Could you explain the significance of the Henrich Heine folksong that you use as the epigraph?
Henrich Heine was perhaps the most famous and beloved poet in all of German history. He was Jewish and lived in the 1800s. “Die Lorelei” is a very famous German poem that he wrote. All the schoolchildren learn it, and it’s even been put to music by Liszt. When the Nazis came to power they wanted to eradicate it. But “Die Lorelei” was so much a part of German culture they couldn’t bear to do it. So what they did instead was they attributed it to “Anonymous.” So the German Hitler youth would sing “Die Lorelei,” and here it is written by a Jew!
In October, at the Brooklyn Historical Society, your stories were set to music by the composer Ben Moore and were made into a musical and theatrical performance. How did that come about?
There was a young woman at Scribner—a publicist—who was also a very serious French horn player. When she read the book, she said she had such a visceral, emotional reaction that it went to the same part of her soul that her music comes from. She said she felt that this book should be put to music. Everyone said, “Well, great idea, but, what planet do you live on? We’re a publishing company!” But the head of publicity there is this visionary woman who’s open to anything, and she said, “That’s a great idea, let’s think about it.” People thought she was nuts. But then I said, “You know, one of my best friends is a magnificent composer. Let me sit with him, and we’ll talk about it.” And we did. He agreed straight away. He’s a Catholic boy—he has nothing Jewish in him at all. But we’ve been friends for a very long time, and we’ve been through a lot together, and although we’re very, very different people, artistically we’re kind of brother and sister.
He got off the subway one day, and the opening overture of the melody just came to him. It was very exciting. He called me straight away and he came to my house and played it. I was just…crying, because he had taken the emotions and somehow turned them into music. So then I wrote a twenty-page document where I broke down every element of each story. I explained the textures and undertones—what are the battles, what are the struggles, where is the hope, where is the despair. It was sort of an instruction manual for creating music that would express those nuances. He took that and turned it into a full-length piece of chamber music. It’s a forty-minute work for piano, clarinet, and violin.
Then we worked with this director, Jimmy Bohr, who selected monologues from the stories to be performed by an actress named Andrea Masters. It was extraordinary. The music interweaves with the monologues. It was very carefully orchestrated. We spent six months working on it. It was pure devotion to art—there was no money involved; no one got paid. It was just for the sheer love and belief in the project and the love of the work.