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A Touch of Jacobus

HERE is the introduction to one of the zaniest characters in my six Daniel Jacobus novels: Shakespeare-spouting Drum Stick Man, a denizen who lurks in the murky recesses of the New York City subway system in Danse Macabre. Jacobus, with his mind other things, wasn’t paying attention to what he was doing and has gotten himself lost, when he hears some odd tapping.

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As he mulled over just what he would say to Hennie, Jacobus suddenly realized that the usual sounds and smells of humanity had ebbed into the ether.  No voices, no scuffling, no car horns, no sweat, no perfume, no exhaust fumes.  All he could hear was an echo of dripping water, some jazzily rhythmic tapping off in the distance, and his own uneven footsteps.  His arthritic hip responded like a barometer to cooler, musty and dank atmospheric conditions.  Where the hell am I? he thought.  I shouldn’t try to do two things at once, dammit.  He stopped to reconnoiter, instincts momentarily befuddled.  He decided to turn left.

“Hold Mortal, lest thou will surely perish!” declaimed a voice, followed by a drum riff on what sounded like a set of paint cans and cement.

Jacobus stopped.  “What are you talking about?” he asked.

“A yawning abyss beckons ye, of which thou art presently astride.”  Bdop-bah.

“Who the hell are you?” asked Jacobus.

“Men have called me the Drum Stick Man, and honored be I to make your acquaintance.  Welcome to my dark domain.  ’Tis dark here, yea, but I perceive ’tis darker for you still.  Thou canst not see this dormant track bed unused, lo, in the memory of man.  One more step and thine earthly coil will surely be kaput.”  Bop-bop-bop, bop-bdop-baaaah.

Jacobus turned to his right.

“Egad!  Go not that direction, neither, gentle Sir.” Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr-op.

“Why the hell not?  And knock off that ridiculous tapping.”

“But ‘tis my very nature to tap, Sir!  I tap on cans.”  B-dang, b-dang, b-dang.  “I tap on walls,” Knk-knk-knk.  “I e’en tap ’pon my head.  Ow!!

“‘The man that hath no music in himself,

        Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.

“If thou goest right, M’lord, thou wilst ne’er return.  Right is wrong.  A community of Gatherers awaits ye yon.”  Bp-bp-bding.

“And what, may I asketh, gather they?” asked Jacobus.

“Everything, kind sir.  Everything . . . But fear not!  For I will lead you from these things of darkness and this precipice, just as stout Edgar did lead the orbless Gloucester.  Follow me.  Perchance my tapping will please you now.  Dawdle not!  It be not far.”

“You live down here?” asked Jacobus, following the Drum Stick Man’s tapping.

“Verily.  Long has it been since the light of day has crossed my path.  Passageways without number abound within these dank, dark depths.  Forsooth ’tis a world unto itself.  Aha, here is the end of the line for me.

“‘Walk now thou straight and true,

                        and the world above ’twill be there for you.’”

Within moments Jacobus began to hear the familiar sounds of civilization within easy distance.

“How much do I owe you?” he asked, putting his hand into his pocket.

“Never a beggar nor chooser be!  Now get thee to a bunnerie.  I am awaaaay!”

Jacobus heard the tapping nimbly recede into the distance.  Now again with the type of humanity to which he was accustomed, in short order he was shoved up the escalator towards what was—for everyone else but him— the light at the end of the tunnel.

Walking the few short blocks from the station to the Bonderman Building, jostled by people in too much of a hurry to slow their pace even for a blind man, Jacobus contemplated the nature of insanity.  On one hand was this individual he just encountered who lived underground, talked funny, and liked to bang on things.  That person had undoubtedly saved his life out of the goodness of his curiously perverse heart.  On the other hand was a society which killed people, occasionally the wrong ones, as punishment for killing other people.  BTower and Allard, for example.  Jacobus wasn’t sure which side of the sanity fence he was on.  He had little need for creature comforts and since the world was black to him anyway—in more ways than one—the prospect of living a peaceful subterranean existence, like Ziggy’s, far away from all the things which daily annoyed him, didn’t seem all that unreasonable. That’s one reason he had never given up his hovel in the Berkshires.  No one bothered him except for those who he desired to bother him, like Nathaniel and his dwindling cache of students.

If you enjoyed this excerpt from Danse Macabre, please support my project to make it into a spectacular audio book!






Be A Part Of Mystery!

Danse Macabre, the Audio Book!

I’ve just launched an exciting project on that I want to share with you.

I’ve got 36 days to raise $6,000 for production costs for a unique audio book version of the second novel in my Daniel Jacobus mystery series, Danse Macabre. I’m writing to you first, my blog followers, in the hope that in the next few days you’ll consider becoming a backer, which will create the momentum necessary to reach my goal, before opening up the project to the general public.

I’m sure you have some questions. After you’ve had a chance to read the answers below, please click HERE to go the site, see what rewards you’d like to receive, and become a backer. If you have any additional questions, please don’t hesitate to ask!




What’s so unique about the audible book? I’ll be recording excerpts from the music that’s intrinsic to the mystery, including the eerie Danse Macabre itself, providing clues to solving it. The music will be recorded separately from the spoken narrative, and then the two will be magically interwoven to create a seamless audio fabric. Actually, I have to admit, it’s not quite unique. It has been done once before–with my first mystery, [click on Devil’s Trill for a sample] earlier this year. This is what Audiofile had to say: “Violin performances by the author sprinkled throughout provide clues to aid in solving the mystery, which will be appreciated by those musically inclined and provide a pleasant backdrop for those who are not…a solid mystery.”


What do backers get out of this? If you go to my project site, you’ll see a whole list of rewards depending on your contribution level–everything from a handwritten thank you letter from Daniel Jacobus himself, to free autographed books, to your own private performance of music and reading. As a kickstarter backer, you won’t need to worry whether your investment will return a profit or not. You’ll get your reward upfront as soon as we reach our fundraising goal. But mainly, you’ll have the satisfaction of having had a hand in creating something of unique literary and artistic value.
What are the production costs? Basically, paying for a world-class audio book reader in Jim Frangione, a top notch recording engineer, and the studio time. All of my time recording the music is gratis, and we’ve got funds set aside for marketing and distribution.

Isn’t it standard practice for the production company to pay for it? The major production companies were not interested in doing anything out of the cookie cutter mold. Alison Larkin Presents is a young, small, independent company with a boldly artistic vision. That’s why, for now, we need to build upon the success of Devil’s Trill and Danse Macabre with your support, and are looking at the possibility of recording the entire six-book series!

Who is Daniel Jacobus? He’s a blind, curmudgeonly, reclusive, and brilliant violin teacher who has a knack for solving murders, but only after getting himself into very deep hot water.


What is Danse Macabre about? Just after his Carnegie Hall swansong and before his imminent departure for retirement in France, beloved violinist and humanitarian Rene Allard is brutally murdered with a mysterious weapon. Jacobus is dragged into the case kicking and screaming, and reluctantly follows a trail of broken violins and broken lives as it leads inexorably to the truth, and to his own mortal peril. Among the strange and wonderful characters in Danse Macabre is one of my favorites from all my books. He goes by the name of Drumstick Man, and is a Shakespeare-quoting denizen who lurks within the deepest subterranean recesses of the New York City subway system. Is he friend or foe? Or both?


Any good reviews? Glad you asked:
…the twists and turns of his plotting will keep readers guessing.  The real hook here, however, is the insider’s view of the musical world.” [Booklist]
And then there is one-of-a-kind virtuoso Jacobus, perhaps one of the most unique protagonists in mysteries. Elias’s debut, Devil’s Trill, was a great reading experience; his new book is outstanding. A musical feast for mystery and music lovers.” [Library Journal]



Authors of Hate

As an author, my goals are to entertain, to enlighten, to educate, to engage, and at times, to challenge. One thing I try never to do is to incite hate.

We traditionally tend to think of authors as those who write books or plays. As professionals who make a living by writing. But in this day and age, anyone who writes a blog, an email, a text, a Tweet, a Facebook post, a customer review, or an online commentary, is in fact an author; an author whose oeuvre is as indelible and permanent as the authors of To Kill a Mockingbird or Mein Kampf.

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In today’s Salt Lake Tribune a friend of mine, Dave Folland, had a letter to the editor published. Dave’s a retired pediatrician who now volunteers his time and energy to Citizens Climate Lobby, a wonderful, politically nonpartisan grassroots organization with the goal of creating the political will to pass climate change legislation in Congress. (In the interest of full disclosure, I too am a member of CCL.)

CCL recently presented Rep. Mia Love, a Republican Congresswoman of Utah, an award for being an active member of the House Climate Solutions Caucus, one of the few truly bipartisan bodies in Congress. Indeed, in order to become a member, a Democrat and Republican must join simultaneously. To date there are 21 from each party, working constructively, side by side, on their climate agenda. Dave’s letter was an endorsement of the award bestowed upon Rep. Love.

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Rep. Love after receiving the CCL award.

Personally, while I appreciate Rep. Love’s courage for going against her party’s grain and speaking forthrightly about the challenges of climate change, I don’t think to date her actual actions have merited this particular award any more than dozens of others. Though it should be acknowledged that for a Republican politician in Utah, the country’s reddest state, to take even that level of a public position requires a degree of courage rarely demonstrated by our other representative, I disagree with her on almost every other issue. That, however, in no way condones the kind of repugnant invective hurled at her and Dave in the online comments by my ideological comrades. Here are but a few:

If she acknowledges the problem, but fails to criticize Trump’s withdrawal from Paris Accord or take any other action, I would suggest instead that we send her a bottle of Ivanka’s Complicit perfume.

Typical spineless Republican hypocrite.

So Doc, are you going to be handing out awards to Lee, Hatch, Chaffetz, Stewart, Love and environmental terrorist Rob Bishop?

Jeez Doc, you really puckered up for that bit of tripe!

One good act in a swarm of evil doesn’t make her decent.

     More like a swarm of Mia sitting on her keister.

One possibility: Mia is conceived in Haiti and ends up in Utah and declares it … “Feels cooler to Me!”

The Doc must be wrangling for federal funds or a job, otherwise why write this fantasy LTE. Come on, Doc, what’s your angle?

I feel her “climate” award is nothing but a phony pat on her back by a bunch of pathetic lap dogs.

Yup! just another piece of S—-

I‘ll tell you what. The minute she walks into the Oval office and tells Donald Trump that he’s a horses a** for his climate denial dementia, I will be glad to send her a thank you note.

     If she were to walk in to the oval office, you know Trump will asker her “do you want to blow me?”

     Mia then asks, “Is there an award for that?”

     More likely he’d ask her why she was late emptying the trash cans in the oval office. I’m   sure Donnie T. has no clue that Mia “tap-dancing” Love is an actual congress person.

And these are the people with whom I agree on the issue of climate change. Think about those who disagree and read vitriol like this.

Is there really any surprise that a deeply troubled James Hodgkinson went on a rampage and shot Sen. Scalise? The real wonder is that this doesn’t happen everyday, though in the future I fear it will. It appears Americans, from both the right and the left, have learned absolutely nothing from the Scalise shooting about the connection between hateful speech and violent action. Yes, there was a 24-hour ceasefire with much hand wringing. Now, after the obligatory platitudes we’re back to our daily routine of character assassination.

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James Hodgkinson

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Sen. Steve Scalise

To my friends on the left, if we want to encourage Rep. Love to do more, to work with members of the Climate Solutions Caucus on crafting meaningful climate legislation, rather than insult and condemn with revolting language, what would be so objectionable to saying, “Yes, so far you’ve taken a small step, but at least it’s a step in the right direction”? What harm is there in saying that? Is that not macho enough? To my friends on both ends of the political spectrum, would it not be better to try to heal wounds, to be the adult in the room, to be the first to say “enough,” to painstakingly attempt to forge consensus, instead of burning everyone with whom we disagree at the stake? Is it not possible to turn a ceasefire into a truce into a lasting peace?

Can’t we hold our pens a moment longer and think before we write? After all, we’re all authors here, and authors can choose the words they use.






Joseph Bologne Chevalier de Saint-Georges



“Reading Devil’s Trill was a nonstop page-turning pleasure. Now that the words are imbued with the author’s beautiful violin playing, this audio version will surely mesmerize.” —Cho-Liang Lin, world-renowned violinist. 

“Captivating… wholly original…” ―Library Journal *STARRED REVIEW*

“A thoroughly engaging mystery…packed with violin and concert lore.” ―Booklist

“This richly plotted mystery will thrill music lovers, while those not so musically inclined will find it equally enjoyable.”Publishers Weekly


The Smoking Brisket Conspiracy

In honor of the Jewish holiday of Passover, which starts today, I’m posting this article I wrote for Berkshire Fine Arts magazine a few years ago. Among the traditional recipes for the Passover Seder, perhaps the most beloved is brisket. But if someone tries to tell you they’ve got the perfect recipe, beware!

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In case you were wondering.

Go ahead, call me a conspiracy theorist, but don’t you occasionally have this sneaking suspicion that our lives are being subtly manipulated by evil, highly sophisticated marketing genies, converting us from presumably sentient beings into veritable retail slaves?  Does that sound extreme?  More than a modest dose of healthy cynicism?  Here’s a recent case in point.  You decide.

A slew of family members recently descended upon our Berkshire home for a weekend visit and I wanted to cook something out on the deck that would satiate a slew with varying tastes.  A smoked brisket sounded like just the ticket.  As one of the “in” foods of the decade, what better entrée to trot out to the fam?  Southern style smoke houses have been multiplying faster than boll weevils.  Swarms of suburbanites have been spotted migrating to big box stores to purchase ever more impressively-equipped contraptions to keep up with, or if at all possible to out-smoke, the Joneses. (Remember back in the ‘70s when everyone had to have a hibachi?  Where have they all gone, I ask you?)

When I looked up smoked brisket recipes online is when I felt the first shiver of a qualm of an inkling that I was being subliminably manipulated.  Half the recipes trumpeted something to the effect that under no conditions can one properly smoke a brisket without a super-duper, hoopdiedoo smoker outfit.   Now, I personally happen to be the proud owner of a certified, vintage El Cheapo gas grill that after all these years has yet to explode on me, and I wasn’t prepared to run out and spend hundreds of dollars to cook a slab of meat, so I didn’t bother to go further with those particular recipes.  The problem was, even those that didn’t mandate a state-of-the-art gizmo listed more ingredients than the number of times House Republicans have tried to repeal Obamacare, and recommended advanced degrees in culinary history and meteorology, not to mention alchemy.  For example, they demanded I come to terms with a quasi-mystical concoction referred to as The Rub, which required minute fractions of teaspoons of various rare and exotic products that can be obtained only in Timbuktu on market day, and we all know how expensive it is to get a good flight/hotel package there these days.  Then, assuming The Rub was successfully conjured, there followed The Sauce, a potion involving yet more esoteric components.  Where, I ask you, does one find 3-year aged persimmon vinegar?  (A slight exaggeration for dramatic purposes.)

Screen Shot 2017-04-10 at 9.46.51 AMIn the end I threw caution and my computer to the wind, and decided to wing it!  I determined to smoke my brisket without any recipe whatsoever on my El Cheapo…and I lived to tell the tale!  In fact, some said it was the best brisket they had ever eaten.   What’s more, it’s a foolproof recipe that can be prepared successfully even by the proverbial dolt who can’t boil water, because for the most part it doesn’t matter what you do!   Take that, marketing-retail complex!

There are only two things you need to make a great smoked brisket: 1) a brisket, and 2) smoke.  Everything else is optional and variable, including, for that matter, the smoke.   For example, to simulate The Rub I rummaged around my kitchen cabinet and discovered a small container of something called Montreal Steak Seasoning tucked behind the Cheerios.  How and when it got into my cupboard, and what exactly Montreal Steak Seasoning is, I didn’t know; regardless, I suspected it might be a good find.  Montreal is, after all, in southern Canada, I reasoned.  I also found Chili Powder and Ground Mustard, both of which had colors that pleased me.  I stirred up arbitrary amounts of the three ingredients in a bowl, poured them onto the meat and rubbed it in with fervor.  My guess is, other than salt and pepper, you don’t need any seasonings whatsoever to make a blue ribbon brisket, but I have to say rubbing it in felt great, so I recommend it.

Some of the online recipes stated in no uncertain terms it’s essential to let the massaged brisket sit in the fridge overnight wrapped in foil in order to absorb the flavors.  Keep in mind, if you decide you seriously want to take this step, you may have to first purchase a larger refrigerator.   On the other hand, it wouldn’t do to let the meat sit out overnight as it might attract some family members you hadn’t invited.  After weighing the pluses and minuses, I disregarded this instruction because it doesn’t make a difference.  So either put it in the fridge or on the barbecue, whichever moves you.

Next, making smoke.  Go to your supermarket and get whatever barbecue wood chips or pellets they have on the shelf.  If there’s more than one variety, get the cheapest.  Some recipes say to use mesquite, others hickory.  Fancy-asses like apple or myrtle wood, but it makes no difference what kind you get.  It’s all fine.  Just follow the instructions on the bag…or not.  Some say to soak the chips for 1½ millennia, but you probably don’t need to soak them at all.  If the store is totally out of wood chips, don’t worry, because you don’t really need them, period; but if it’s fun for you to make smoke and it makes you feel like you’re doing something “authentic,” I say go for it.

Here’s the one and only important thing you have to do.  You have to cook the brisket really, really slowly; otherwise it will be as tough as three-week-old road-kill goat.  So what I did on my 2-burner El Cheapo is this: I turned on the left burner to the lowest setting and put the smoking packet on the grill above the flame.   Then I set the meat on the unlit right grill, closed the cover, waited about eight hours, and voila!  (Eight hours is merely an estimate.  If by accident you step on your watch, or the brisket changes time zones, don’t worry; an extra hour or two will only make it more tender.)  Chances are you can also bake a brisket in the kitchen oven on the lowest setting and it will do just fine, but if it makes you feel manly doing it on a grill, then do it on the grill.  Also, if you enjoy poking and prodding every so often like I do, it’s easier to do on the grill than in the kitchen…unless it’s raining.

Oh, I almost forgot to mention about The Sauce, probably because like everything else, you really don’t need it.  But if you want barbecue sauce, anything you find on the supermarket shelf will taste just about as good as something that takes three hours of messy anxiety to prepare, and if it makes your life feel more meaningful to brush it on the meat about an hour before it’s done, who’s to stop you?  Or you can just pour it on when it’s all done.  Just as good.

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I leave you with this final thought.  I believe there are powerful invisible forces at work here: forces that would try to convince you that for a good brisket, 1) you need to go to a “real” Texas or Kansas City or North Carolina barbecue restaurant where you have to stand in a long line to pay top dollar for two slices of meat (and up to two sides, excluding fried okra which is extra) “traditionally” served on a paper plate with a roll of paper towels for napkins and where you sit at a Formica table on which your forearm sticks to the surface; or 2) you have to make a financial choice between sending your kids to college or buying a smoker that you’ll end up using once every ten years.  If you resist buying the “right” ingredients or the “right” merchandise, these unseen forces make you feel queasily less than adequate, less American even.  To that I say: Rise up and buck the system!  My recipe-free brisket could well be the first step in freeing yourself and your hard-earned cash from the insidious marketer’s vicious cycle.  Ignore this advice at your peril though, because once you succumb to the smoker, it’s only a matter of time before they’ll nail you with the outdoor wood-fired pizza oven.

That’s about all she wrote, but if you end up forgetting any of the details I’ve painstakingly provided, don’t worry.  It doesn’t matter. Happy Passover.


Enjoy Devil’s Trill: The Audio Book, a unique listening experience: Download Here!



Violins of Hope

My violin was made four years before the inauguration of President…George Washington. In 1785. The maker was Joseph Gagliano, a famous Neapolitan luthier. That’s about all I know for sure about my violin. I don’t even know who owned before me, let alone who its other owners were.

Can you imagine what stories my violin could tell if it could talk? I don’t just mean about the major events in history it witnessed over the past 232 years. I mean whose kitchen table it sat on, whose house it was in the first time it experienced an electric light, whose trunk it sat in while it made its way, whether by ship or by plane, across the Atlantic. My violin might have been onstage for the premier of Beethoven’s Fifth or in the pit for Show Boat. Or it could have sat in a violin shop for a hundred years, though I doubt that.

There are a few intriguing clues about my violin’s professional life.IMG_4040

You see that red stuff on the back of my scroll? No, it’s not 18th century chewing gum. It’s a wax stamp that says “Republique Francaise.” That most likely indicates (according to the experts) that it was in a museum exhibit in France. But it could also be a customs stamp, or even indicating that it was confiscated by the French Republic during the revolution. In any event it appears to have been highly regarded for one reason or another for a long time.

What’s more interesting to me, though, is this:

IMG_4041 Do you notice all that wear and tear along the top of the right side of the scroll? I really like that. Because what it means to me is that someone owned this violin for a very long time. And even more, used it for a very long time. So it was likely in professional hands, or at least someone who loved to play this violin. I think the reason for the wear is the result of the case it was in. If you’ve ever seen 19th century violin cases, they basically look like little black coffins, and many of them were handmade with no padding in the interior. So if the case was a bit asymmetrical, every time the owner put the violin away it would rub against the scroll, giving it a good chance the violin would have worn like that. That means the violinist not only had a long career, (s)he never made a helluva lot of money because (s)he could never afford a decent case. So not much has changed.

There is a unique collection of violins whose history we know, however. They’re not necessarily all good violins, but they have a powerful story to tell. These violins were owned by Jews, many of whom perished, who were concentration camp prisoners during World War II. Over the decades after the War, one by one they were brought to a violin maker in Israel named Moshe Weinstein, who repaired the instruments at no cost because he felt these violins had a story that must be told: the story of hope. To many in the camps, the only thing that enabled them to retain the will to live was the sound of the violin. For that reason, this collection is referred to as Violins of Hope: Strings of the Holocaust.

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The Violins of Hope have traveled around the world as an inspiring educational tool. A few years ago the Cleveland Orchestra played a concert on these instruments at a major synagogue/arts center in Cleveland, which is a story in itself. The result of all this is the extraordinary documentary, Violins of Hope: Strings of the Holocaust.

Why is this important?

I was born just seven years after the end of World War II. Seven years! That’s nothing. We remember what we ate at restaurants seven years ago. Yet when I was a kid it was as if World War II was ancient history. Even though I was from a Jewish family. Even though my father fought in France at the end of the war.

You may say, well, I was only a kid. But I do have an older brother and sister, and though we sat around the dinner table everyday we never talked about the horrors of war. Yes, once in a while we could prod my father to tell a war story, but it was always just a little vignette: picking sour apples in an orchard, bumping into someone he knew from New York City in the muddy trench next to him. We watched World War II movies on the television together. But is was basically for entertainment value: the Good Guys against the Bad Guys. Cowboys and Indians. Cops and Robbers.

Now we might think, what a mistake it was not to talk about the lessons of the war. But how does one wrap ones head around the 6,000,000 Jews who were murdered. And the Catholics, and the homosexuals, and the Romani, and the communists. The 20,000,000 Russians who died. Twenty-million! The millions of Japanese, Chinese, and Europeans who died. And of course, all the Americans. How do you deal with that? Block out the past and to look only toward the rosy future. After all, we had won. Nazism had lost, and antisemitism would never again rear its ugly head. At that time, that way of thinking wasn’t only understandable. It was almost necessary.

But history does not stop. History plods on, with or without us, and as Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr famously stated, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The more things change the more they stay the same. Look around us. Rarely has the story of the Violins of Hope been more important than now.

Violins of Hope enables us to comprehend the horror of the Holocaust because by hearing the story of each of these violins we see humanity as a collection of thinking and feeling individuals, not merely numbers with too many zeroes after them. Urbanites, country folk, scholars, peasants, bankers, garbage men, scientists, carpenters. They composed, played, and listened to music from symphonies in the concert hall to Klezmer in the shtetl. Please watch this one-hour documentary: Violins of Hope: Strings of the Holocaust. It is a story you’ll never forget.


Swan Songs


The Maiden: Stay away! Oh, stay away! Go, fierce Death! I am still young, please go! And do not touch me.

Death: Give me your hand, you beautiful and tender vision! I am a friend, and come not to hurt you. Be of good cheer! I am not cruel. You will sleep softly in my arms!

(Poem by Matthias Claudius. Music by Franz Schubert)


It’s the big question, isn’t it? How we will respond when the Grim Reaper crosses our threshold and reaches out with his icy hand. I’ll be discussing that very question on the preconcert lecture of the Minetti String Quartet’s performance on March 1 of an intriguing program comprising the final quartets by Mozart and Mendelssohn, and Schubert’s monumental “Death and the Maiden.” (I had always thought that was among Schubert’s final works, but more recent scholarships suggests he composed it a few years before his demise at the age of thirty-one.)


Maybe I’m being overly dramatic. Few people know the hour of their demise in advance, and certainly Mozart still had some time to go after his Quartet in B-flat, K589. And, there’s something strange contemplating the swan songs of these three genius composers when none of them made it to the age of thirty-nine. Yet, when writing these quartets they were in fairly dire physical, emotional, (and always for Mozart,financial) straits, and thoughts of death must have crossed their mind even at their tender ages. Composers have often resorted to chamber music in their final days, either finding comfort in the intimacy of the genre or perhaps, as in Beethoven’s last quartets, disregarding convention for another spiritual realm entirely. What’s curious in this program is that neither Mendelssohn nor Mozart seem to have chosen those options.

What’s strikingly in common among the three compositions of this program is the strict adherence to what by that time had become traditional four movement quartet form; and further, within those movements, the absence of anything structurally innovative (again, unlike Beethoven). The first movements are conventional sonata-allegro form. The minuets (or scherzos) and the slow movements are all totally by the book.


Mozart’s death mask

What’s of much more interest to the composers is the content, using standard form as the structurally sturdy, architectural frame for their creativity. The texture of Mozart’s K589 is unusually light and spare; more often than not only two or three musicians are playing. It’s almost as if he’s saying he could no longer care less about conventional frippery. He’s not out to please audiences as much as satisfying his own personal standards; to write what’s essential–nothing more, nothing less–and if you don’t like it, well that’s just too bad. (That being said, he did include an extended cello solo in the Larghetto, probably in the hopes–unfulfilled–of obtaining a commission from Frederick Wilhelm II, an enthusiastic amateur cellist.) One particularly noteworthy feature of this quartet is the Trio section of the Minuet. Usually given scant attention by composers, this Trio section takes on a life of its own–it’s almost a mini-Magic Flute.


Mendelssohn’s death mask


If there was a greater child genius than Mozart, it was Felix Mendelssohn. By his mid-teens he had a consummate grasp of his craft and had already produced masterpieces like the Octet and some of the Incidental Music to A Midsummer’s Night Dream.  In a way, that early technical precocity may have led to some stagnation as a creative artist in later compositions, where at times he seemed to repeatedly tread over trails he had already blazed. It reminds me of a quote by Berlioz’s comment about the young Camille Saint-Saens, another child genius. “He knows everything, but suffers from a lack of inexperience.”

Just before the F Minor Quartet, Mendelssohn’s beloved sister, Fanny, died suddenly and unexpectedly, and was himself was exhausted and in very poor health. He made no secret that the quartet was an expression of his grief and anguish. The intensity of F Minor, the jagged and accented dynamics, the turbulent under layers of 16th notes, the syncopated rhythms, the melodies which start and then seem to disintegrate, are all testament to his inner turmoil. Yet for all that, Mendelssohn seems unable to break free of the craft. The deeper tragedy here may be that in this, his final effort to make his most personal statement, he was constrained by the very gifts that had propelled him to greatness.


Schubert’s death mask


Schubert’s song, “Death and the Maiden,” upon which the quartet is based, is less than three minutes long. In the quartet, Death grabs you around the throat for the better part of an hour and rarely loosens his grip. For it to be an appropriately convincing performance, the musicians and audience have to be physically and emotionally exhausted by the end. The emotional core of the quartet is the second movement Andante con moto, a set of variations taken from the  introduction and second stanza of the song, a chillingly stately  cortege. The variations go far beyond the typical technique of simply providing contrasts in color, texture, and ornamentation of the theme. Here, each variation examines a different response to Death’s arrival, plumbing the depths of the soul in musical tones. And, like in the song, there is no definite resolution. Is Death cruel or is he, as he insists, here to comfort? We can guess, but we don’t ever know for sure how the Maiden–or Mozart or Mendelssohn for that matter–responds to Death’s invitation.

PS I’ve written a novel inspired by “Death and the Maiden.” Coincidentally, it’s called “Death and the Maiden.” For all my other books and audio books, please visit my Writing page.