A Portrait of a Musical Prodigy That Rings True

By Susan Miron

Published February 27, 2004, issue of February 27, 2004.
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The Song of Names

By Norman Lebrecht

Anchor, 320 pages, $14.

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Few writers know more about the dark, sometimes scandalous workings of the music business than Norman Lebrecht, the author of “The Maestro Myth: Great Conductors in Pursuit of Power” (Simon & Schuster, 1991) and the illuminating “Who Killed Classical Music?: Maestros, Managers, and Corporate Politics” (Birch Lane Press, 1997). A longtime newspaper columnist and host of a BBC Radio 3 show, “Lebrecht Live,” he won the Whitbread First Novel Award for “The Song of Names,” a brilliant debut and a dazzling piece of fiction.

Many authors and screenwriters have tried to depict child prodigies, especially musical ones, for whom readers and moviegoers appear to have an insatiable interest. But most prodigy portraits simply do not ring true, or are downright laughable, to those who have known, or have been, musical prodigies. Lebrecht does a much better job at this than most, as his immersion in the world of classical music has allowed him to witness every aspect of the business, from the managerial handling and marketing of their prodigies (or to be more blunt, their product) to the behavior and preternatural ability of the “Gifted Ones,” future divas and superstars.

This tale of music, obsession, war and mourning opens with Martin Simmonds, the middle-aged narrator, telling us about his father, a music publisher and manager, and the many ways in which the music business has changed since he took over his father’s business. Full of self-pity, Martin rues what he lost when his childhood friend, “the genius, the master of time,” disappeared. Like death, “it is a loss that cannot be repaired, a hole in the heart of things,” he reflects despairingly on the 40 years he has spent enduring “the monotony of my half-life.” He has no inkling, as the book opens, that his life is about to change radically.

The much-lamented “master of time” is David Eli Rapoport, acclaimed by many in the postwar music world of London as the brightest star to come along since the war, someone to give England hope for a brighter future. The 9-year-old David — known affectionately as Dovidl — had come with this father to England from Poland in 1938 to study with the great Professor Flesch. Dovidl’s father, however, had to return to Warsaw to take care of his sick pregnant wife and to get the necessary permits so the entire family could come to London. He asked Mortimer Simmonds to care for his son in the interim, which Mortimer and his wife do, arranging all aspects of Dovidl’s education and treating him as one of the family.

Martin, who remembers himself as a chubby, short and awkward boy, “one degree more precocious than my peers, insufferably so.… locked in loneliness, unable to achieve meaningful human contact,” is thrilled to have such a brilliant companion. Through the eyes, ears and conversations of these inseparable adolescent friends, the reader gets a vivid picture of wartime London.

Self-assured to the point of arrogance, Dovidl tells Martin (whom he calls Mottl), that the English class system has it wrong. “The real world is divided into two classes of humans,” he says — those who make things happen and those who let them happen. “I… belong to the first class.” During the war, Dovidl asks to give a major public recital, but Mortimer explains that, while culture was flourishing in Britain, its receptivity was restricted to “English art, true and blue. Aliens need not apply.” The minds that opened to new English writing slammed shut on foreign accents. London was a paradise lost for non-English writers, fine artists and conductors. “Soloists talked of catching the first peacetime ship to America. England had given them shelter and oblivion laced with xenophobia and abuse.”

Martin recalls George Orwell — “my father’s night-watch commander” — who wrote that Jews are not only conspicuous, “but go out of their way to make themselves so,” as well as the words of the critic James Agee, “who used to drop in on my mother for tea,” and quipped: “Sometimes the Jews make it very difficult to be as much pro-Semite as I am.” While creative artists could “at worst, inhabit a world of imagination, performers had nowhere to hide…. This was not the time to present a foreign Jewish debutante on the London concert stage.”

As war news filters into the Simmonds household, Dovidl receives a letter from his mother, routed via Switzerland, informing him the family will be resettled soon in the East where they had been assured that living conditions would be less cramped. Mortimer tries to calm his family, telling then not to believe everything they read in the papers. “Treat atrocity reports with care, taking into account the possibility of propaganda and the Jewish tendency to hysteria.” Martin’s overriding fear is losing his friend and their “symbiotic unity.” He reflects four decades later, “With him in my life, I was confident, capable, presentable, almost eloquent. Without him, I would revert to being a fat slob with a speech defect. He was the Rabbi to my Golem, the Clara to my Schumann, the valve to my radio.”

In May 1946, on Dovidl’s 16th birthday, Mortimer travels with reams of sheet music and several performers to Poland, where he searches unsuccessfully for any remnant of Dovidl’s family. He learns only that they were deported August 18, 1942 for Treblinka. For a year Mortimer recites Kaddish for Dovidl’s father, whom he met only once, but Dovidl refuses to do so, believing it would mean he has utterly given up hope. Finally, Mortimer arranges for Dovidl’s debut (under the name of Eli, less obviously Jewish than David and more palatable for promotional purposes,). But on the afternoon of his debut, shortly after his dress rehearsal, he disappears along with his 1742 Guadagnini violin. Martin recalls his family losing 10,000 pounds (sterling) that night, “more than an entire year’s profit.” Worse, his father lost his good name. “His judgment could not be trusted again.”

Bitterly Martin tells us, “he left the stage before the curtain rose, and he took with him half of my being and all of my hopes.” Forty years later, at a competition Martin is judging as the novel opens, he hears a young violinist who sounds uncannily like his old friend. He tracks down Dovidl, and learns what derailed his concert career and so drastically changed his life. Without revealing the many plot twists and turns, the “Song of Names,” a long, intoned recitation of names of Jews who died in Treblinka — sung like prayers to facilitate memorization — propels the events which will utterly transform first Dovidl’s life and, just as unexpectedly, his old friend Mottl’s.

It is a rare author who can write as sensitively, and pithily, about the wounding after-effects of the Shoah as he does about music. Lebrecht manages to do both, compellingly and unforgettably.

Susan Miron is a harpist. Her CD of Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas was recently released by Centaur Records.

The Song of Names

By Norman Lebrecht

Anchor, 320 pages, $14.

* * *

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