by Paul Burman
I’m not sure whether I’d have ever read Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice if it hadn’t been for a trip to the cinema in 1973, but Visconti’s film adaptation had just been released and I needed an excuse to hang out with a girlfriend. I doubt whether I gave the film my full attention (for obvious reasons), but I recall brooding, impressionistic images and a soundtrack that drew heavily on Mahler. Not long after, and perhaps in honour of the girl and our evening together, I shelled out 35p for a paperback copy of the book.
I vastly preferred reading Death in Venice to watching it (the little I'd seen) and, although the girl soon disappeared from view, this slim novella has remained on my bookshelf ever since. However, Visconti had a more profound influence than I realised at the time, because as soon as I opened the book I couldn’t help but hear those haunting phrases from Mahler’s Third and Fifth symphonies underscoring every sentence, and they too have stayed with me.
Adolescent relationships may be fleeting, but the love affair between film, music and literature is an enduring (and polyamorous) one, it seems. This is especially evident in films that aren’t so much moving pictures as moving paintings, and where music is cast in a leading role rather than as an optional extra loafing about in the background. Maybe Walt Disney kindled the flame to this romance with the magical (if not trippy) Fantasia in 1940. Here we have Mickey Mouse’s animated orchestration of Goethe’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice dancing to Dukas’ symphonic poem of the same name. It’s a marriage with added significance when we remember it was Goethe himself who said: “Music begins where words end.”
The intimacy of the relationship became obvious in Elvira Madigan (1967). Drawing on Johan Lindström Saxon’s nineteenth century ballad, which chronicled the murder-suicide of a married cavalry officer and his young tightrope-dancing mistress, film director Bo Widerberg created an inseparable bond when he matched this story with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21. It’s proved such a long-standing affair – no murder-suicide to mirror the original – that the Elvira Madigan tag is still promoted on new recordings forty-three years later.
Nor have Australian films been shy in this respect. After all, Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975) went all the way with Joan Lindsay’s novel. No brief flirtation here. Consequently, it’s become a challenge to pick up this book, let alone read it in the shadow of Hanging Rock, without drifting into soft focus and expecting the earth to move to the tedious ripple of panpipes.
The upshot of this was that, as an Arts student in the 70s, it was difficult not to believe that a half-decent understanding of literature must be accompanied by a sound grounding in music. How else could these directors have recognised the essential Mahler behind Mann, the Mozart in Madigan? If I couldn’t discover something similar in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Chekhov’s Three Sisters or Sartre’s Nausea, I sensed they’d remain incomplete texts, half-read and half-understood at best.
This belief led me to Tchaikovsky, Chopin and Satie, amongst others, until I recognised the risks of overdosing on classical music: sombre days and even more sombre nights. Literature needed to lighten up and start dancing with a younger partner.
So it was a relief to encounter bands like The Cream releasing Tales of Brave Ulysses and Camel dedicating an entire album to Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose, and even to hear Kate Bush warbling her way through Wuthering Heights. Being a committed student, there wasn’t much I wouldn’t kick back and listen to. The more diversions the better. I thought of it as research and much preferred it as a study technique to browsing a library for notes on Chaucer, Conrad or Coleridge. Except when it came to Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch’s Legend of Xanadu. How could anyone take a band with a name like that seriously?
What I would’ve liked, though, was to actually hear the music that underscored the words for myself. Instinctively, as I believed Visconti had. But it didn’t happen. There may have been an occasion once, when I thought a few bars from a pianoforte leaked out of Mansfield Park, but that could equally have been because I was cramming my reading of Jane Austen at 3:00 am while twitched up on caffeine.
There was little for it but to fully appreciate literature that allowed for such tune deafness. Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King became a favourite the moment Eugene Henderson sang a couple of lines from Handel’s Messiah: “I am despised and rejected, a man of sorrow and acquainted with grief”.
In marriage, partners redefine one another and – for better or for worse – while Henderson’s story has resounded to the Messiah ever since for me, so too has it been impossible to hear the oratorio without having flashbacks of a middle-aged American multi-millionaire blundering through the African jungle in search of salvation.
Something similar happens with Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. This novel embraces Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony so passionately (even as it flirts with Mozart and Bach on the side) that I no longer hear it without picturing Alex and his droogs bashing and raping, thieving and destroying. It’s a deliberately disturbing relationship that reverberates all the more for Alex’s belief that music is “gorgeousness and gorgeousity made flesh.”
Of course, not all literature is evocative of music; some texts are destined to go quietly through life – unaccompanied. But reading is particularly enjoyable when it engages at this level. It’s the reason I got excited when, with the advent of CDs, Laura Esquivel released The Law of Love with its own soundtrack slipped beneath the front cover – a track for each chapter – because it heralded a fresh dynamism in the relationship. However, although Tim Winton’s aptly-named Dirt Music was released with an optional double album of bluegrass and classical tracks (an invitation to re-read the novel every time it’s played), relatively few authors have travelled any distance on this bandwagon.
But the writing’s on the wall... or, if not the wall, it’s certainly appearing on digital readers. Putting aside my preference for the feel and smell of paper rather than screens and warm batteries, I’ve been considering buying a Kindle or Sony Reader lately. The software isn’t quite there yet, but I don’t think it’ll be long before e-readers are gauging what music should accompany which e-book, matching the compatibility of rhythm and mood in each, while allowing, perhaps, for the user’s reading pace.
Maybe then it’ll only be a matter of time before every piece of literature is accompanied by its own soundtrack, and Mahler’s symphonies will literally resound through Death in Venice. Unless it’s done badly and resembles those awful Christmas cards that play the same tinny tune over and over again the moment they’re opened... or if the moment Picnic at Hanging Rock is opened we’re forced to listen to those bloody panpipes yet again. In which case, I imagine the relationship between literature and music might end in a murder-suicide after all – the messiest of divorces – and we’ll be clammering for old-fashioned, silent books once more.