The lynchpin for your novel AND AFTER THE FIRE is the riveting journey through time and place of a controversial musical masterpiece, a lost cantata by Johann Sebastian Bach. Its discovery brings up some significant ethical and sociological issues:
Can art do harm? How should we approach a work of art that would have been unobjectionable in its own day but is troubling in ours? Can we separate art from the context in which it was created?
I’ve thought a lot about these questions, which are indeed pivotal in AND AFTER THE FIRE, and which have no easy answers. The lost fictional cantata discovered in the novel has an inflammatory anti-Semitic libretto. Readers have asked me, was Bach himself anti-Semitic? Well, the unfortunate truth is that some of Bach’s works do lash out in an aggressive and ugly manner against Catholics, Jews, and Muslims. For example, Cantatas 18 and 126 have material that is anti-Catholic and anti-Muslim; Cantatas 42, 44, 46, and 179 have material that is contemptuously anti-Jewish.
Whether Bach himself was or was not anti-Semitic, however, is almost secondary here — his music was written for his contemporary churches and reflects the common beliefs of his era, and we have no idea what he, personally, believed on this issue. Rather, the important ethical and religious questions in AND AFTER THE FIRE relate to our time, not Bach’s: what would you do, if you came into possession — now, today — of an inflammatory artistic masterpiece? Would you hide it? Destroy it? Sell it? And what is the meaning of art, especially art that reflects the possibly disturbing context of its creation yet is nonetheless great and awe-inspiring? Do we simply ignore the prejudicial aspects? Do we try to understand and forgive those aspects?
And most importantly, does knowing the context of creation bring us to a fuller understanding of a work — or is the context unnecessary and irrelevant when we’re contemplating and enjoying so-called “timeless” artistic masterpieces today?
I’ve learned that people have widely differing views on these questions. To me, understanding the context in which a work of art was created is essential to a full appreciation of the work and its meaning.
Bach’s music is typically powerful, life-affirming, and uplifting. It often unites people across time and cultures, offering joy and consolation — and these facts make even more pressing the questions raised in the novel.
One of your heroines, Sara Levy, was a salonnière, a hostess who brought into her home the biggest and brightest stars of the cultural scene in Berlin in the Enlightenment and Romantic eras. At that time, cultural salons organized by women were taking place all over Europe. In your opinion, how did these salons contribute to or advance the role of women in society? Was there anything particularly noteworthy about the salons of Berlin?
When I learned about Sara Levy, I knew I had to write about her. She was a brilliant harpsichordist who’d studied with the son of Johann Sebastian Bach. As a woman, a performing career was closed to her (although she did give public performances later in her life, after her husband died), but she made her mark on Berlin’s cultural life through her musical salon, which endured for over fifty years.
During the Enlightenment and Romantic eras, cultural salons served a vital role in society, on many levels. For the often highly educated women who organized them, the salons provided a much needed outlet, a place outside an otherwise strictly-limited family sphere where these women could express their many talents. For artists, writers, musicians, and composers, the salons provided an opportunity to showcase their gifts.
The salons of Berlin were different from others because they were organized primarily by Jewish women, and because Christians and Jews, aristocrats and commoners, mingled freely in these salons. This mingling did not mean that Prussian society was free from anti-Semitism (far from it, as my novel explores). But for those in a position to attend the salons, friendships had an opportunity to flourish in the context of discussions of art, music, and literature, as well as musical performances. The Jewish salons of Berlin constituted an exceptional moment in German history.
Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, the sister of the famous composer, conductor, and musician Felix Mendelssohn, is a character in your book as well. Can you talk about what it was like for her to be a woman composer and performer at that time in history, and how her society and her family, her brother in particular, suppressed her own musical success?
To me, Fanny Mendelssohn is a tragic figure. Like her brother, she was considered a musical genius when she was young. She received a terrific musical education. But early on, her father told her that music would never be more than an “ornament” in her life. Even when she was an adult, her musical endeavors were confined to the domestic sphere, to her home and garden. She was a gifted composer who wrote over four hundred works. However, her father and then her brother forbade her to publish her compositions — except for six songs, which her brother published in his collections, under his name.
Why did Fanny accept this injustice? Her husband and mother both supported her desire to publish. But for complex reasons that I explore in the novel, she let her father’s and her brother’s point of view take priority.
Only as she entered her forties did she begin to take steps toward publishing her music. But she died of a stroke at age forty-one, and after that, her work was essentially forgotten. In the past twenty-five years, due to the efforts of committed scholars and performers, her compositions are gradually being rediscovered and receiving the recognition they deserve.
One of the themes of this novel could be the healing power of music. In fact, Bach’s music could actually be called a character in your novel. Can you talk about the music itself and how it inspired your novel, and what music means to your characters? This issue is especially important in regard to your contemporary character Susanna Kessler, who must decide what to do with the precious but inflammatory masterpiece by Johann Sebastian Bach that she discovers.
