Wesley Stace, better known to many as musician John Wesley Harding, is the type of gifted individual one either enviously despises or accepts as the rare genius he is. Few people have successful musical careers and are also talented writers. Yes, lots of musicians write books and plenty of authors dabble in music, but how many truly excel at both? Stace does both with his latest project, Charles Jessold, Considered As A Murderer.
The slightly unwieldy title is explained by the novel’s protagonist, English music critic Leslie Shepherd. Charles Jessold, Considered As A Murderer is set in England, between 1910 and 1956. Shepherd is very much of a man of his era, a class snob, slightly anti-Semitic, highly opinionated on matters musical. It is his dearest wish that the adoration lavished on German classical music shift to a renewed worship of English pastoral music. To this end, he socializes with a group of like-minded men, some fellow critics, others gentlemen of independent means who enjoy taking long weekends in country homes, where they seek out old ballads by knocking on the doors of the unlettered, impoverished villagers, who are only too happy to sing for a half-penny.
At one of these soirees Shepherd meets the young composer Charles Jessold. Jessold is a country lad of the lower classes himself, but possessed of such talent and confidence that he soon wins Shepherd over. More than that, he fuels Shepherd’s dream of finding the man who can restore English music to greatness. As an evening of eating, drinking, and music draws to a close, the host asks Shepherd to relay the story of composer Carlo Gesualdo.
Born outside Naples in 1510, Carlo Gesualdo was a musician and composer from a wealthy family. In 1590 he learned his wife was having an affair with a Duke. Enraged, he invented an overnight hunting trip, returned early, and caught the couple in flagrante delicto. He killed both, and though the authorities did not punish him, the remainder of his life was an unhappy one. He remained musically productive but otherwise paranoid and increasingly miserable, dying in isolation.
As Shepherd hopes, Jessold finds Gesualdo fascinating. Could it not become an opera? A true English opera? The men become friendly, and begin tramping the countryside themselves, searching out English music. Shepherd, meanwhile, gloats, plotting his protégé’s career carefully: a private concert here, a dropped name there. And if Jessold proves moody, mercurial, and a little too given to drink, what of it? His genius is soon recognized by the cognoscenti, his career launched. Shepherd introduces Jessold to his wife, the shy, nearly silent Miriam, and the three enjoy companionable evenings.
Stace’s commentary on the lives of composers and musicians reads like a highbrow version of This is Spinal Tap: “The general rule is: if you want to know about music, don’t ask a musician. Most talk of nothing but wages and employment, most composers of commissions, reviews and other composers.” He slides in actual quotes from the music critic “Ross”, none other than the redoubtable New Yorker critic Alex Ross, who gave Stace permission to use quotes from the current-day The Rest is Noise. Doubtless Stace tucked countless other in-jokes and divertissements into the book that I, ill-educated about classical music, likely missed.
Happily, one need not be expert in classical music to appreciate the reach and complexity of Stace’s writing. Charles Jessold, Considered As A Murderer manages to be a murder mystery, a treatise on music, a wry assessment of class and cultural divides, an historical novel, and a love story. The plot line is complex, demanding the reader’s full attention, which is amply rewarded.
Both Shepherd and Jessold are inspired creations. Shepherd is cocky, his confidence tipped into arrogance. Self-satisfied, beyond reproach, he is initially a happy man, well-placed in time and space. “I encouraged him (Jessold) in everything… I exhorted him to walk before he could run, to be seen to pay his dues, to do things in the right order.”
Jessold is the ne plus ultra of the artistic temperament. Once asked whether a piece was finished, he firmly replied it was indeed completed, though not a note was yet written. His rooms are filthy, littered with cat waste, overflowing ashtrays, empty bottles. His drinking swings wildly out of control as he becomes more successful. He is alternately sweet and touchy, until finally he is only touchy and most often aggressively drunk.
One pivotal weekend the men tramp through the countryside, seeking song. Trapped in a storm, they take refuge in a barn, where they encounter a sheepherder whom they coerce into song. The ballad, Little Musgrave, essentially reiterates Carlo Gesualdo’s story, with some embroidery: in Little Musgrave, the cuckolded husband kills not only wife and lover, but himself, too. Enchanted by the song and their good fortune, the men return to Shepherd’s country house, where Charles Jessold immediately begins composing the opera that will consume Shepherd and ultimately ruin the lives of both. Initially Shepherd is ecstatic. His carefully nurtured composer will prove him correct. An added frisson is Jessold’s admission that he cannot write librettos: perhaps Shepherd could discreetly pen Little Musgrave?
In the first half of the book, Miriam Shepherd has little role. Younger than her husband, an ethereal figure most often reading, she is christened The Sphinx for her near silence in company, her abrupt disappearances from musical events, her general demeanor of breathing rarer air. Shepherd is both pleased with his wife and the general bafflement their marriage causes:
“I had never seen the appeal of the old-fashioned wife, ‘the little woman,’ to whom so many men of my generation turn for support… upon whose devotion they depend. I had always preferred the more romantic ideal of a partner, a soul equal in stature; this they (his social circle) did not quite understand.”
When Jessold goes to study in Frankfurt, Shepherd works hard to hide his alarm. Horrible sounds are emerging from other parts of Europe: Satie, Schoenberg, “the dire atonalism of the Viennese School.” Shepherd views newer, experimental classical music with all the horror one expects from this desiccated old soul. But all great composers must study. Jessold does, and falls for the very music Shepherd despises. Upon his return, their friendship cools. Jessold takes up with another critic, Benjamin Standing. His fame—and his alcohol intake—only increase.
In 1914 Jessold accepts an invitation to a Wagner festival that concludes with him interred for the war’s duration. His conditions in a British detainment camp are ideal for work, and he gets much done. But none of Shepherd’s pointed questions get him any closer to the status of Little Musgrave. Worse, Jessold’s drinking has reached a nadir, helped along by young singer Victoria London.
In 1923, Shepherd and Miriam are invited to a dress rehearsal of an opera that will never open. I am giving away nothing, for the book opens with the newspaper article detailing Jessold’s death and along with it, Little Musgrave‘s. The book then moves into a second part that turns the foregoing upside down, and to reveal anything would ruin the reader’s experience. I will only say the second half is a masterwork of plotting and character, with Stace leading the helplessly enmeshed reader to the final, sadly surprising page. Bravo!