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Classical 101

Book Review: Lauren Belfer's 'And After The Fire'

HarperCollins Publishers

Think of your favorite page-turner. Think of the novel you get lost in, whether on the beach or on the bus — The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough comes to mind for me.

Then add to that a dash of love for music and musicians, and you get Lauren Belfer's And After the Fire.

Belfer draws parallel lines between a story set in Europe from 1783 to present-day America.

We meet Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, one of the sons of Johann Sebastian. In his old age, Wilhelm gives an Exaudi cantata to his favorite pupil, the glamorous Sara Itzig Levy, on her wedding day. That Sara is Jewish is a grief to Herr Bach, and the cantata is an unpublished work of his father's.

In 1783 discovering such a work would be an exciting prospect, if not the sensation this particular finding would become. The problem is that the cantata in question is based on the vilest, anti-Semitic screeds of Martin Luther, calling for the burning of the synagogues and the destruction of the Jews, clothed in the glory of Johann Sebastian Bach.

The cantata survives in manuscript, locked in a cupboard, through Sara's death and on to her extended family, the Mendelssohns. Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn are the grandchildren of Sara's sister.

Credit HarperCollins Publishers / laurenbelfer.com
"And After the Fire" by Lauren Belfer book cover

The "lost" Bach cantata is the leading character in this engrossing novel, even upstaging the Mendelssohns!

New Yorker Susannah Kessler finds herself in possession of the score. She works for a wealthy foundation, tasked with the enviable job of giving away pots of money to good causes.

Susanna has known violence and tragedy in her life, making her leery of any romantic attachments. Cue the cerebral musicologists who court her, one himself the bereaved, single father of a small child.

Credit facebook.com/AuthorLaurenBelfer
Author Lauren Belfer

A needy musicologist and his kid, a worldly woman haunted by trauma, the promise of the fabulous discovery of a lost and un-performable work by Johann Sebastian Bach — mix in greed and the drama that is modern New York — and you have the basis of a strong novel.

Add to this generations of great names in music and culture, and you get a page-turner to love, even if you're tone deaf.

And After the Fire had me reaching for music by Bach to hear anew after reading. I congratulate Belfer for writing a compelling and entertaining novel that will send you back to music.

Christopher Purdy is Classical 101's early morning host, 7-10 a.m. weekdays. He is host and producer of Front Row Center – Classical 101’s weekly celebration of Opera and more – as well as Music in Mid-Ohio, Concerts at Ohio State, and the Columbus Symphony broadcast series. He is the regular pre-concert speaker for Columbus Symphony performances in the Ohio Theater.
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