When you think of Italy, you think of opera – the two are inextricably bound. Opera is so passionate, so dramatic, so epic; no wonder I chose to set my passionate, dramatic, epic novel The Echoes of Love in Italy!
In another life, had I the musical genius, I would love to have written or sung in an opera. As it is, I content myself to listen to CDs, go to opera houses and write books in which my characters are touched, just a little, by this most beautiful and stirring of art forms. I did not situate The Echoes of Love in the world of opera (though later this week I’ll review a book that does so beautifully), but I used opera to construct a dramatic backdrop for Paolo’s home:
La Torretta had belonged to a famous opera singer who had retired there when his fame had started to dwindle. He was not a very likeable person and gossip had it that there were orgies and other kinds of strange parties that took place at his home. The notorious tenor and his guests had perished in the fire set by one of his vengeful mistresses. It was a gruesome story and there was a rumour that on stormy nights as you approached the turreted house, you could hear the tenor singing the aria Addio, fiorito asil from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.
Do you know ‘Addio, fiorito asil’? It’s a powerful aria; here it is sung by that most famous of Italian opera singers, Pavarotti.
Did you know that Italy is the birthplace of opera? It originated there in the seventeenth century. Operas were performed as part of grand theatrical events, with dance and plays and other forms of music, to please the court, at occasions like weddings and victory celebrations. Venice was at the forefront of opera development; in 1637 the first public opera house, the Teatro di San Cassiano, opened its doors, and no longer was opera purely for the elite. Other houses opened, and the public filled the seats to hear the castrato and the prima donna. From there, touring companies and visitors to Italy spread the word of opera worldwide, and German, French and English composers in particular began writing their own operas. But the Italian opera was the father of all opera – it was respected as the core style; and a divide grew between non-Italian composers who wanted to create their own national opera styles and purists like Handel, Gluck and Mozart who followed the Italian style faithfully.
The most famous and widely performed Italian operas today were written in the 19th and early 20th centuries by Rossini, Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini. Of them all, Giacomo Puccini (1858–1924) is especially respected as one of the greatest operatic composers; his works include Manon Lescaut, La bohème, Tosca, and Madama Butterfly, Turandot and La rondine.
Sadly, recent news has suggested that Italian opera is not the adored, treasured cultural institution it once was. The opera house in Rome, the Teatro dell’ Opera di Roma, has recently made redundant its entire orchestra and chorus, amounting to 182 people, to save money. Falling attendance has hit hard, and the opera house is in debt to the tune of millions of euros and remains open only due to subsidies from the Italian government and Rome city council. In addition, the Italian conductor Riccardo Muti resigned from his position of music director.
There will always be political and economical considerations that affect culture, of course. But while journalists have been writing of the death knell of Italian opera, I have no concerns.I imagine the lovers in my novel The Echoes of Love enjoying a happy-ever-after in Italy that includes many evenings out at the opera. Such romantic dates they will be, and after watching the action unfold on the stage for a couple of hours, their own love story will seem remarkably drama-free in comparison!
As the O’Jays eloquently put it in their 1970s disco song: ‘I love music.’ And though I’m not sure I can stretch so far as to agree that I love ‘any kind of music’, I certainly love many types! Which makes interweaving music into the books I write an essential and really enjoyable aspect of the writing process.
Back when I was a young woman attending university to study French literature, my tutors drilled into me the power of writing to appeal to all of the reader’s senses. You don’t just want your reader to mentally ‘see’ the scene; you want him or her to smell, taste, feel and hear. The incorporation of music in a scene, then, is a great way to bring the setting to life for the reader.
Because I have wide-ranging music tastes, I like to bring in different kinds of music as I write. The Echoes of Love is set at the turn of the millennium, at that magical time when old bridged into new, which gave me an opportunity to include music that was current for the time but also more nostalgic, romantic Italian music. By tracing the following extract from the book, you can see how I try to create for the reader a feel for the time through the music choices.
Venetia sighed and changed the station to pop music. The radio show was streaming out back to back hits for the new millennium. The recognisable, tumbling strings of Robbie Williams’ ‘Millennium’ played out and she lost herself for a while in the exotic, lush harmonies and insistent rhythm.
The next song came on, the Italian hit ‘la Fine del Millennio Vasco Rossi’, jolting her out of her reverie, its fast, hard rhythms such a coarse contrast. She wondered why the Italians had chosen such a rasping, unmelodic song to represent the millennium when they were such a deeply romantic nation.
Frowning, she quickly retuned again, landing on a nostalgia radio station. Demis Roussos was singing his achingly romantic 1970s hit: ‘Ever and ever, forever and ever, my destiny will follow you eternally.’ At that moment, inexplicably, the words caught at her heart. Overwhelmed by that deepening of emotion which solitude bestows, Venetia’s throat constricted and for a brief moment her eyes welled up with tears of self-pity. They trembled at the edge of her lids, but she was quick to restrain them, chastising herself for being so weak and spineless.
As you can see here, the music is not merely a backdrop to the story – like a piece of scenery on a stage with which the actor does not interact. Music has the power to impact on the emotional journey of the character. Robbie Williams makes Venetia feel happy and ‘lost’; Vasco Rossi jars her uncomfortably; Demis Roussos moves her and forces her to address grief lurking within.
