Saturday, 2 April 2016


Schubert’s HUNGARIAN MELODY appears several times in the book, a motif that links past and present. When I wrote The Afrika Reich I also wrote extensive backstories for the characters, including Burton and Madeleine’s first meeting. I decided that Madeleine should be playing the piano at that moment. But what music?

A contemporary song seemed out of keeping with her character, so it would have to be something classical. Certain clichés came to mind – such as the ‘Moonlight Sonata’ or Rachmaninoff – but I wanted something more unusual. I toyed with the second movement of Shostakovich’s Second Piano Concerto, though this presented all sorts of alternative history problems because the piece wasn’t composed until 1957, more than a decade after the USSR had been defeated by the Nazis in my world. Which begs the question, what would have happened to Dmitri in this new world order? I can’t say, though even if he had survived I doubt there would have been much time for music in what was left of Russia. I often get asked arcane questions like this by readers: what would have happened to so-and-so, how would such-and-such event have played out? Mostly I have to wing it or admit I don’t know. Although I’ve constructed the immediate alternative history of my world, I don’t have an exhaustive store of knowledge for every person or event post-1940!

I digress.

Since the scene where Burton and Madeleine meet for the first time wasn’t in Afrika Reich, I didn’t need any more detail than ‘Madeleine is playing the piano’, so I put the question to one side. When I started the first draft of The Madagaskar Plan I happened to be listening to Woman’s Hour [a daily radio programme on the BBC for foreigner readers of the blog] where Imogen Cooper was being interviewed about her latest CD: a collection of Schubert’s piano works. She played ‘The Hungarian Melody’. I heard it only once – but it was an instant earworm and I couldn’t get the tune out of my head for days.

There’s no deeper significance to it appearing in the book than that. As much as I like to build layers of references sometimes details arrive through whimsy or happenstance – and nothing more.

If you’re not familiar with ‘The Hungarian Melody’ you must listen to it. It’s a wonderful piece, mischievous and melancholy. You can find a recording of it here:

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