Creating the “Soundtrack” of a Novel

As a writer I’m often asked how I chose my novel’s setting or how I came up with the story line. Last fall, for the first and only time, I was asked how I chose the musical pieces in my book. It’s a great question.

Naturally, the person who asked is a musician: Svend Ronning, the concertmaster of Symphony Tacoma and artistic director of Second City Concert Series. He invited me to read from The Songs We Hide at a Second City performance of Hungarian music. Of course I jumped at the chance. It was an incredible privilege to share the stage with the Girsky Quartet, who masterfully performed Bartok, Haydn, Kertag and Kodaly. In an interview leading up to the joint concert and reading, Svend asked me, “What are some of the works you chose for your book and why did you choose them?” Here is the answer I gave:

In choices like this, writers often go with what they already know and love, and that was the case for me. For the most important songs in the book, I chose some that I could “hear” as I wrote. I used Caro Mio Ben by Giuseppe Giordani as a recurring song in the life of the female character Katalin Varga, because it’s a grieving love song and she’s been deeply affected by a past love affair. The song is also appropriate to her classical singing style. For Peter Benedek, a peasant, I chose a song from the Hungarian folk tradition, Folszallot a Pava. It would have been natural for him to hear the song while growing up, yet it’s musically rich enough that Katalin could use it in voice lessons. The words speak of Hungary’s suffering. 

I also included the Ave Maria that’s set to the intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavelleria Rusticana. Katalin teaches Peter this piece when she wants to give him more difficult music. It’s crucial, though, that she doesn’t give it to him until they know each other pretty well, because anything having to do with religion would be politically risky. Sharing a risky song was an act of trust between them. Thematically, the song also connects Katalin and Peter to something higher than their own hardships, so it offers a thread of hope.  

That was what I said in the interview. I’d like to add a few more comments:

  • First off, by very happy coincidence, my editor Catherine Treadgold is a singer and used to give voice lessons. She suggested songs for my character Katalin to sing in an audition scene, and I was grateful to have the advice of a professional on this.
  • Since my characters were young and Peter was inexperienced as a singer, I needed to choose vocal music that wouldn’t have been impossible for them. So I opted for songs that had a manageable range and not too many vocal theatrics. But the pieces had beauty and emotional depth, and that was important for the story. So . . .
  • Finally, I want to say again that I chose songs that I love. I have CDs of Caro Mio Ben  (Cecilia Bertoli singing) and Mascagni’s Ave Maria (sung by Andrea Bocelli), and the beauty of these pieces has haunted me for years. I could picture Katalin singing Caro with pain in her heart, and I could sense that the Mascagni melody, which Peter first heard on violin, would have touched and lingered with him. Likewise, the melody of Folszallott a Pava is mournful but deeply moving, and I felt it captured the longings of my characters, especially Peter.

I want my readers to hear what I hear, and what my characters hear. When I incorporate music into my stories, maybe it’s my way of creating a “soundtrack” for them. So imagine the sound. Nothing is as emotive as music.

Just musing on our short American memory . . .

When you spend years researching and writing about a topic, your sensitivities about it become heightened. You notice every time it comes up in the news or in conversation. After a while you also catch on if other people seem to know nothing about it.

That’s the situation I’m in. My novel, The Songs We Hide, is set in Hungary after World War II, during its harshest period of Stalinist communism. As I was researching, writing and editing the book, my mind wrestled daily with the realities of that period, not only in Hungary but in the whole Soviet bloc: arrests for frighteningly trumped-up charges, deportations, forced relocations, property confiscations, political executions, and a network of snitching that resulted in all-pervasive fear. As part of my research I talked with Hungarians who lived through this terrifying time. Sixty years after leaving Hungary, these people are still deeply affected by what they endured. I in turn was emotionally affected as I put my characters into that painful milieu–and in a way that only writers understand, I ended up “living there” too.

Joseph Stalin

So it’s with sad frustration that I’ve noticed how the historic suffering of the Soviet bloc countries is simply “off the radar” for most Americans now. Hitler’s massive cruelty is still a hot topic in movies and novels. Stalin’s massive cruelty is not. When people read my novel, they often tell me, “I just didn’t know that the people over there went through all that.” Well, they did go through it. Over and over.

I recently read an article in The Economist (Feb. 2, 2019) about the Baltic countries–Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. The article contained this statement: “Discussions of history [in the Baltics] often start with the phrase ‘Stalin murdered my grand-parents.'” Yes. The terrible pain was acknowledged. But The Economist is a British publication. Unless I’m missing a lot, U.S.journals don’t report on eastern and central Europe much. When they do, little historical perspective is given.

I can’t change this. But I wish it were different. It seems we have forgotten the persecution of half a continent., and that feels very wrong to me.