An interview with Julian Barnes and Angela Hewitt

An interview with Julian Barnes and Angela Hewitt

Tue 12 Nov 2019 1:11 PM

Award-winning author Julian Barnes and internationally renowned pianist Angela Hewitt are joining forces for an inspiring evening of prose, poetry and classical music at The British Institute of Florence this December.

Barnes, whose novel The Sense of an Ending garnered him the Man Booker Prize in 2011, will read literary selections by himself and others, sensitively paired with pieces performed by Hewitt, a Bach specialist. First brought together by their mutual friend Ian McEwan, the duo have an incisive understanding for how words and music can imbue each other with further significance, depth and nuance. Here, Barnes and Hewitt reveal more about the evening and their own careers.

Jane Farrell: What is it that makes music and literature blend so well?

Angela Hewitt: Music heightens any experience. To combine it with an expressive reading of a poem or extract from a novel is to bring another dimension to both, doubly stimulating the listener’s imagination. Often a reading can bring out something in a piece of music that the listener might otherwise not have grasped, and vice versa. Many authors have an excellent sense of what music is trying to express or the effect it has on people, and so to listen to their words and then hear a work which is somehow related is a moving experience. Composers have always been strongly influenced by literature and I think would be delighted to hear their work in conjunction with poetry or writings that inspired them.

Julian Barnes: I agree with what Angela says, though it’s also true that literature has inspired more great music than the other way around. When Angela and I first started this project and were looking for poetry and prose about music, we were struck by how there aren’t many great and extended passages of literature about music. There are quite a lot of (often indifferent) poems about music, while in novels music is mainly used in a decorative or scene-setting way, rather than centrally approached. E.M. Forster is an exception and his account in Where Angels Fear to Tread of a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor in a provincial Italian opera house is hilarious.

Angela Hewitt in concert

JF: What can we expect to come away with from your musical and literary evening?

AH: Well, first of all, it’s a rare thing that Julian and I are able to get together to give such an evening, so I hope it will be seen as a very special event, as it will no doubt be for us! Julian has a very personal way of drawing his audience in, and I’m sure the audience will feel that they’ve just had the enormous privilege of getting to know him. He will read from his own writings, but also poems that we have chosen together, with music to match. It’s not something you get to hear every day!

JB: I hope you discover some pieces of music, and some pieces of literature, that you don’t know, and that their conjunction will be stimulating. I always feel that Angela does more of the work in these events (she is playing for about three times longer than I am reading) and that she should get 75 per cent of the praise (and applause).

JF: If you could tell your younger self something, what would it be?

AH: I would say, “Someday you’re going to have a home in Umbria, so learn Italian now when you’re a kid and when it’s easy to learn a language!” Though I learned French from the time I was quite young, so that’s my second language. Unfortunately, my school didn’t offer lessons in Italian—only Spanish and German which I also studied, along with Latin.

JF: Can you tell me about an early experience where you learned that language has power?

JB: The main power language can have is the power of truth, but also the power to transport the reader to a different place and time. When I was at school we were obliged to dress up once a week as soldiers (extremely embarrassing to go to school by London Underground, as I did, all in khaki), and every so often we went on “field day”, where we pretended to be at war. It was absurd and excruciating and very boring. I remember one field day where, at lunchtime, I took out of my pack my copy of Crime and Punishment, which I was then reading. What was happening within it seemed to me entirely true and entirely present and entirely important; whereas what was happening all around me—men and boys playing at soldiers—seemed like fiction, and bad fiction at that.

JF: What have you learned about yourself throughout your musical career?

AH: Everything. I think being a musician and especially a concert pianist is a lifelong lesson in getting to know yourself. You have to spend hours, days, probably years alone—learning how to play your instrument, travelling the world, coping with performing 100 or more concerts a year, living a life alongside that. A tutor at the British School of Osteopathy years ago told me, when I said that I was a concert pianist, that there is no profession more stressful. But that he understood why I did it. I know I’m disciplined, organized, and that surviving the difficult times have made me strong, but especially that everything I experience in my life goes into my interpretations at the piano.

Award-winning author Julian Barnes

JF: What do you find most inspiring about Florence?

JB: I’ve been to Florence many times and my favourite place is the convent of San Marco. The mixture of the architecture and, especially, the work of Fra Angelico produce a serenity which is raised to a kind of truth. If any building could convert me to Christianity, it would be this one.

JF: What keeps bringing you back to this city?

AH: Mostly the fact that the Amici della Musica in Florence have asked me to play every year for over 15 years now, and at the moment I’m finishing my Bach Odyssey for them (the complete solo works of Bach in 12 recitals) at the Teatro della Pergola. I rarely manage to be a tourist in Florence, but am always happy when I can grab an hour here and there between concerts! It will be a pleasure to meet new people on the occasion of this recital with Julian.

JF: What has been your favourite book to write and why?

JB: I’ve never really thought about that question, probably because I’ve never been asked it before. When you finish a book, the actual process of writing it—the highs and lows, the joys and fears—tends to be wiped. It is what it has become, and there is nothing to be done about it either way. Instead, you concentrate on how the book works once it is out in the world. Having said that, I do often dream of writing a book where the first line, paragraph, chapter come to me as if readymade (yet stunningly original) and I write the whole thing from start to finish in one seamless swoop. And I automatically think then of the very start of Beethoven’s Spring sonata, where the violin and piano spin a melody which feels more as if it were part of the natural than the human world. If only I could start a book like that, and continue in that vein. (But of course, I have no idea if that opening came easily to Beethoven, or if he had to work hard to get it right.) So, it will doubtless remain a fantasy, and I shall continue to write books in a non-linear way, dashing about from section to section, and often only finding the opening of the book halfway through the writing of it.

Angela Hewitt and Julian Barnes will perform together at a special Fundraising Gala for The British Institute of Florence Library at Palazzo Lanfredini, lungarno Guicciardini 9, on December 10. See for more details.

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