Friday, November 25, 2022

KILLING THE CONDUCTOR: Guest Post by Gerald Elias

GERALD ELIAS: Killing the Conductor


“So, how are you going to kill the conductor?”


That was the burning question in 2008 when my Boston Symphony colleagues found out I had started writing mysteries. Not, “Are you going to kill the conductor?” No, among orchestral musicians, it was a given, and an obvious given, that the conductor would be murdered.


“But, why is that?” the uninitiated, head-scratching reader might innocently ask.


The reality is, behind the façade of the sparkling, elegant white-tie-and-tail world of the classical music concert stage exists an undercurrent of ominous realities: power-mongering, jealousy, larceny, lust, greed, and sexual misconduct to name a few that readily come to mind.   The dark corners, I call them. And there are so many of those corners that I’ve written a series of seven mysteries, with an eighth on the way, on these very subjects.


But that’s not how it all started. You see, as a musician I’ve performed and taught violin all over the world––Japan, Australia and New Zealand, China, Europe, South America––and there are certain challenges about learning to play this damned-difficult instrument that I discovered were universal. Not just where to put your fingers, but things like preparing for auditions, choosing the right instrument, how to memorize, dealing with nerves, managing pain, deciding which summer music program or university to go to. And so on. That’s what my first book was going to be about. Each chapter would confront a different challenge, and I would call the book Violin Lessons.


But, having once been a conservatory student myself, I knew that if I were reading such a book, I’d probably fall asleep in ten minutes. Bo-ring! So I decided to spice it up by weaving a bit of a mystery through it about a Stradivarius violin stolen from Carnegie Hall, and I would have my protagonist, a curmudgeonly, over-the-hill, blind violin teacher named Daniel Jacobus be the amateur sleuth that solves the mystery. 


(Just an aside here: I was on a book tour back in 2009. At an event––it was either Albuquerque or Tucson––when I introduced Jacobus using the description above, the store manager sardonically quipped, “So, Jerry, does that mean Jacobus is autobiographical?” Before I could parry, he finished me off with the coup de grâce: “Of course not. You’re not blind.”)


To condense twelve years of literary evolution into one sentence, Violin Lessons morphed from a tome that was ninety percent pedagogy and ten percent mystery into a traditional whodunnit in reverse proportions, with murder added and re-titled as Devil’s Trill.


The title change came at urging of my agent, Josh Getzler, who pleaded with me, “Jerry, lose Violin Lessons. Please!” I chose Devil’s Trill for two reasons: It’s a catchy name and it also happens to be the name of a unique violin sonata composed by the Baroque virtuoso-composer, Giuseppe Tartini. The sonata is unique partly because of its brilliantly demonic technical demands, which were way ahead of its time, but more importantly for the story that goes with the music. 


Tartini was awakened in the middle of the night by the Devil sitting at the foot of his bed. The Devil demanded that Tartini hand over his violin, upon which he then performed music so dazzling that it stunned Tartini. The next morning, when he awoke, he wrote down what he could remember having heard in his vision, and he called it the “Devil’s Trill” sonata, but confessed it was nowhere near brilliance of what he had heard, and that if he hadn’t needed to make a living playing the violin he would have broken his instrument in half.


The change in title, which initially was simply intended to make the cover more eye-catching, turned out to be a pivotal moment. Tartini’s story transformed mine as I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote. Like Tartini, my protagonist, Daniel Jacobus, now confronted his own personal demons at the metaphorical foot of his bed. The stolen Stradivarius became the embodiment of evil, exposing all of Jacobus’s deepest fears. The music of the sonata itself, and Tartini’s own life became an integral part of the story.


The inspiration that the new title provided gave me ideas for the next three murder mysteries in the Jacobus series, the titles of which were musical compositions with the theme of death: Danse Macabre for solo violin by Camille Saint-Säens, Death and the Maiden for string quartet by Franz Schubert, and Death and Transfiguration for symphony orchestra by Richard Strauss. The settings for my mysteries reflected the type of ensemble the music was composed for, teasing my colleagues, who had to wait until Death and Transfiguration to find out how I killed the conductor.


Books five through eight in the series took a musical detour. Rather than compositions about death as inspiration, I chose Antonio Vivaldi’s beloved Four Seasons violin concertos. Why? Because they’re also based on stories––Vivaldi wrote his own sonnets to set the musical stage––and, imbued with graphic musical imagery, they lent themselves perfectly to my second “quartet” of Jacobus mysteries. 


For each season, I chose a classical music setting appropriate for the time of year in which musicians might tend to want to kill each other: In Playing With Fire, a violin shop where forgeries are being produced; in Spring Break, a conservatory campus where rampant sexual misconduct is given a blind eye; in Cloudy With a Chance of Murder, a summer chamber music festival with musicians at each other’s throats; and in Murder at the Royal Albert––scheduled for a January 1, 2023 release––an international concert tour with an onstage murder.


Readers might be incredulous that such depravity and corruption could take place in the staid classical music world, but I can tell you with certainty, the stories are far from far-fetched.



Gerald Elias leads a double life as a world-class musician and award-winning author. Dividing his time between Seattle and the Berkshire Hills of Massachusetts, he continues to expand his literary and musical horizons. 

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