I have often found the music of Bach to be emotionally consoling. During difficult times in my life, again and again I’ve sought out Bach’s music, and listening to it has brought me comfort. As I wrote AND AFTER THE FIRE, I wanted my characters to experience the consolation of this music, too. For example, after his wife dies, Dan listens over and over to the aria “Mache dich, mein Herze, rein” from the St. Matthew Passion. Other favorite pieces of mine include the oboe concertos, the violin concertos, and the sonatas for viola da gamba. My favorite cantatas include 100, 56, 197, and 45. I can’t explain why the music of Bach, instead of more recent music, affects me so profoundly. Because I have experienced the power of Bach’s music, I can’t imagine destroying anything he wrote. I gave my own feelings and potential struggles surrounding this issue to both Sara Levy and Susanna Kessler in the novel, as they grapple with the question of what to do with the manuscript they don’t want.
I think Bach’s music is indeed a character in the novel, and exactly like a human character, the music of Bach has positive and negative sides, intermingled. I adore all the cantatas, even though I know some of their texts are ethically problematic. The music becomes more meaningful and powerful when a listener can appreciate it in its full complexity, just as human characters in a novel are more powerful when they are understood in all their complex dimensions, including the dimensions warranting condemnation instead of praise.
The research you did in Germany and the Weimar region in particular must have been incredibly enriching for the book — can you tell readers about some of the most interesting things you learned when on site?
I traveled to Germany four times to research the novel. I admit I was anxious as I contemplated my first trip to Germany, because many of my family members were murdered during the Holocaust. But from the moment I arrived in Berlin, I was surprised to find that I felt not only comfortable but very much at home. In my experience Germans have done an exemplary job in confronting the past and trying to atone for it. Only in Weimar did I feel awkward, when my husband (who is of Dutch heritage) and I drew stares during breakfast at our hotel as well as on our walks around the city. I’m not entirely sure why we garnered the attention we did, but it was sufficiently disquieting that I included it in the novel. Also in Weimar, the concierge at our hotel refused to recognize the existence of Buchenwald, the notorious concentration camp located just outside the city, and so refused to provide directions to travel there. Why? I can’t say. This scene, too, is recreated in the book.
Apart from these two, rather difficult situations, my research trips were truly voyages of discovery, filled with excitement. At the Jewish cemetery on Schönhauser Allee in Berlin, I came across the grave of Amalia Beer, Sara Levy’s friend and a character in the novel. I was never able to find Sara’s grave, but seeing the gravesite of her friend was almost as touching. My husband and I spent hours on Berlin’s Museum Island, plotting out the probable location of Sara’s mansion. She refused to move when the king wanted her land for a new museum, and so he had to build the museum at an odd angle. We visited the Mendelssohn-Remise on Jaegerstrasse in Berlin, in one of the former locations of the family bank, and I discovered a remarkable collection of Mendelssohn portraits, documents, and memorabilia. All this, too, brought my characters alive. In Leipzig we visited the restored home where Felix Mendelssohn lived with his wife and children. Sitting in those rooms, studying Felix’s watercolors, I gained a visceral sense of the family’s daily life.
Also in Germany I took great pleasure in the wonders of German pastry and cake. I shared this pleasure with all the characters in the novel, real and imagined, present and past. I gave the best cake I ever had in Germany — a dense chocolate with layers of marzipan — to Sara Levy and her niece, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, in honor of my immense respect for them.
Some readers may know that your husband, Michael Marissen, is an author and music scholar who has studied, written, and lectured widely about the work of Johann Sebastian Bach, George Frideric Handel and others. But what was it like writing a novel that has such deep connections to his own work? Spirited discussions around the breakfast table?
I relied on Michael as I researched the novel, and he devoted himself, I’m grateful to say, to making certain that the book reached extremely high levels of verisimilitude. He never let me take any shortcuts. Because of Michael, the fictional Bach cantata at the center of the novel is plausible in every way. My cantata may not be real, but I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if a scholar some day unearthed a lost choral masterpiece that was quite similar — that’s how close to reality my fictional choral work is, thanks to Michael. We traveled together, did research together, spent years working side by side. He never seemed to regard this as a burden. Rather, we worked in a perfect, balanced partnership. In fact, he has a scholarly book about Bach coming out at the same time my novel is published. His book is called BACH & GOD.
Once, through Michael’s connections, we were given access to an actual original manuscript of a Bach composing score, which we were allowed to study for several hours. This was an astonishing experience — to touch the very paper that Bach had touched, to see the corrections he made to his work, the cross-outs, the ink blots, the small musical sketches he made at the bottom of pages to remind him of what he wanted to write at the top of the turned side of the page after the ink on the front had dried. I tried to give my own sense of awe to my character Susanna Kessler, as she examined the manuscript her uncle bequeathed to her.
Ultimately, what do you hope readers will take away from reading AND AFTER THE FIRE?
First and most importantly, I hope readers will feel that they’ve experienced a compelling story, and feel that the novel’s characters have taken them on a fascinating and thought-provoking journey through time. I hope readers will find a sense of the sweep of history, a sense that everything builds and is intertwined.
My primary concerns in AND AFTER THE FIRE are contemporary, as I show my characters making choices in the light of history, and struggling to make peace with the past. I hope my readers will find these struggles illuminating and relevant to their own lives.
I also hope readers will discover the astonishing music that inspired me as I wrote the novel. At the end of the book, I’ve included a list of my favorite recordings of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and of Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn, to guide readers in case they’re curious to experience this riveting, consoling, and thrilling music firsthand.