There are really only two types of writers: those who need music when they write, and those who don’t. I’m the wishy-washy type who sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t, but if I don’t find the right kind of music somewhere in the process then the novel I’m writing is just never going to fly.
That’s a personal choice, of course, but I’m inflicting it on you today because I’d like to try and understand it better. I’m hoping if I come clean about my own weakness, then other writers might come forward and say why it’s helpful to them too.
|Dot and Jim in 'EastEnders'|
There’s one obvious reason why writers of historical fiction use music, and that’s as a way of ‘getting inside’ their period. The first time I heard of this was when EastEnders writer Tony Jordan was tackling a set of episodes about the marriage of the two oldest characters, Dot and Jim Branning, and told me he played a constant loop of 1940’s music all the time he was writing. This would have been the music of his characters’ youth, it defined their hopes and dreams, and while he was in their world it needed to define him too.
As a Seventies teen who’d rather not be defined by Little Jimmy Osmond singing ‘I’ll Be Your Long-Haired Lover from Liverpool’, I found this idea at first repugnant. Yet while no-one likes every piece of music from their era, it’s true that their worldview is still shaped by the canon – just as the music itself sprung from something in the zeitgeist that made it popular.
As writers I think we’d be daft not to use that. If we’re writing about the Sixties, what better way of soaking up the period than listening to its music? Some of our characters may favour the Stones over the Beatles, others (like me) become unaccountably soppy at ‘Waterloo Sunset’ or uplifted by ‘Downtown’, but somewhere in there are ‘their’ songs, and if we listen long enough we’ll find them.
Which is all well and good if we’re writing about a period after the invention of the gramophone record, but what about those of us working in earlier centuries? It’s true there are wax cylinder recordings, but the crackle and bumping make it no more than a ghost of the music our characters would have made or heard themselves.
|1860's organ grinder|
If we want to get closer than that, the only solution is to recreate it. My current novel is set in 1855, and I use recordings of Victorian barrel organs to get the feel of the London my characters would have known. Some of the earliest organs still survive (you can see one from 1830 being played here), but even modern ones still give the unmistakeable sound of a world long gone by. So do songs of the Victorian Music Hall, even if the recordings are modern, and for the character of Woodall in ‘Into the Valley of Death’ I spent a good many hours listening to music that sounded like this. I sometimes think my long-suffering husband would have preferred ‘I’ll Be Your Long-Haired Lover From Liverpool’…
But London isn’t the Crimea, and for the music my characters would have heard around them every day I’ve played endless hours of military bands. Every regiment had one, they played on the march and in the camps, and if I sometimes found the music infuriatingly jolly when trying to write the tragedy of war – then I think some of my characters felt the same. The Russian music was interestingly different, depending far more on marching songs than instrumentals, and there’s something in the grim heroism of those determined bass voices that really gave me a sense of both the clashing cultures and the reality of what my own characters were up against. The 20th century ‘Legendary Sevastopol’ sounds very similar in style if you want to get the general idea.
|Russian military band on Sevastopol Day 2011|
But the further we go back in time, the less useful contemporary music becomes. Classical 17th century French music wouldn’t have helped me write ‘Honour and the Sword’ – which is perhaps just as well, since it’s mostly ghastly. Formal court music meant nothing to people who couldn’t afford concerts, and while music specialists may define a period by Haydn or Vivaldi, most ordinary people would disagree. Folk songs, military marches, sometimes church music, these and the sound of bells are about all we can be sure most of our characters knew.
It’s still a start. The pieces I used most in ‘Honour and the Sword’ were all from the previous century – a folk song (‘La Pernette’), a military song, (‘En Passant par la Lorraine’), and a popular polka which lent itself to Pierre Gilbert’s whistling (‘Bransle des Chevaux’). You can listen to them from the links here, and they’re all good pieces – but I have to be honest and say I never put them on a loop and listened to them as a pleasant background to my writing. Well – would you?
To be honest, I’d struggle with a lot of it. The reason different periods have different music is because tastes change, and if the price of writing a novel in Tudor times is an endless loop of bloody ‘Greensleeves’ then I’d almost be tempted to reach for Little Jimmy Osmond instead. But that, of course, is where my thesis breaks down with a horrible clunk. If I’m not using music as a research tool, then why do I need it at all? Why don’t I just work (as many better writers do) in sober, academic silence?
