dog-ends and waiting-for-godders who are just dying to get away.'

Settling in my window seat I pop two pills, a brand-name sedative and a homoeopathic palliative, shutting my eyes for ten minutes of yogic meditation. My Harley Street consultant (the cardiologist, not the naturopath) advises daily exercise and the avoidance of agitation. Being of a responsible disposition, I eat warily and carry a kidney-donor card. If I see a pretty girl or a police chase, I look away. In Michelin-starred restaurants, I order steamed fish. I have many friends but no recent lovers, vague interests but no driving passions.

Myrtle, my partner in life, has a life largely of her own. A large-boned lady of healthy appetites, she lunches sparingly in good causes and plays bridge for her metropolitan borough. She took it up in her thirties, after having children, discerning in the pastime an outlet for her formidable memory and jugular instincts. Myrtle can remember the seating plan at every chicken-schnitzel wedding we have attended, the Order of Service at Her Majesty's Coronation, the universal symbols of the periodic table and the entire line-up of the Hungarian football team that inflicted England's first home defeat, 3-6, in the aforementioned Coronation Year, which was also the year of our marriage. Many's the time I have urged her to apply her remarkable mental powers to a worthier object than a pack of cards. But Myrtle's tolerance for ladies who lunch on behalf of the starving and homeless is limited.

Our two sons have grown up and apart from us, triumphs of private schooling and canny marriages. One is a Kensington obstetrician with a trophy wife, the other a libel lawyer with a traditional spouse. Over dinner, I prefer the barrister's scurrilous gossip to the manicured sanctimony of a society abortionist. But I feel no satisfying patrimony when, on Friday nights, we play a charade of happy families around a table groaning with murderously poly-saturated fats. Monastically picking at my wife's heedlessly prepared dietary dynamite, I retire dyspeptically to bed with a glass of camomile tea and the Spectator,a lifelong habit, while coffee is taken in the lounge. My apologies are accepted with a wince of scepticism. Some in the family, I suspect, ascribe my medical condition to chronic hypochondria.

A decent Omm-trance is pretty much unattainable on a train that starts and lurches through a thicket of signals, then spurts past outer suburbs like a runaway horse. Once the speed settles to a steady rocking, incomprehensible announcements splutter forth about the whereabouts of the refreshment car and would the chief steward please make his way to first class, thank you.

Giving up the quest for inner peace and undistracted by the silvered February landscape, my attention turns to business, which barely needs it. The company I keep going is a spectre of the firm that my father founded in 1919 'to advance the appreciation of music among men and women of modest means'. In its heyday, Simmonds was a household name, to be found in the nation's living rooms among the Wedgwood teacups, Hornby toys and grafted aspidistras in Robertson's jampots. Simmonds (Symphonic Scores and Concerts) Ltd manufactured piano reductions of orchestral masterpieces, issued in noble purple covers for the uniform price of sixpence. We also produced popular lives of the great composers, albumised folk-songs and approachable novelties by uncelebrated living composers. But the heart of Simmonds was the concert division, which organised orchestral nights for all the family, grannies to toddlers, at group discounts that worked out at less than the price of a cinema seat.

Simmonds' suite of offices, nuzzling the old Queen's Hall at the top of Regent Street, buzzed seven days a week with unprofitable ideas, artistic aspirations and fatally entrapped wasps. No window was ever opened, for fear of diluting the fug of inspiration. Elbow-patched pianists in pursuit of unpaid fees jostled students and factory workers waiting for last-minute penny tickets. Trilby-hatted newspapermen interviewed stateless conductors in secluded corners--on one occasion, apparently, in the left hand stall of the ladies' washroom where the cistern drip-dripped so relentlessly that an idle wit attributed the metronomic tempi of that night's Tchaikovsky Fifth to the inadequacies of Simmonds' plumbing.

My father, hunched behind a pyramid of unread contracts and uncorrected page-proofs, presided at all hours over his musical emporium, seldom locking up before midnight. 'I can't leave the place empty,' he would say. 'Who knows when the next Kreisler might walk in?' Half a century before open-plan offices, he took his door off its hinges, the better to observe all comings and goings. No artist ever entered unnoticed. As mail piled up and secretaries resigned in tears, my father juggled three telephone receivers simultaneously, virtuosically and without ever raising his voice.

