Gerald Elias - A Musical Interlude (2/20/12)

Gerald Elias came by to celebrate his Daniel Jacobus series and to entertain us with music. Death and the Maiden will be released in paperback in a few months and his new book, Death and Transfiguration, is just on the horizon.

What started as a story to teach young students setting out on a musical career about the practicalities of surviving in the music world -- i.e., Devil's Trill -- has led to a new career in writing for Elias, one he juggles with his still vibrant life as a professional musician.

Here's some history of "Death and the Maiden," courtesy of Elias. It is the name of a string quartet piece by Franz Schubert. It was an expansion of an earlier, smaller work, "Der Tod und Das Mädchen," sung by a soprano. The soprano part is challenging because she must sing the parts of Death (low) and the Maiden (high). Elias recommended Marian Anderson's version. This soprano stuff is all an aside because Elias' book deals with a string quartet and that version of Schubert's work. The "intensity and relentless energy" the piece evokes lends itself well to a story of murder.

The world of the classical musician is inspirational, not just for the music but also for the scuttlebut. Based on a true story of a fractured string quartet, Elias was inspired to craft a story that gives us a behind-the-scenes peek at that world.

Are musicians upset that Elias pulls the curtain back to reveal real human beings with real human motivations, good and bad, behind the music? No, he said, they feel a "weight lifted off their shoulders" that we readers might begin to glimpse the pressures and stresses under which they work.

Speaking of pressures and stresses, Elias said, "The most intense musical experience is playing in a string quartet; most implode after a few years." The Julliard and Guarneri Quartets are rare quartets that have stayed together, but even the Julliard has had many personnel changes over the years. The fictional quartet in Elias' book suffers from the dissent, diverse sensibilities, and dissonance that real quartets experience.

This contentiousness and conflict is almost inevitable, Elias said, because as students "we are taught to have our own musical personality." Then most musicians must work with a group of other musicians who've had the same training. It takes a certain kind of conductor to make everyone play well in the sandbox. Conductors evince either a firm hand or a mediating one, but if he or she doesn't have a clear vision of the end product, then the result is less than sublime. Elias cited Leonard Bernstein as a conductor with a firm hand and a huge ego to guide it, but, Elias said, "He could get away with it because he was brilliant."

Why did Elias retire? As a performer he wanted to bring something better to a piece each time he played it, to understand it more. After performing for several decades, it became harder for him to "actualize the music he wanted to play," said Elias' friend, fellow violinist, and musical compatriot for the evening, Andrew Ehrlich. Repetition wears a piece down and takes its toll over time, Elias said. He wanted to "make each piece sound as if it's the world premiere."

Does Elias suffer for his art? He played at the famous Tanglewood Music Festival in Massachusetts for many summers. Weather, being a changeable force, sometimes provided soggy or cold evenings for the musicians to endure. Elias laughed and said, "That's part of the allure." He remembered one evening in the early 80s when the thunder and rain were so loud "the musicians couldn't even hear each other, and that made for a memorable experience."

How has Elias' protagonist Daniel Jacobus, a blind violin teacher, changed? He has mellowed over time, Elias said, and we learn more about him with each book, more about the tragedy that haunts him.

Did he get tired of touring? "I'm kind of a restless person," he said, "I like traveling." (Although a recent four weeks on a book tour were a little tiring.) Because of the peripatetic nature of work, he meets a lot of musicians and can usually strike a common note with them, either personally or through mutual friends.

That night in the little bookstore with nice acoustics for the piece, it was a transcendent experience to hear Schubert's "Death and the Maiden," reconfigured for two violins, performed by Elias and Ehrlich. They gave us a different way to hear the piece and a deeper understanding of its richness.

You, too, can hear this music via links on Jerry Elias' website,