April 14, 2013

A Lesson from Eudora Welty

        “When do I stop doing research and start writing?” That question plagues writers of historical fiction. When you are working on a Ph.D. professors often answer that question this way, “When you pick up a book on your topic and you are familiar with most of the books listed in the bibliography, quit!” I use another rule, one I learned in a roundabout way from Eudora Welty.
        Ms. Welty (pronounced “Miz” in “Southern”) was one of the many graces of attending Millsaps College.
As Writer-in-Residence she attended a seminar I was taking in my junior year. I was awed, meeting a woman who earned a living as a writer and, I was as charmed as a young woman could be when visiting an eccentric maiden aunt.
        We had read Golden Apples in preparation for her attendance, so we discussed the book at length. As with most writers, the conversation eventually turned to the craft of writing. Ms. Welty said, (and you will have to imagine my paraphrased response in an elaborate, liquid, Southern drawl) “They ask me about my stories, ‘What happened next?’ Or they ask me ‘Why did she do that?’ And I tell them, ‘I don’t know. It’s as if I were a next door neighbor and I told you all I know.’”
        It is important to understand that a next-door neighbor in the South is a person who knows you extremely well. Unlike in many parts of this country where I have lived, your next-door neighbor walks into your house with a holler rather than a knock, is the first person to bring a casserole when you are in need, taught you how to cook collard greens, and told you where to get a bargain on those new pillows on your couch. So, using the Southern definition of neighbor, I think Eudora Welty would say that you stop doing research on a historical novel and start writing when you know as much as your heroine’s next-door neighbor would have known.

April 1, 2013

Fanny Mendelssohn, Another Talented Sister

     Felix Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony plays in my office, and I can imagine the joyful violins heralding spring’s plum blossoms outside my window. As I have been researching Felix Mendelssohn I discovered that he—like Mozart—had an equally talented sister. (Once again writing program notes for the Lake Union Civic Orchestra has yielded material for my blog. See my January 26, 2013 blog for earlier insights.)

     Felix’s sister, Fanny Mendelssohn, was so skilled at counterpoint and composition that her teacher
Carl Zelter wrote to Goethe about her: “. . .[she] could give you something of Sebastian Bach. This child is really something special.” Fanny’s father recognized her talent, indeed believing she was more talented than her younger brother, and educated her along with Felix. She was probably also encouraged, or at least inspired, by her two great-aunts: Fanny von Arnstein, patroness of a well-known salon, and Sarah Levy, an accomplished keyboardist who owned a collection of Bach manuscripts. We can assume Fanny also had the support of her artist husband, as she continued to perform in the Sunday afternoon concerts at her family home and even gave her only known public performance (of one of her brother’s piano concertos) after her marriage.

     Her brother had a collaborative relationship with Fanny. She critiqued Felix’s music before publication and he published some of her pieces under his name. He once wrote, “From my knowledge of Fanny I should say that she has neither inclination nor vocation for authorship. She is too much all that a woman ought to be for this. She regulates her house, and neither thinks of the public nor of the musical world, nor even of music at all, until her first duties are fulfilled.” Since Fanny wrote over 460 pieces of music, I have to assume that Felix was wrong. While Fanny was dusting cobwebs and polishing silver, she must have been creating music in her head, perhaps humming to distract herself from tedious work?

     Felix added, “Publishing would only disturb her in these [her wifely pursuits], and I cannot say that I approve of it.” Was he jealous of her? That is hard to say, but he was attached to her. Fanny died of a stroke when she was forty-one and Felix died six months later.

     Just as Felix Mendelssohn revived Bach’s music, the record labels Hyperion and CPO are now reviving Fanny’s. Their release of her compositions in the past years, as well as scholarly research on her creativity, may liberate her from history’s indifference.