Mortimer (Mordecai) Simmonds had the manners of a gentleman and the abstraction of a scholar--though he was neither, having been sent to work 'in the print' at thirteen years old to support a widowed mother and four sisters in Bethnal Green. In the inky-stink din of a newspaper press, he befriended the lower echelons of journalism and ascended the proof-readers' ladder to join the sub-editors' desk of a literary supplement, itself a passport to Hampstead salons. There he met in mid-war and was persuaded to marry my mother, the dowried and somewhat dowdy eldest daughter of an Anglo-Sephardic dynasty, the Medolas, who offered to set him up in the business of his choice. Bookishness beckoned, the more so after two years on the Somme, but he failed to find the kind of books that would give him aesthetic satisfaction and would also make money. His business career was going nowhere when a friend gave him a spare ticket to the Queen's Hall on 4 May 1921, a date he would commemorate every year of his life. The soloist was Fritz Kreisler, back for the first time in eight years. Hearing him play an innocuous concerto by Viotti moved my father more than all the words he had ever read. Kreisler, with his bushy moustache and flashing eyes, ran off dazzling cadenzas as if they were child's play while holding listeners, one by one, in the grip of a limpid glare. 'I was seduced,' my father would recall. 'It was as if he played only for me. From the moment his eye caught mine, I knew that my life was destined for music.'

Unable to read a score or play a scale, my father hired a tutor to instruct him in the difference between crotchets and quavers and the significance of pitch relations in concert programming. He frequented student recitals at the Trinity College of Music, behind Selfridge's department store, sniffing talent by instinct. One violinist he picked off the pavement, busking in Oxford Street. With a handful of hopefuls, he put on chamber recitals at the Aeolian Hall, a churchy room on Regent Street; and with the newly formed Birmingham Orchestra, bussed in for the night, he staged the first of his family entertainments at the marbled Royal Albert Hall, on the southern edge of Hyde Park.

No critic was ever invited to his concerts, but the halls were full and admission was universally affordable. An outraged music industry condemned Simmonds for 'lowering the tone'. My father laughed, and halved his top-price tickets. He refused to join collegial committees to discuss unit costs, credit lines and entry controls on foreign performers. He could not countenance anything that imposed restraint on an interpreter of music, a bringer of light and joy. He revered artists, almost without reservation.

No Balkan pianist with three Zs in his name would ever come under pressure from Mortimer Simmonds to adopt a new identity for English convenience. No fat singer was ever required to slim. He gave second chances to panic-frozen beginners and blamed his own shortcomings when a concert flopped. He had no time for snob-appeal or seasonal brochures, for copyright niceties and entertainment tax--least of all, let it be noted, for his wife and son, whom he only ever saw in daylight over Sunday lunch, and not with undivided attention or unfailing punctuality.

So when the phone rang one winter Sunday with the roast beef charred in the oven and my mother muttering over her petit-point, I failed to react in any way, hysterical or practical, to news of his death at the desk. My father belonged to Simmonds (Symphonic Scores and Concerts) Ltd, not to me; he died at his post, as it were, amid a mound of unopened mail. He was sixty-one, my present age. At the funeral, the rabbi spoke of his love of art, his humility and self-deprecating wit. He left me wishing I had seen more of him.

Hauled out of Cambridge, where I was sitting my history finals, I took charge of the firm and swiftly secured its future. On to my father's hyperactive disorder, I imposed financial rigour. The rabble of loss-making unheard-of composers, most of them Hitler or Stalin refugees, was parcelled off to a modern-music publisher in Vienna, who kept three and unsentimentally sacked the rest. The family concerts were wound up and the soloists redirected to rival agencies. Two became famous; the rest vanished into marriage, music-teaching or orchestral drudgery. I was sorry to lose the artists, for their eagerness was infectious and their egotism endlessly amusing. Some I had grown up with, others were so daunted by the challenge of tying their shoelaces that I did not like to think what would become of them without our unstinted protection--but what else, in the circumstances, could I have done? There was a pressing personal reason for me to terminate our involvement with talent, a reason I try very hard, on medical and legal advice, not to dwell upon or commit to print.

I got a good price for the offices from a Dutch merchant bank, retaining a corner space for myself, a spinster secretary called Erna Winter and an occasional junior. The revenue from these rapid disposals provided for Mother, who fell silent after Father's death and required periodic care in a private psychiatric hospital. During a remission she helped arrange my introduction to Myrtle, the bony daughter of Hispanic cousins, and morosely graced our solemn nuptials before overdosing on anti-depressants--whether deliberately or accidentally I neither knew nor deeply cared.
Norman Lebrecht

About Norman Lebrecht

Norman Lebrecht - The Song of Names

Photo © Sheng Yun / Lebrecht Music and Arts

Norman Lebrecht has written several best-selling works of nonfiction, including The Maestro Myth and Who Killed Classical Music? He is also the award-winning author of the novels The Song of Names and The Game of Opposites. He writes regularly for Bloomberg.com and The Wall Street Journal, and he presents The Lebrecht Interview series on BBC Radio 3 and The Record Doctor on WNYC. He lives in London.

Praise | Awards

Praise

“Delightful. . . reveals an author full of knowledge, invention and passion. . . . A lovely book.” – The Telegraph (London)

“Compelling humanity . . . deliciously caught. . . . Conjured with exceptional vividness.” – The Evening Standard (London)

“The music-biz interludes intrigue and convince. Lebrecht . . . always knows the score.”-– The Independent (London)

“An unusually impressive first novel." – The Spectator

Awards

WINNER 2002 Whitbread First Novel Award
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions|Suggestions

About the Book

WHITBREAD FIRST NOVEL AWARD WINNER

“Delightful. . . . Reveals an author full of knowledge, invention and passion. . . . A lovely book.” —The Telegraph (London)

The introduction, discussion questions, suggested reading list, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Norman Lebrecht’s The Song of Names, winner of Britain’s Whitbread First Novel Award.

About the Guide

The Song of Names is the story of two boys brought together on the eve of World War II. Martin is the son of successful musical talent agent Mortimer Simmonds. Dovidl is a nine-year-old violinist of extraordinary promise from Warsaw who arrives at Martin’s house to study with the celebrated Carl Flesch. With Dovidl’s family trapped in Poland, the two boys form a symbiotic relationship, so close that they hardly know where one persona begins and the other ends. Martin sees in Dovidl a brilliance that illuminates his existence. Dovidl sees Martin as a commonsensible mediator with the plodding world—or does he?

On the eve of his long-awaited international debut, after being hyped by Mortimer Simmonds as the new Fritz Kreisler, Dovidl disappears. The family business is destroyed and Martin spends the next forty years searching for the missing part of himself, unable to come to terms with his feelings of abandonment and betrayal.

Then, at a provincial music competition, he hears a young boy play as only Dovidl could have. How did he learn that technique? The revelation sets him on the trail to an astounding act of self-discovery and renewal. Martin finally finds his lost friend, changed in ways that he could never have imagined.

Unraveling the complex strands of love, envy, and exaltation that bind artistic geniuses to their admirers, Norman Lebrecht has created a novel in the grand nineteenth-century tradition, bursting with ideas and feeling.

About the Author

Norman Lebrecht is a highly regarded commentator on music, politics and culture for the BBC and the London Evening Standard. He lives in London.

Discussion Guides

1. How does Martin present himself as he begins to narrate his story? Does he attempt to make himself appealing to the reader, or not? Does he win the reader’s empathy as his story proceeds?

2. Discuss the difference between Martin’s and Dovidl’s characters and temperaments. Who takes care of whom, and who takes advantage of whom? How mutually beneficial is their relationship? How is the relationship unequal? How correct is Martin when he thinks, “In truth, I was his dupe. He needed me so much, he made me his prisoner, his emasculated acolyte” [p. 290]?

3. Is Martin, as the son and business heir of a professional music agent, necessarily at odds with Dovidl? Martin says of his father, “His interest in this new boy was evidently commercial. If Flesch was able to groom him, Simmonds would have a star on its hands, our first violinist of world pedigree. The opportunity had its humanitarian side as well, making it morally rewarding. I was being called to do my part as heir to the business, and for the benefit of my spiritual education” [p. 66]. How does this passage indicate Martin’s view of his father? Is his father purely ambitious and self-serving, or not?

4. What is the effect of the narrator’s description of life in Warsaw’s Jewish ghetto, and how does it compare to life in the well-heeled London neighborhood where Dovidl is transplanted? Compare this description to the one later in the novel of the Hasidic quarter in Oldbridge as first seen by Dovidl [pp. 216–18]. How much does a sense of loyalty to his origins account for the choice Dovidl makes when he turns away from a musical career?

