Columbus Author Pens Classical Music Novel
Above: Debra Berndt (pseudonym: Fifi Nutter) reads an excerpt from her novel Hips of Venus, Vol. I. In this passage, Beethoven cooks protagonist Sophie Scott a brunch of omelets and baked apples amid a chorus of tweeting finches, and gives an impromptu performance of his Für Elise on a Bösendorfer (“Bosie”) piano.
Music or Bust
Like many kids, Debra Berndt took piano lessons during her younger years. However her most vivid memory from her early lessons isn’t of the orderly black-and-white keyboard, the assured voice of her teacher or even the streams of music that she gradually learned to coax out of her instrument.
What Berndt remembers most from those lessons are the little busts of the great composers that adorned her teacher’s music room – Bach, Beethoven and Mozart chiseled pristinely in formal period dress, gazing with cool detachment through white marble eyes.
“My teacher was very into those little marble busts, and wonderful teacher though she was, she would put a piece of music in front of me and say, ‘Learn this,’ and I never really got the context. And so much of that context is a human context,” Berndt said. “So I grew up this way, I see kids growing up this way now, with this idea of who the classical composers were, which is basically a marble bust. There’s no humanity, and it’s very hard to connect with someone like that.”
Many years later, those icy stares prompted Berndt, now herself a piano teacher, to write Hips of Venus, Vol. I, the first of a planned three-volume novel that softens the marble busts of the great composers into living, breathing people who find themselves in outlandish, hilarious and heartbreaking situations.
Composers You Meet in Heaven
Part stream-of-consciousness fantasy, part music history tour, Hips of Venus imagines for us what hanging out with Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Mendelssohn might be like. The novel’s setting is Pleroma, an over-the-top wonderland of food, pianos, fantastical beaches, mountains, gardens and, of course, music.
Pleroma’s crown jewel is the villa Fianchi di Venere – literally, “Hips of Venus” – which the novel’s narrator describes as “the Jenny McCarthy of real estate, a frank and sunny exhibitionist.” The death of protagonist Sophie Scott in a horrific car wreck transports her to the heaven-like Pleroma, where her closest friends are some of the greatest composers the world has ever known.
In one sense, Hips of Venus is an extension of Berndt’s teaching.
“I really try, as a teacher, not only to teach the music and the technique and the skill, but also to teach that these (composers) were human beings. And all of the music that they wrote has tremendous context in who they were as guys and in some cases as women, what was going on in the world that they lived in, and the real struggles and torments that they went through and that they lived with for their whole lives,” Berndt said.
But everything else about the novel – its setting, its meandering plot, its running musical references that effectively create a sort of soundtrack for the book – is the product of Berndt’s writerly imagination, fueled by her curiosity about what the great composers might have been like to get to know.
Take, for instance, Sophie’s episode with Schubert and a typically bawdy Mozart. At the break of dawn, the three step out for a walk, heading first to a coffee shop. Sophie observes a crescent moon dangling in the sky and tells Schubert that the scene would make for a beautiful song. Schubert, the great song composer, agrees, and searches his coat pockets in vain for a pen.
Then they head toward a cafe, where they order a breakfast of pastries and strudel. Finally they arrive at the stationery shop of Conrad Satie, the brother of composer Erik Satie – all the while talking about nothing in particular.
“We’re All Just ‘Me’s”
As freewheeling as Berndt’s portrayals of the great composers may seem in Hips of Venus, Volume I, they emerge from a shadow side to which Berndt is reluctant to give voice – namely that, on one level, Berndt says, there really might be something scary, unapproachable and incomprehensible about the genius composers.
“It would be really amazing and wonderful, but it would be terrifying and intimidating to have one of those people sitting next to you and having a conversation with you,” Berndt said. “If Bach is sitting right here next to me, what could I possibly have to say to him? And if he’s talking to me, what could he possibly have to say to me? I’m just me. But of course, we’re all just ‘me’s. That’s the point of the book.”
Because – caveat emptor - some of the episodes in Hips of Venus, Vol. I contain some references and innuendos that Berndt describes as “a little bit dicey,” and because the novel doesn’t want for Mozartean scatology, Berndt says she wrote Hips of Venus for an audience of mature readers, including those new to classical music and those who’ve been immersed in it from an early age. Unlike those pristine marble busts, the great composers got their elbows dirty in the grit of life – just like we do.
“Am I writing it for the classical music fan? Yes. Am I writing it for people who enjoy some sort of twisted humor and some weird literary references and some weird pop culture references? Yes.
“But you know, Sophie Scott, the protagonist of the book, she’s a modern woman. She definitely has twenty-first-century sensibilities and that’s where the references that I mentioned come from, that’s where some of the language comes from. And surprisingly, it really works with the way these guys talked when they were living their own lives a century or two centuries ago,” Berndt said.
As much as Hips of Venus lives in the present by way of the musical past, its future also has already been mapped out. But whether you get sucked into the heightened conflict between protagonist Sophie Scott and her composer friends Berndt promises for Volume II, or the tragic love story that slated for Volume III, Berndt says she just wants those who read of Hips of Venus to have fun with it.
“I primarily want people to just sort of sit back and think, Wow, these were just guys, they were guys like me, they liked to go to the bar, they liked to go to the coffee shop,” Berndt said. “And I also would love it for people to laugh. If I have something that I’ve written that helps people laugh and enjoy in the context of classical composers, I think that’s sort of unique.”