Welcome to my second blog in the “Words and Music” series! I’m spotlighting the recordings, videos, performers and places that have served as inspiration for the descriptions of music in my books. Last time around, I took an excerpt from the first book in my series, Reverie. The second book, Rhapsody, is set to come out on October 1st, so I thought this time I’d spotlight one of my favorite musical moments from that book.
My character, Julia, knows that she must find the right piece of music to perform for a gala concert at Carnegie Hall. Thanks to a tricky maneuver by her nemesis, she’s unable to play any of the pieces she has prepared. There isn’t much time and she’s at her wits end. Enter her teacher, Dr. Sam Michaels AKA Dr. Sam…
“Dr. Sam, the dress rehearsal is in four days! What am I supposed to play?”
“I have an idea. But it’s something you’ve never played before. I think it will be perfect for you, Julia, though it’s going to require every ounce of strength you can muster to learn it, play it and own it in time for the concert. Do you think you can trust me on this, Julia?” he asks.
I don’t have to think, I know.
I knew that I needed something very special for Julia to play. It had to be unique in that it hasn’t been performed and recorded a thousand times before. It had to be a piece so gripping and beautiful that it didn’t matter whether or not it had blazingly fast finger work. Still, I knew it had to be a ‘barn burner,’ as they say. Something to bring the house down at the end. I found that selection in the notes of contemporary composer Eric Whitacre and a piece that he wrote for cellist Julian Lloyd Webber. Here’s an interview of the cellist talking about it:
Unlike my last example, Saint-Saens The Swan, I didn’t base my description on the visuals of a performance. This time around, I allowed the music itself to move me. I struggled with it a little, only because I knew Mr. Whitacre had something very specific in mind when he wrote The River Cam. Something like, you know, The River Cam in Cambridge! But I needed something a little different so I, with all due respect to the composer, had my characters hear something different in the music.
In this scene, Julia’s husband, Matthew, is waiting nervously in the audience to hear her play. She is the last one on the program and he has been a nervous wreck all night waiting for her turn to perform. But once she begins to play, all of that just fades away.
Matthew closes his eyes and recalls how Julia described the music to him:
The orchestra opens with an ethereal passage that’s like listening to the twilight sky, complete with twinkling stars. The strings spin a cloudy bed as the entrance for the cello. This piece, called The River Cam, was inspired by the River Cam in Cambridge, England. But Julia told me that she hears something different in its notes, and, as I close my eyes and listen, I understand.
It’s as if the cello is a voice telling a story. It’s an ageless and tragic tale of loss. It recalls better times. It reflects upon open fields of flowers and sunnier days. There was love and it was carefree. Then the cello’s voice becomes a nostalgic reverie against the swirling strings below it, crying out. The cello holds tight to the memories, even as they are enveloped in darkness.
Little bits and pieces of the opening melody bubble up to the surface and float away into the distance. Then the twilight returns again, but for just a few measures. Suddenly, there is turbulence. A churning discord that the strings create. Now the cello comes in alone with a solitary recap of the melody. It’s a soliloquy for Julia to deliver at her leisure. She stretches it, taking her time. And then the orchestra slips in beneath her, picking up speed as she drops in alongside them, and then against them. Above them, and then below them until, at last, they are one. She is riding the cusp of their harmonious wave until, suddenly, everything stops and there is perfect silence.
You might think it’s ended, just like that. But then the cello, longing and wandering and searching, returns with its deep utterances and high pleas. When I open my eyes, I see Julia using every inch of her body as she reaches around and places her bow low on the strings, playing the bass – the belly of the cello. Gradually, the voice climbs its way back up before fading away into nothingness.
There is silence. We are all, each one of us in this packed concert hall, literally breathless by what we have just heard and witnessed. And then, as if experiencing a collective resuscitation, we all, each one of us in this packed concert hall, gasp aloud and jump to our feet.
The reception to Jeremy’s playing may have been energetic and enthusiastic, but it was nothing – nothing – compared to what is happening right now. This isn’t clapping and cheering. This is a roar. A solid mass of ecstatic sound that rings out in recognition of the beauty we have just experienced. It is a rhapsody.
I know it’s a bit longer than a sound clip, but I didn’t want to excerpt a single measure from this breathtaking music. I hope you’ll listen to it, and maybe compare it to the description above so you can hear what I heard while I was writing. If you fall in love with The River Cam, as I did, it’s on Eric Whitacre’s Water Night album.
Have a listen and let me know what you think! Do the words suit the music? Does the music suit the scene? Is this your first time hearing Eric Whitacre? Let me know!