the contextual life

thoughts without borders

wesley stace :: elegant maestro

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photo of cover

from the opening of wesley stace’s latest novel, charles jessold, considered as a murderer, the reader knows the fate of its title character: “Kensington Triple Tragedy / Composer Kills his Wife, Another, Commits Suicide / Opera Will Not Open” but one would be a fool to think they know how he gets there.

rewind 13 years. it’s 1910 and a group of England’s classical elite are gathered for a weekend retreat the day after King Edward’s funeral. composers, musicians, and critics alike mingle in a salon—drinking, gossiping, and playing piano games meant to impress one another. one newcomer, composer prodigy charles jessold, succeeds in capturing the attention of respected music critic leslie shepherd, our contemplative narrator.

the two are introduced by a mutual acquaintance and fall into an easy exchange due to the remarkable resemblance of jessold’s name to one of shepherd’s favorite historical characters: the notorious carlo gesualdo, an italian price, count, and musical composer who lived from the mid-1560s to the early 1610s. shepherd regals the circle of listeners with tales of the nobleman’s bloody revenge against his adulterous wife and her lover—a theme that finds numerous variations throughout this literary suspense novel.

in the lead up to the Great War, shepherd is vocal about his long-held dislike of german music. jessold, less antagonistic towards foreign composers, states that he’d like to restore england’s reputation with a world-class symphony.

inspiration comes when the two are away for the weekend at shepherd’s cottage. while escaping a passing rainstorm in a shed on the side of the road they meet a poor farmer who also comes to get out of the downpour. trapped and restless jessold asks the man to sing something. the farmer can think of only one tune, little musgrave, an ancient ballad about a lord who goes out hunting. the lyrics speak of a philandering wife who takes the opportunity to meet with her lover. her husband’s page walks in on the two, runs out into the woods to tell the lord, and as with the story of gesualdo, the lord returns to kill his wife and her lover; only in this version the husband kills himself as well.

the farmer’s voice and the familiar story energize both jessold and shepherd and the two immediately embark on their grand project of reviving england from its lowly musical status—but just as quickly as their elation takes hold, so does jessold begin to show his destructive nature.


reading like a post-modern meta-drama, charles jessold, considered as a murderer is an expertly-crafted, linguistic symphony of layers whose profundity increases with the turn of every page. stace, also a talented musician who performs under the pseudonym John Wesley Harding, is an accomplished composer of notes and words.

:: [dig deeper] ::
wesley stace’s website: listen to his music, watch the humorous book trailer with eugene merman, and find an upcoming event in your area

if you were inspired by this story to learn more about classical music, check out new york times’ chief music critic anthony tommasini’s choices for top greatest composers: read the first article and then continue on to the rest, collected on the arts beat blog

vocab list
as a lover of the english language, this book was a breeding ground for new and underused vocabulary. there are few pages that escaped my pen—the neurotic circling of words to add to my database. here are a few that caught my eye.

puerile (adj.): juvenile
torpid (adj.): lacking in energy or vigor
inveigled (v.): to win over by wiles; entice
surfeit (n.): an overabundant supply; excess
shambolic (adj.): obviously disorganized or confused (chiefly british)
postprandial (adj.): occuring after a meal
idyll (n.): a narrative poem
tetchily (adj.): touchy, testy
inchoate (adj.): imperfectly formed; formless
ossia (n.): a musical term for an alternative passage which may be played instead of the original passage
fripperies (n.): something showy, frivolous, or nonessential
insouciance (n.): lighthearted unconcern; nonchalance
frisson (n.): a brief moment of emotional excitement
raconteur (n.): a person who excels in telling anecdotes
gamine (n.): a small playfully mischievous girl
mirth (n.): gladness or gaiety as shown by or accompanied with laughter
truculent (adj.): feeling or displaying ferocity
effusion (n.): unrestrained expression of words or feelings
redolent (adj.): exuding fragrance
puce (n.): a dark red
sibilant  (adj.): having, containing, or producing the sound of or a sound resembling that of the s or the sh in sash
prurient (adj.): marked by or arousing an immoderate or unwholesome interest or desire
fulsome (adj.): characterized by abundance
panegyric (n.): a eulogistic oration or writing
passacaglia (n.): an instrumental musical composition consisting of variations usually on a ground bass in moderately slow triple time
emendation (n.): an alteration designed to correct or improve
subterfuge (n.): a deceptive device
desideratum (n.): something desired as essential


Written by Gabrielle

February 2, 2011 at 9:15 am

Posted in books

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  1. […] wesley stace :: elegant maestro. […]

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