Matt Rees on ‘Writing the Music’ for his Mozart Crime Novel
I’ve played music all my life, but I’m no musician. After my initial childhood music lessons I parted ways with the playing of classical music. I’ve been a guitarist and bassist in various rock bands in New York and elsewhere. Less sexily, I played glockenspiel in my high school band.
Still, I knew that if Mozart’s Last Aria, my new historical thriller, was to succeed, I’d have to write convincingly about the great composer’s music. About its structure. Its performance. And the intellect behind it.
In other words, I’d need to imagine myself into the world of true musicians and into the head of the genius who wrote the most stunning music anyone has ever created.
First, I learnt to play piano. This demonstrated that I’m not much good on the piano. But it gave me a way to see inside Wolfgang’s music, because the piano study made me think more deeply about musical theory than my experience as a rock guitarist. (Surely THAT doesn’t surprise anyone, but it was worth demonstrating anyhow.)
Then I turned to some great musicians, to quiz them about Mozart and the way they perform him.
My main guide in this was my dear friend Orit Wolf, a fabulous concert pianist who has taught at the Royal College of Music. (You can see her dressed up as Nannerl and hear her version of Mozart’s Fantasia in D on this video ). Orit’s best-known for her heartfelt interpretations of romantic composers. But her insights into Mozart were startling.
Our discussion of Wolfgang’s piano sonata in A-minor I remember in particular. It gave me the idea of building the entire novel around the mood and structure of that piece, so that the novel should seem somehow musical even when the characters aren’t making music.
Orit also introduced me to some of the techniques great musicians use when they prepare for a performance. For example, she told me that when she first looks at a piece for a performance she decides what colour the music makes her think of. Before each performance, she’ll visualize that colour and it will create a mood in her, and in turn that mood will be reflected in the music as she plays it. It isn’t just about hitting the right keys.
So I did the same thing. Before I wrote about Nannerl Mozart performing a piece of music, I listened to it for a long time. I’d identify a colour and a season brought to mind by the piece. Then I’d hold those in my head as I wrote.
I still have the colour-codings noted on the index cards I used to plot the book. It’s a technique I’m intending to use for future books, even if they aren’t about music. A writer needs to keep himself very close to the emotion of his narrator and it isn’t always easy to concentrate on, say, sadness for the extended period it takes to write a chapter.
So from now on, thanks to my experience with the music of Mozart, my novels will be colour-coded.