Music and Silence by Rose Tremain

Tremain, Rose - Music and Silence

A few summers ago, Hubby and I took in the capitals of Scandinavia and the Baltic: Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn with their medieval old towns; scenic Helsinki; compact, cultured Oslo; and wonderful, wonderful Copenhagen.

I’d had it in my head to go to Copenhagen ever since I was a kid growing up in the 1970’s singing along to re-runs of the Hans Christian Anderson film on TV. “Wonderful, wonderful, Copenhagen, salty old queen of the sea.” And as a kid I was obsessed by the story of The Little Mermaid. So, of course, I insisted we visited Hans Christian Anderson’s grave, and the statue of the Little Mermaid in the harbour.

Unsurprisingly, perhaps, these were not “top sights” in our Lonely Planet Pocket Copenhagen guidebook. An attraction that did make the cut was Rosenburg Slot, a seventeenth century castle built by King Christian IV, Denmark’s “Builder King”, as his summer residence. Although we didn’t go inside – it was too sunny a day – we did enjoy a great view of the castle from the city’s oldest park, Kongens Have (King’s Garden) which was, it seems, King Christian’s vegetable garden.

Sixteen months on from that trip, I found myself reading once more about King Christian IV, but this time not in a guide book. It turns out that Rose Tremain’s Music and Silence, winner of the 1999 Whitbread Novel Award, is set in/around King Christian’s court in the years 1629-1630.

Peter Claire, an English lutenist, arrives at the Danish Court to take up a place in King Christian IV’s Royal Orchestra. Peter has “an angel’s countenance” whereas the King “is ugly…a face like a loaf.”  This “cruel contrast”, combined with the circumstances in which they are introduced – with the King in his nightshirt “weighing silver” – makes the opening chapter seem like a scene from a fairy tale.

In fact the whole story is peopled with characters who would not seem out of place in one of Hans Christian Anderson’s stories: Kirsten Monk, the King’s consort, who wonders “to what length and breadth of wickedness I could go”; Dowager Queen Sofie, the King’s mother, with her “habit of scolding and cursing and hoarding money”; Johnnie O’Fingal, the Irish Earl driven to madness with trying to produce the music “of such grace and beauty”  he’s composed in his dreams; Magdelena, step-mother of Peter’s beloved, Emilia, who “has put a spell” on Emilia’s father and his four eldest sons; the “ghostly” youngest son Marcus, “the only one who is outside the spell”.

Fable is not the only literary association. When Christian tells Peter at their first meeting, “In springtime…Copenhagen used to smell of lilac and of linden, I do not know where this heavenly scent has gone,” right away I thought of the line from Hamlet: “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” In Shakespeare’s play, the words are spoken by an officer of the palace guard following the appearance of the ghost of Prince Hamlet’s father on the walls of Elsinore Castle. King Christian seems to see the “ghost” of his old school friend, Bror, at that first meeting with Peter. (“Denmark is full of ghosts. Did no one warn you?”) And Elsinore, too, features in the novel, as the place where Queen Sofie “shuts herself up” with her barrel of gold coins and piles of gold ingots.

As in fairy tales, as in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, at the heart of Music and Silence lies the battle between order and chaos, good and evil, light and dark. Tremain makes these conflicting forces concrete by, for example, having the Royal Orchestra play in a cold, dark cellar, their sound transmitted through pipes to the throne-room above, so that the King’s visitors “marvel when they hear it, not knowing when the music can possibly come”.

If my obsession with The Little Mermaid should have taught me anything, it was that you don’t always get what you deserve and right doesn’t always win. Perhaps we good girls try too hard, take life too seriously. The last word in the novel goes to Kirsten – now sent away from Court in disgrace but still unrepentant, a-moral, pleasure-seeking: “Give me the Wings of Angels, the Wings of Demons. Lift me up and let me fly.”  Or in the words of another Shakespeare play/character “’tis all one to me.”~

Rating: **** One of the best books I’ve read this year  

~ If you don’t recognise the line, it’s from Trolius and Cressida, spoken by Pandarus, Cressida’s uncle/guardian and (like Kirsten) a morally dubious, licentious figure. It’s from his character that we get pandering, which in law is an accusation that an individual has sold the sexual services of another (although the term is also used more generally to suggest active or implicit encouragement of someone’s weaknesses).


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