Well, why should I? Historical novelists aren’t the only writers who use music, and there are lots of ways in which it helps us tap into less familiar aspects of our work. ‘Place’ is one of them, and when I wrote about France in the Chevalier novels it was music that helped most. I didn’t do it consciously, but when I look back at the music I played when writing ‘Honour and the Sword’, it's every bit of it French. Saint-Saëns, Gounod, Massenet – and when I started ‘In the Name of the King’ I became hooked on French Café music as well. There’s nothing 17th century about Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier, Charles Trénet, Jean Sablon, or Fernandel, but when I wrote to them I was surrounded by French voices, French words, French syntax, French attitudes and French style.
Those things matter, and I was constantly afraid of imbuing my French characters with inappropriate Englishness. Obviously there’s no such thing as a typical ‘Frenchwoman’ any more than there’s a typical 'Englishwoman', but there are still little differences that mean a lot. For me, the hardest to capture was that almost uniquely French quality of being comfortable not only in one’s own skin but also with one’s own sexuality. That’s important in a time when a poor woman’s body might be the only currency she had, and my English prudishness really struggled to master the correctly pragmatic shrug that would have been my character’s reaction to her situation. The music did it for me. Somewhere between Mistinguett’s cynical ‘Je cherche un millionaire’ and her heartbreaking ‘Mon Homme’ I found the character of 'Bernadette' and knew I was home.
And that’s another use for music – as a shorthand to take us inside a particular character. Opera and musical composers have always used the technique of giving characters their own ‘theme’, and so do those who write scores for the cinema. It sounds ridiculous to need one for one’s own created characters, but I write multiple point-of-view, and after a long section in the voice of one character I find it really helps to have a quick way back ‘in’ to the voice of another.
They can change too. In ‘Honour and the Sword’ Anne begins as a pre-pubescent girl, but as I progressed to ‘In the Name of the King’ her theme tune began to shift from Massenet’s ‘Le Dernier Sommeil de la Vierge’ to rampant Edith Piaf. Even now if I listen to the haunting start of ‘Mon Légionnaire’, I find myself at once inside Anne’s head and thinking with her voice.
If we can ignore the borderline lunacy of this, then it’s a genuinely practical tool. Whether it’s period, place, or character, I use music to ‘get me in the mood’, and that’s incredibly useful when you write to deadline. I can’t afford to sit around wistfully waiting for the Muse to show up; I need a genie’s lamp to make him appear to order. Every novel I’ve written has gradually found its own ‘signature tune’, and a quick blast of it is often all I need to rush to the computer to write. I still have to be disciplined and never allow myself to play it at any other time: that music has to be the bell to my Pavlov’s dogs, and I daren’t risk diluting its potency.
The odd thing is that it doesn’t even have to be obviously relevant. ‘Honour and the Sword’ worked legitimately to the first part of Saint-Saëns’ Symphony Number 3 (the Organ), but ‘Into the Valley of Death’ worked with astonishing improbability to ‘Farewell to Arms’ by Emerson, Lake and Palmer. That’s a ballad to peace, for heaven’s sake, but I used it constantly when I was writing the Battle of the Alma. I can justify it now by saying both are about the tragedy of war; that the steady build echoes the inexorable and heroic advance of the British troops in the full face of the Russian cannon; and that the synthesiser even echoes the sound of the Highlander’s pipes as they marched across the Heights to victory, but I’m not sure if that’s really why I chose it. It was just the piece I happened to be listening to when I first began to ‘get’ the Alma, and the pictures began to form in my head. Maybe the music inspired the words, or maybe the words coloured the music, but after that it’s only a matter of association.
|Battle of the Alma: 'Forward, 42nd!' by Robert Gibb|
That’s a depressing thought, really, and a salutary warning to avoid really naff music. What if my next good idea happens when someone’s playing ‘The Birdie Song’? Or Little Jimmy Osmond, come to that? Maybe this whole ‘music and words thing’ is a thoroughly bad idea.
But maybe it isn’t. I’ve written this whole turgid post as an excuse to ask other writers if they use it, how they do it, and if it works. I’ve especially wondered about those who write Ancient History, and how they manage in an absence of ‘Rome’s All-Time Greatest Hits’. Do they try militaristic songs from Napoleon’s France or Hitler’s Germany? Do they use anything? Does anyone?
Please. Just tell me it’s not just me.
A L Berridge's website