Tuesday, 12 November 2013

The Music behind The Housemaid's Daughter

Do you have a precious book that has stayed with you all your life?

Here's a battered page from mine, and this is how it came to influence my novel, The Housemaid's Daughter. I started to play the piano as a child of about five, and this is the book that I learnt from. You can see from the picture that it has certainly seen some action! I now keep it in a plastic sleeve because the pages have frayed and the glue that held them together has long since vapourised. Many applications of sellotape didn't help much either!

My precious book is about seventy years old and has a suitably formal title:
The Progressive Primer for the Pianoforte.
Through oversized illustrations it introduces the beginner to the keyboard, the challenges of fingering, and the correct position of the wrists ("Arch, arch!" says Rose's exasperated teacher in The Housemaid's Daughter). And then it puts everything together in a set of simple tunes like Come to the Green Wood, or Dance of the Gnomes.

When I was developing the plot for my apartheid-era novel, I knew that I needed a sub-theme that would elevate the story and connect all the disparate characters in a way that rose above the differences between them. Music proved to be the perfect medium. So while Ada and her Irish employer, Cathleen, are divided by a generation in age, by background, by culture and by colour - music bridges those differences and leads to a friendship that lasts all their lives. The evocative Raindrop Prelude by Chopin becomes Ada's signature piece - and a metaphor for her life. (If you haven't heard it, do go onto my website barbaramutch.com and click on the Music tab to listen.)

But Ada doesn't play classical music only. There's jazz and syncopation and jive, too.
And the people she plays for find themselves united in a way they had never imagined. But how did she start?
Just like I did, with The Progressive Primer for the Pianoforte, and its simple tunes:
Come to the Green Wood, Dance of the Gnomes.
You never know where they might take you...

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