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.

Török Testvérek: A Dynamic Hungarian Trio

While the rest of the U.S. stampedes to mass arenas for rock concerts, I gravitate toward classical and folk music in small places. Some of my favorite musical experiences have happened in venues not much bigger than a classroom. I love the

Török Testvérek

Tilla Török

informal rapport that develops as the musicians relax, talk and even laugh with the audience. If the musicians are foreigners and struggle with English, for me it only adds a sense of cross-cultural sharing.

Two weeks ago I attended a joyful concert of this kind. The performers were Tilla Török, Flóra Török and Ádám Török Dancsó, a sibling trio of Hungarian folk musicians. The concert was sponsored by the Hungarian American Association of Washington (HAAW) and was held in the Phinney Neighborhood Center, where HAAW often gathers for folk dancing.  As I arrived for the concert, a farmers’ market was closing up in the parking lot, and artists were displaying their work in the hallway. What a cultural meet-up!

Török Testvérek (the Török siblings) gathered at the front of the room to perform, wearing clothes embroidered in traditional Hungarian patterns. The trio’s repertoire includes music from Hungary and the larger Balkan region. The various group members play violin, zither, different types of flutes and whistles, lute, drum and the Transylvanian gardon (somewhat similar to a cello). All of them sing.  The leader, Tilla, has a beautiful voice. Their music also incorporates the shouted chanting typical of the region.

Flóra Török

During the concert the musicians introduced each of their songs in Hungarian, and an American translator interpreted their comments. Clearly, the group loves the music and honors its traditional roots. They have been acclaimed for their ethnographic research as well as performance.

Their music exudes a wonderful energy, even in the passionate slower pieces. Because of the whistles and the drum, which is similar to a Celtic bodhran, I was sometimes reminded of Irish folk music.  Yet Hungarian and Balkan music is different, frequently set in a modal pentatonic scale. If you’ve listened to Bartók or Kodály, you get the idea.

I bought their CD, Naphasadás (Birth of the Sun). The music definitely sounds foreign to American ears, but it is vibrant and sensitively

Ádám Török Dancsó

interpreted. My favorite piece on the CD is a deeply compelling Kyrie. This group has done a wonderful job of preserving and adding to the musical heritage of Hungary and the Balkans. Check out their website and Facebook page. 

Photos in this post were taken by Márta Horváth.