Today my guest is Anne Barwell, here to talk about how music plays a role in her writing, and especially in her new title, On Wings of Song.
Thanks, Shae, for hosting me today. :)
My stories often have some kind of music reference in them, whether it is that the characters are musicians—Simon, Sean, Kristopher and Michel—or it plays a larger part in the plot such as in Winter Duet, Cat’s Quill, and Slow Dreaming.
In On Wings of Song, both of those elements combine to become a big part of the story.
When I first got the idea for the story, I knew that one of the characters, Aiden, would be involved in Music Hall. I’ve played for the modern equivalent, Musical Theatre, as rehearsal pianist, and also as a violinist in the band for shows. One of the shows I was involved in celebrated Music Hall and the music of that time. Another was an ANZAC commemoration. I also played piano for church in Christmas services for many years, and so having Aiden sing for the combined service during the Christmas Truce was also a given.
One of the bonuses about writing a story set in the early part of the 20th century is that a lot of the lyrics are out of copyright. The music Jochen hears when he attends a performance at the Avery Theatre are actual songs of the time—and earlier. The library had a wonderful book: Edwardian Song Book – Drawing-room ballads 1900-1914 from the catalogue of Boosey & Co – selected and introduced by Michael R Turner and Antony Miall. As well as containing sheet music so I could play the songs and hear them, it had a brief history of them and their composers.
With the first and last chapters set around Christmas, it was also an opportunity to use Christmas Carols. I didn’t want to use the same one twice, as the story needed to move forward, not backwards. In the finish the songs chose themselves and worked perfectly for Jochen and Aiden and where they are in their lives at each point of the story.
During the Christmas Truce, many men exchanged uniform buttons, as Aiden and Jochen did. However, it’s not the physical reminder of their meeting that keeps Jochen going through the horrors of his war time experience, or the connection between himself and Aiden. It’s also the memory of Aiden’s singing, and how it touched him.
But once that song is over, what then? If a man has lost himself in his music, or in someone else’s, is it that easy to pick up the melody again years later? To quote from the story: “That stage was everything to you. You used to lose yourself in it, and sometimes I wondered if that was really a good thing. A man’s got to find himself before he can lose himself in a role.”
Music and literature are the song by which Aiden and Jochen meet, but six years later both of them have changed. The war has exacted a high price on both of them. In different ways they have both lost the music within them. Because of this, in order to find each other, they will first need to find themselves.
Six years after meeting British soldier Aiden Foster during the Christmas Truce of 1914, Jochen Weber still finds himself thinking about Aiden, their shared conversation about literature, and Aiden’s beautiful singing voice. A visit to London gives Jochen the opportunity to search for Aiden, but he’s shocked at what he finds.
The uniform button Jochen gave him is the only thing Aiden has left of the past he’s lost. The war and its aftermath ripped everything away from him, including his family and his music. When Jochen reappears in his life, Aiden enjoys their growing friendship but knows he has nothing to offer. Not anymore.
“I’ve seen it,” Aiden said quietly. “I wish to God I hadn’t.” He looked directly at Jochen. Jochen met Aiden’s gaze. He’d seen an echo of Conrad’s fire in Aiden when he’d talked about his music earlier that afternoon.
“Don’t die on the wire, Aiden.”
“I’ll try not to.” Aiden’s words were an empty promise. They both knew it, but what else was he going to say?
The red-haired man Aiden had spoken to about arranging the burials walked over to him. He too held a shovel, and he wiped perspiration from his brow despite the cold. “There’s going to be a combined service for the dead,” he told them. “In about ten minutes in no man’s land in front of the French trenches.”
As they made their way over, men were already beginning to gather, soldiers from opposite sides sitting together, conversation dwindling to a respectful silence. A British chaplain stood in front of them, a Bible in his hand, a German beside him. Jochen recognized him, although he didn’t know his name. The young man was only a few years older than Jochen and was studying for the ministry—would he ever get the chance to complete those studies?
Jochen and Aiden found somewhere to sit a few rows back from the front and joined the company of men. The German spoke first. “Vater unser, der du bist im Himmel. Geheiligt werde dein Name.”
The British chaplain repeated the words in English. “Our Father who art in Heaven, Hallowed be thy Name.”
They then spoke a few words each, some from the Bible, the rest from their hearts. Their congregation was silent apart from a few quiet “amens.” Jochen saw a couple of men wipe tears away. He was close to it himself.
Finally the chaplain bowed his head in prayer. When he’d finished, he spoke quietly to the man who had come to stand next to him. It was Captain Williams. He nodded and looked over the crowd, his gaze fixing on Aiden.
Aiden must have guessed what Williams wanted. He inclined his head in response and then stood. Jochen glanced between the two men, confused. What did Williams expect Aiden to do?
“Aiden?” Jochen asked softly.
Aiden smiled at him and began to sing. “O Holy Night, the stars are brightly shining….” He lifted his head, his voice strong and clear, each note building on the last to create something truly beautiful, something angelic. Aiden’s eyes shone; his body swayed slightly in time with the music. He was the music.
His audience sat in awe. Jochen could feel the emotion rippling through the men around him, tangible, as though he could reach out and touch it. He felt something inside himself reach out, wanting to be a part of it, to be carried along the wave of pure music, to grab it and never let go.
Anne Barwell lives in Wellington, New Zealand. She shares her home with two cats who are convinced that the house is run to suit them; this is an ongoing “discussion,” and to date it appears as though the cats may be winning.
In 2008 she completed her conjoint BA in English Literature and Music/Bachelor of Teaching. She has worked as a music teacher, a primary school teacher, and now works in a library. She is a member of the Upper Hutt Science Fiction Club and plays violin for Hutt Valley Orchestra.
She is an avid reader across a wide range of genres and a watcher of far too many TV series and movies, although it can be argued that there is no such thing as “too many.” These, of course, are best enjoyed with a decent cup of tea and further the continuing argument that the concept of “spare time” is really just a myth.
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