By ALAN SMASON
And After the Fire by Lauren Belfer. Harper Collins Publishers, New York City. 2016. 451 pp. $26.99
Is it possible for music that lifts the soul to come from a place of hatred? This is part of the underpinning theme of Lauren Belfer’s most recent historical novel “And After the Fire.”
Belfer, a bestselling author, successfully weaves the tales of two strong Jewish women in different times and places. The first is a true historical figure, Sara Itzig Levy, the daughter of Daniel Itzig, the prominent Prussian banker who served both Kings Frederick the Great and Frederick William II and was the first Jew ever granted full citizenship. Despite her Jewish upbringing, Sara was the favorite keyboard student of Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, the eldest son of famed composer Johann Sebastian Bach.
The other main character, Susanah Kessler, is the pure invention of Belfer’s imagination. She is a modern day independent woman who comes into possession of a long lost, but unknown Bach choral work. Known throughout the novel as the “Xaundi cantata,” Belfer purports that Bach could have have written this particular cantata, especially since music scholars note there is a specific period of time during Bach’s prodigious output in which there are no extant works.
Scholars have noted that Bach was a product of his times and that several major religious leaders including Martin Luther were openly contemptuous, if not distrustful, of Jews. Four of Bach’s cantatas – BWV 42, 44, 46 and 179 – have unflattering references to the Jewish people, while two others – BWV 18 and 126 – are anti-Catholic and anti-Islamic.
“We have no idea what Bach felt about this issue or any other issues,” Belfer said in an exclusive CCJN interview. “What his work reveals, what does that say to us today?” she questioned, calling the works “beautiful.”
“It’s through understanding the actual meaning and the context that these works were created in that we can come to a higher understanding of these works,” she mused. “We can still appreciate how beautiful these works of art are, but yet have a deeper understanding of the culture that created them.”
While some of the action occurs in the present-day as Susannah tries to determine what to do with her musical find, the character of Sara establishes much of the back story of the work. “Susannah and Sara are equal,” she noted. “I hope my goal was that each time period would eliminate each other’s questions. The questions that exist in the future are answered in the past and the questions that exist in the past are answered in the future.”
With a mountain of historical research woven into the novel, the best-selling author has incorporated other historical musical families, including those of the Mendelssohn Bartholdy family. Famous family members include noted German philosopher Moses Mendelssohn; his son, the banker Abraham Mendelssohn Bartholdy and his children, celebrated composers Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy and Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. One of Sara Levy’s good friends, Amelia Beer, is also woven into the storyline. Beer was the mother of yet another famous Jewish composer, Giacomo Meyerbeer.
The pressure for Jews to convert due to extreme German nationalism and the temptation to assimilate into the larger outside community was ever-present, but neither the Itzigs, the Levys or the Beers yielded. However, Abraham Mendelssohn added Bartholdy to his surname following his very public conversion. His children were all raised Christian from an early age and he refused to circumcise his sons, yet despite that, famous composer son Felix was frequently referred to as “the Jew Mendelssohn,” Belfer stated.
Belfer acknowledges the importance that Levy enjoyed as the hostess of a long-running musical salon for a half century on what is now Berlin’s Museum Island. Ironically, her family was directly responsible for saving many of the surviving Bach manuscripts after the composer died and those works were split among his family members. The Itzig and Levy families purchased many of these works directly from the Bach progeny, who were only too happy to part with their father’s works for a price.
Belfer’s aim was to be historically accurate, while integrating the characters of both eras – notably that of Sara and Susannah – into a tight storyline where each must deal with challenges and struggles in their personal lives. Along the way, the ethical questions rise about how works of art that were critical of Jewish faith and practice came to be. The fictional Bach “Xaundi cantata” that is the focus of this novel is a means to an end to bring about an understanding of the backdrop of the past and to examine the roots of anti-Semitism that came to take hold of Europe in the intervening centuries.
“The Holocaust did not come out of nowhere, sadly,” she concluded.