Publisher Summary: The New York Times-bestselling author returns with a new powerful and passionate novel—inspired by historical events—about two women, one European and one American, and the mysterious choral masterpiece by Johann Sebastian Bach that changes both their lives.
My New Title Tuesday recommendation Lauren Belfer’s And After the Fire has one question at its core: Are the notes and rhythms in music separated from the lyrics by an invisible wall? By extension, can a composer’s work be enjoyed regardless of his or her political, racial, ethnic, or other bias?
Hello, my name is Susan and I am a music nerd.
For decades I’ve been aware that Mahler, Wagner, and a host of pop/rock/country artists have verifiable racist, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, or other deplorable biases or attitudes. However, they created some really terrific music. I don’t need to name names (Michael Jackson) to frame the perspective into: do we judge the music by the artist or composer’s personal life?
But Bach?!?!? Johann Sebastian – the revered, prolific composer who is the creator of Baroque Lutheran church music?
In And After the Fire, the protagonist, Susanna Kessler inherits a long-hidden music manuscript that is anti-Jewish. Initially, I thought this premise about Bach was purely fiction. But apparently, the beloved composer was a product of his time. I was surprised to learn that not just a few of his works revealed this anti-Semetic sentiment.
Belfer grapples with this dichotomy in one scene when her character Dan Erhardt attends a scholarly presentation about themes in Bach’s cantatas – a composition with several vocal pieces and instruments.
Dan looked around the table as he addressed his colleagues. “I’d like your guidance. I’m looking into the origins and repercussions of the anti-Jewish polemics in several cantatas, including 42 and 44, among others. The difficult truth, long ignored is that Bach’s church cantatas do at times take and explicit contemptuous stance against Jews. Theological Bach research has not come to terms with this, and it ought to. Are any of you working on this or on similar topics? Do you have any thoughts on the subject? (p. 234)
The question was met with silence and even the suggestion that Bach didn’t actually write the text (lyrics) and therefore shouldn’t be held responsible.Or the other defense, Bach wasn’t the only composer who took the anti-Jew position in their work.
My husband said the premise of a secret, virulently anti-Semitic musical composition by Bach is intriguing. He and I agree that Belfer easily transitions between the past and present events.
If you’re a historical fiction fan, you might find that too much time is spent in the present. Nonetheless, history buffs will find the author’s description of Napoleon’s occupation of Berlin very vivid. Belfer traces the casual anti-Semitism of German (Prussian) nobility to its crescendo in Hitler’s Germany. And After the Fire reminds us that Jewish stereotypes (scapegoating) have persisted over centuries within and without the Christian church.
Classical music enthusiasts will appreciate a glimpse into the salon life of that era. The professional musicology is greatly detailed but in a way that a non-musician can remain engaged.
And then there’s the question that generates many exasperating conversations in my house: what’s more important, the music or the words? My instrumentalist husband readily admits he doesn’t know the lyrics of any song I introduce into discussion because he doesn’t pay attention to lyrics. He knows the bass line, the harmony, the arc of the melody, the exact rhythm, but never the words or passionate lyrics.
Me? It’s about the words AND the music. But, do I quit Bach because of his choice to include hateful words? The fact is that much of his vocal works have already been cleansed of the vitriol in modern publications. Does that make it OK?
In any case, And After the Fire reminds us how recent and how current are the prejudices and biases we complacently tell ourselves are all in the past.
To read more about how Belfer and her musicologist/author husband, Michael Marissen, took on the questions of Bach and God while working on this novel read their New York Times interview with James Oestreich.
Happy reading, Susan C.
Also by Lauren Belfer: