Portrait of a Prodigy That Rings True

“The Song of Names” by Norman Lebrecht (Anchor, $14).Â

Few writers know more about the dark, sometimes scandalous
workings of the music business than Norman Lebrecht, the author of “The Maestro
Myth: Great Conductors in Pursuit of Power” (Simon & Schuster, 1991) and
the illuminating “Who Killed Classical Music?: Maestros, Managers, and
Corporate Politics” (Birch Lane Press, 1997). A longtime newspaper columnist
and host of a BBC Radio 3 show, “Lebrecht Live,” he won the Whitbread First
Novel Award for “The Song of Names,” a brilliant debut and a dazzling piece of

Many authors and screenwriters have tried to depict child
prodigies, especially musical ones, for whom readers and moviegoers appear to
have an insatiable interest. But most prodigy portraits simply do not ring
true, or are downright laughable, to those who have known, or have been,
musical prodigies. Lebrecht does a much better job at this than most, as his
immersion in the world of classical music has allowed him to witness every
aspect of the business, from the managerial handling and marketing of their
prodigies (or to be more blunt, their product) to the behavior and
preternatural ability of the “Gifted Ones,” future divas and superstars.

This tale of music, obsession, war and mourning opens with
Martin Simmonds, the middle-aged narrator, telling us about his father, a music
publisher and manager, and the many ways in which the music business has
changed since he took over his father’s business. Full of self-pity, Martin
rues what he lost when his childhood friend, “the genius, the master of time,”
disappeared. Like death, “it is a loss that cannot be repaired, a hole in the
heart of things,” he reflects despairingly on the 40 years he has spent
enduring “the monotony of my half-life.” He has no inkling, as the book opens,
that his life is about to change radically.

The much-lamented “master of time” is David Eli Rapoport,
acclaimed by many in the postwar music world of London as the brightest star to
come along since the war, someone to give England hope for a brighter future.
The 9-year-old David — known affectionately as Dovidl — had come with this
father to England from Poland in 1938 to study with the great professor Flesch.
Dovidl’s father, however, had to return to Warsaw to take care of his sick
pregnant wife and to get the necessary permits so the entire family could come
to London. He asked Mortimer Simmonds to care for his son in the interim, which
Mortimer and his wife do, arranging all aspects of Dovidl’s education and
treating him as one of the family.

Martin, who remembers himself as a chubby, short and awkward
boy, “one degree more precocious than my peers, insufferably so … locked in
loneliness, unable to achieve meaningful human contact,” is thrilled to have
such a brilliant companion. Through the eyes, ears and conversations of these
inseparable adolescent friends, the reader gets a vivid picture of wartime London.

Self-assured to the point of arrogance, Dovidl tells Martin
(whom he calls Mottl), that the English class system has it wrong.

“The real world is divided into two classes of humans,” he
says — those who make things happen and those who let them happen. “I …
belong to the first class.” During the war, Dovidl asks to give a major public
recital, but Mortimer explains that, while culture was flourishing in Britain,
its receptivity was restricted to “English art, true and blue. Aliens need not

The minds that opened to new English writing slammed shut on
foreign accents. London was a paradise lost for non-English writers, fine
artists and conductors. “Soloists talked of catching the first peacetime ship
to America. England had given them shelter and oblivion laced with xenophobia
and abuse.”

Martin recalls George Orwell — “my father’s night-watch
commander” — who wrote that Jews are not only conspicuous, “but go out of their
way to make themselves so,” as well as the words of the critic James Agee, “who
used to drop in on my mother for tea,” and quipped: “Sometimes the Jews make it
very difficult to be as much pro-Semite as I am.” While creative artists could
“at worst, inhabit a world of imagination, performers had nowhere to hide….
This was not the time to present a foreign Jewish debutante on the London
concert stage.”

As war news filters into the Simmonds household, Dovidl
receives a letter from his mother, routed via Switzerland, informing him the
family will be resettled soon in the East where they had been assured that
living conditions would be less cramped. Mortimer tries to calm his family,
telling then not to believe everything they read in the papers: “Treat atrocity
reports with care, taking into account the possibility of propaganda and the
Jewish tendency to hysteria.”

Martin’s overriding fear is losing his friend and their
“symbiotic unity.” He reflects four decades later, “With him in my life, I was
confident, capable, presentable, almost eloquent. Without him, I would revert
to being a fat slob with a speech defect. He was the rabbi to my Golem, the
Clara to my Schumann, the valve to my radio.”

In May 1946, on Dovidl’s 16th birthday, Mortimer travels
with reams of sheet music and several performers to Poland, where he searches
unsuccessfully for any remnant of Dovidl’s family. He learns only that they
were deported Aug. 18, 1942, for Treblinka. For a year Mortimer recites
“Kaddish” for Dovidl’s father, whom he met only once, but Dovidl refuses to do
so, believing it would mean he has utterly given up hope. Finally, Mortimer
arranges for Dovidl’s debut (under the name of Eli, less obviously Jewish than
David and more palatable for promotional purposes). But on the afternoon of his
debut, shortly after his dress rehearsal, he disappears along with his 1742
Guadagnini violin. Martin recalls his family losing 10,000 pounds (sterling)
that night, “more than an entire year’s profit.” Worse, his father lost his
good name. “His judgment could not be trusted again.”

Bitterly Martin tells us, “He left the stage before the
curtain rose, and he took with him half of my being and all of my hopes.”

Forty years later, at a competition Martin is judging as the
novel opens, he hears a young violinist who sounds uncannily like his old
friend. He tracks down Dovidl, and learns what derailed his concert career and
so drastically changed his life. Without revealing the many plot twists and
turns, the “Song of Names,” a long, intoned recitation of names of Jews who
died in Treblinka — sung like prayers to facilitate memorization — propels the
events which will utterly transform first Dovidl’s life and, just as
unexpectedly, his old friend, Mottl’s.

It is a rare author who can write as sensitively, and
pithily, about the wounding after-effects of the Shoah as he does about music.
Lebrecht manages to do both, compellingly and unforgettably.

Article reprinted courtesy the Forward. Â

Susan Miron is a harpist. Her CD of Domenico Scarlatti’s sonatas was recently released by Centaur Records.Â