5. How powerful is the emotional impact of the scene in which Dovidl hears the Rebbe sing from the “Song of Names” to recover the names and death dates of his family members? How does the logic of the scene, followed by the seven days of shiva, account for the turning point in Dovidl’s destiny [pp. 217–25]? If you have read other works of literature that hinge upon a scene of conversion or awakening, how does this compare?

6. How does the novel treat the culture of middle-class Anglo-Jews during the period it depicts? What are the values of Martin’s parents? What are the benefits of assimilation? Given Dovidl’s embrace of ultra-Orthodox Hassidism, would it be likely for the two men to resume their friendship once they meet again?

7. As a boy, Dovidl comments, “The real world is divided into two classes of humans: those who make things happen and those who let them happen. I belong to the first class” [p. 91]. Later we are told that Spielman and the Rebbe “had relieved him of the unbearable expectations of talent and admitted him to a world where all were equal in the sight of God and subject equally to His eternal laws” [p. 230]. How convincingly does the novel argue for the need of traditional and religious comforts for those who have suffered?

8. What is Martin’s attitude toward women throughout the novel? Consider his relationships with his mother, Florrie, his wife Myrtle, Eleanor Stemp, and Sandra Adams. Does the novel suggest that his only true love was for Dovidl, even as Martin denies a homoerotic aspect to their friendship [see pp. 92, 94, 290]?

9. In his teenage years, Dovidl is drawn to the danger and excitement of gambling, sex, and drugs, and Martin suspects him of a frightening amorality. Later, Martin suggests that artists of genius are perhaps in league with the devil: “The greater the musician, the closer he communes with the source of evil” [p. 291]. What insights does the novel provide into the idiosyncrasies of artistic genius and its effects upon those close to the artist?

10. Upon hearing the end of Dovidl’s story Martin reflects, “What a man feels in his heart of hearts is inscrutable to the human eye, and therefore immaterial. What counts is his conduct, what he does with his life.” Why then does he go on to say, “Now it is time to calculate penalties and methods of repayment” [p. 242; see also 292]? Is Martin’s desire to exact payment wrong-headed or understandable? How well does he comprehend the story Dovidl has told him?

11. Given the circumstances of Martin’s success after having solved the mystery of Dovidl’s disappearance, what comment does Lebrecht seem to make about the realities of life as a promoter of musical talent? What insight does the novel as a whole offer about the realities of the music business?

12. Does Lebrecht indicate which of the two main characters is the novel’s hero? Did Dovidl make the right decision in leaving the secular life behind, as he explains himself in his letter to Martin [pp. 305–08], and does his decision make him morally superior to Martin? Or is Martin possibly right in his first reaction to Dovidl’s story—that “my susceptible friend was enticed by a fanatical sect” [p. 226]? What philosophy of life does the novel ultimately embrace?

13. Lebrecht creates something of a surprise ending by inserting himself as the character to whom Martin tells his story [pp. 310–11]. Lebrecht thus makes the novel essentially the result of this fictional encounter. What is the effect of this ending? Does Martin do this mainly so that he will be able to sell the Guadagnini violin that belonged to Dovidl?

Suggested Readings

Joseph Conrad, “The Secret Sharer”; Helen DeWitt, The Last Samurai; Georges Du Maurier, Trilby; George Eliot, Daniel Deronda; Michael Frayn, Spies; Mona Golabek and Lee Cohen, The Children of Willesden Lane: Beyond the Kindertransport: A Memoir of Music, Love, and Survival; Martin Goldsmith, The Inextinguishable Symphony: A True Story of Music and Love in Nazi Germany; Imre Kertesz, Fateless; Sándor Márai, Embers; Anne Michaels, Fugitive Pieces; Richard Newman with Karen Kirtley, Alma Rose: Vienna to Auschwitz; Wladislaw Szpilman, The Pianist; Bernhard Schlink, The Reader; W. G. Sebald, Austerlitz; Vikram Seth, An Equal Music; Isaac Bashevis Singer, In My Father’s Court; Howard Jacobson, Coming from Behind.

Additional Suggestions
Classic Film: The Jazz Singer (1927).

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