Here is another example from the book:
Venetia sighed as she turned on the radio. She tuned into the Don Giovanni show and its Italian nostalgia songs and heard ‘E Salutana Per Me’ by Raffaella Carrà playing. Finding herself humming along to the beautiful, haunting melody, she smiled ruefully. ‘Credi davvero/Che sia un mistero/Quello che un uomo fa? Do you really think that it is a mystery what a man does? Sí, lo so che nell’amore/C’è chi vince, c’è chi perde, I know that with love there are those who win and those who lose…’ Would she win or lose? Despite all that she knew – of Paolo’s reputation as a womaniser, of her own heart’s mystery – Venetia was secretly beguiled by the notion that some tiny magic might befall her one day, and destiny would show its felicitous hand.
The lyrics of the classic Italian song spark an emotional thought process, helping Venetia along the way to fathoming how she feels about Paolo.
So, I use music in my writing to help reflect or transform a character’s mood. But that makes the character’s experience of the music sound so solitary, insular. In truth, when I choose a song and write it into a book, I’m hoping for more than that for my character – I’m taking his or her inner world and connecting it to that experienced by others. The American writer Harry Allen Overstreet wrote:
I have my own particular sorrows, loves, delights; and you have yours. But sorrow, gladness, yearning, hope, love, belong to all of us, in all times and in all places. Music is the only means whereby we feel these emotions in their universality.
That universality is what I hope for: to show that my one story is but a small piece of the jigsaw that is The Great Love Story.
Music – “the universal language of mankind”.
Music is a great source of inspiration to me, whether classical or modern, and in any language. I have a huge repertoire of songs from all over the world that I listen to while doing my research and it helps me create the initial atmosphere for my story.
For my Spanish trilogy (watch this space for new of publication soon!) I chose various interpretations of Flamenco (it differs from province to province as each has its own way of singing Flamenco), and songs from the modern Spanish singers like Julio Iglesias and the Gypsy Kings.
During the research for my Italian novel, The Echoes of Love, I surrounded myself with Italian folklore music and the wonderful voices of Peppino di Capri, Raffaella Carrà, Mina and I Santo California (see my blog posts ‘A signature tune for my new novel’ and ‘“Que C’est Triste Venise” (How Sad Venice Can Be)’. And I listened extensively to classical music.
Today I want to share with you two pieces of classical music that inspired me when I wrote the scenes of The Echoes of Love that are set in Venice.
The first is from Songs Without Words, nineteenth-century piano compositions by the Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn. It is known as the ‘Venetian Boat Song’ (‘Venezianisches Gondellied’). It’s so wonderful melodic and romantic, and really calls to mind for me images of drifting on a canal in a gondola, drinking in the fine architecture of the ancient city of Venice.
The second piece of music is called Three Songs of Venice, and it comprises ‘The Gondolier’, ‘St Mark’s Square’ and ‘Rain Storm’ – each conveying a feel of city, from the lulling rhythm of the gondola to the bustle of St Mark’s Square. They were written by composer Michael Head for the 1977 ‘Save Venice Fund’ concert. I especially love the line ‘A city more beautiful than any other’ in the final song.
Back when my debut novel, Burning Embers, was newly released, I found on the internet a song with the same title, and was quite taken but it (see my post ‘Burning Embers – the song’).
A similar web search recently uncovered three songs whose titles tie into The Echoes of Love, my new book.
First, there is ‘Echo of Love’ by the British band The Shutes. I love the opening lines:
It started with explosions, the sound of bombs in your heart
But just like everything, just like everything the sounds would fade and fall apart
I imagine my heroine Venetia listening to this song when she thinks of her lost love, Judd.
An entirely different sound, but really quite restful and romantic, is to be heard in Omar Akram’s instrumental ‘Echo of Love’:
And finally, back to the 1970s with the Doobie Brothers and their song ‘The Echoes of Love’. The music doesn’t quite say ‘romance’ to me, but I do like the lyrics:
Echoes of love
Keeps on haunting
I hear your voice everywhere
It’s echoes of love
Making me look back over my shoulder
At the beginning of my new book The Echoes of Love, my heroine, Venetia, and hero, Paolo, are weaving their way through the crowds celebrating the Venice Carnival, and what better music to be stirring the revellers than that of Antonio Vivaldi?
Vivaldi (1678–1741) was born and bred in Venice, and he grew up to become a composer and a violinist. To this day, he’s revered as one of greatest Baroque composers, and his works have been hugely influential in European culture and in the inspiration of musicians who followed in his footsteps.
Here are some little-known facts about the great composer:
- He was known as il Prete Rosso (the Red Priest) for the vibrant shade of his hair!
- He was ordained as a Catholic priest, but due to ill health he had very few duties in the Church.
- For many years of his life Vivaldi worked as the ‘master of violin’ at the Republic-funded Ospedale della Pietà orphanage in Venice. The aims was to do more than shelter homeless children, but also to educate them. With that in mind, boys learned a trade but girls were members of the Ospedale orchestra and choir, which gained quite a reputation for its quality with Vivaldi at the helm. Many of Vivaldi’s works (more than 60, in fact) were thus written for girls at the home.
- He wrote his most famous work, The Four Seasons, in Venice. It comprises four violin concertos, each conveying the mood of a single season.
- Although today Vivaldi is a household name, and so was the case (in the houses of the cultured and rich, at least) in his time, the composer fell out of favour by the time of his death, and his renaissance as a celebrated musician only began in the 20th century.
To get a feel for Vivaldi, there is no better starting point than The Four Seasons. Here is a video covering the entire work:
The Allegro in ‘Spring’ is particularly popular for weddings, as is the following, ‘Concerto in D Major, Largo’, which is wonderfully lulling and romantic.
If you are interested in the life of Vivaldi, you may search out a copy of the 2005 film Antonio Vavaldi: Un Prinse à Venise. It was an Italian-French co-production, though, so you may struggle to find an English-language version. But if nothing else, the cover is wonderful – see the image with this post.