Music Notes

Music is an important element running through Mary Doria Russell’s novels. Here are her own comments. All the page numbers below refer to Ballantine trade paperbacks published in the United States.

While I’m actively writing, I need silence in the room so I can hear what my imaginary friends are saying. However, during the years it takes to complete a novel, there is always some sort of music I listen to obsessively. That music finds its way into the novels.


If you’ve seen the movie Tombstone, there is a scene where Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday plays Chopin’s Nocturne No. 19 in a saloon. Here is amateur pianist playing it on a piano that sounds slightly better than the one in the movie.

John Henry Holliday did in fact play classical piano, and the novel Doc is framed by Beethoven’s 5th Piano Concerto, popularly known as The Emperor. Doc would not have had an orchestra behind him; orchestral pieces were commonly transcribed for solo piano in the 19th century.

There is an extraordinary physical resemblance between photos of John Henry Holliday and the young Glenn Gould. Again: I make no claim that Doc played at this level, but this was the video clip I watched while imagining him at the piano. Mr. Gould is playing the Bach Keyboard Concerto  No. 1 in D minor, BWV 1052.

In the chapter “Wild Card,” Doc plays several pieces by Chopin for the Wright family. I chose these pieces to demonstrate his longing for the beauty and sophistication of the world from which he came, in contrast to the raw frontier on which he found himself after 1872.

In this scene, he begins with the Fantasy Impromptu, “to show off for the children.”

Next he plays the B-Flat Minor Nocturne, with “its slow, watery, tidal movement, like dawn on the Georgia coast.”

He goes on to the Polonaise in F-Sharp Minor, Op. 26, “which began with a bang, but floated toward a lovely quiet conclusion…”

And he ends his little recital with the A-minor Waltz, op. 34 No. 2, “graceful and willowy and almost unbearably sad.”

On a personal note:

Doc’s mother, Alice Jane Holliday, was his piano teacher. I am pleased to report that she has inspired another student to study the instrument, 145 years after her death. After I sent the completed manuscript to Random House in March of 2010, I celebrated by buying myself a piano. I began taking lessons at the age of 59 — because it was already 55 years too late to start when I was four.

Thank you kindly, Miss Alice.

The Sparrow

I had no specific song in mind when Sophia Mendes and Emilio Sandoz sang their duet [The Sparrow, pp. 86-87], but here are examples of Ladino songs they might have been singing.

For those of you who speak Spanish, here is more on the Ladino dialect, which preserves the language of Spain in 1492 mixed with Hebrew.

Several years after The Sparrow was published, my uncle Fred Doria (of blessed memory) announced that he had discovered the alien music and poetry of Hlavin Kitheri, and I must agree.

Only about 30 second of the song is included in the Bladerunner, so it’s hard to catch unless you’re paying close attention, but this is the full cut. The title is Tales of the Future, composed by Vangelis. The singer is Demis Roussos, an ethnic Greek born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt.

While the song doesn’t match the description of the alien music in the book, there is something about the length of the lines and the shifting meter and harmony that is both unpredictable and immediately involving emotionally. That’s precisely the effect I imaged the alien song having while I was writing [The Sparrow, pp. 90-91].

While working on The Sparrow, I wore the oxide off a cassette of Van Halen’s 5150, and referenced it on page 309. “Alan Pace had given a great deal of thought to the music he would first present to the singers to represent human culture. The subtle mathematical joys of a Bach cantata, the thrilling harmonies of the sextet from Lucia di Lammermoor…

…the quiet evocative beauties of Saint-Saens, the majesty of a Beethoven symphony, the inspired perfection of a Mozart quartet… In the event, what Supaari heard was the rhythmic power, soaring vocals and instrumental virtuosity Van Halen’s arena rock masterpiece, 5150.”

The cut  is Best of Both Worlds.

Children of God

While writing Children of God, the CD in my car was Robbie Robertson’s self-titled first solo album. I played the final cut over and over to keep myself inside Emilio’s fury and pain, which carries over from the end of The Sparrow into the sequel. The raw intensity of Testimony fit Emilio’s emotions. Notice that Nat-Am tom-tom beat below the astonishing drumwork — brilliant stuff! Bono sings backup and Testimony appears on both “Robbie Robertson”  and on Bono’s “Complete Solo Projects.”

If the Russell-Hall screen adaptation of The Sparrow is ever produced, I think Testimony would be perfect over the credits at the end. The lyrics are eerily apt:

Come bear witness, the half-breed rides again…
In these hands, I’ve held the broken dream
In my soul, I’m howling at the moon

Robbie Robertson – Testimony Lyrics @

The later line, “Come bear witness, I’ve danced among the ruins,” was echoed on page 37 of Children of God, when Gelasius III tells Emilio, “God is waiting for you, in the ruins.”

Music appears directly in CoG through the character Nico, the strangely sweet thug who beats Emilio up but feels bad about it afterwards. Nico has a high, pure voice and a naïve love of opera. He sings what pleases him, whether it is for tenor or soprano. Here are links to a couple of the arias mentioned in the book.

Questa o quella:

O mio babbino caro

Nico called it “O mio bambino caro,” perhaps because he heard it wrong or perhaps – ahem – because the author of Children of God got it wrong.

On page 399, Nico sings “a song that was surely the most beautiful [Emilio] had ever heard… The melody was … supple and serene, rising like a soul in flight, obeying some hidden law…” Nico is singing Beim Schlafengehen – Time to Sleep – one of Strauss’s Four Last Songs. Nico wouldn’t have sung it in real German – he’d have done the best he could phonetically. Here is a link to the performance by the great Kiri Te Kanawa, whose glorious, creamy soprano always brings me to tears:

A Thread of Grace

Opera continued to be a part of my life while writing this story, which takes place in Italy during World War II. The most important moment of music in this book is on page 218, when the boys of the San Mauro Brigade sing Nessun Dorma, the aria that became the trademark of the late Luciano Pavarotti. Here he is in performance:

Nessun dorma” means “No one sleeps,” an appropriate song for sentries. It ends with the stirring declaration of triumph, “Vincero!” Listening to the young partisans sing, their leader thinks, “The Germans have Tiger tanks… but these boys have Turandot and courage and history on their side.”

Dreamers of the Day

This book is an anomaly in several ways. It is a first-person narrative; it’s more autobiographical than any of the other novels; and music played a smaller part in its writing and its story.

However, T.E. Lawrence was in fact an early audiophile. As stated on page 240, he was particularly fond of Mahler’s 9th Symphony.

Here is a link to the 3rd movement, described on page 241. “Unless you’ve struggled to understand the third movement – with its pileup of polyphony and crazy complexity that nearly tips into madness – well, I don’t think you can truly appreciate the beauty and consolation of the fourth movement.”

I had never listened to Mahler prior to learning of Lawrence’s devotion to this composer, but I’m starting to enjoy this symphony.

You can hear an interview about the music in Mary Doria Russell’s novels entitled, “Listen, punk. Hysteria is the best rock album ever made, and don’t you forget it!” with Mitch Hanley:


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That phone interview was a follow-up to a hour-long interview with Mary by Krista Tippet on the radio show Speaking of Faith

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By the way, Doria is pronounced DOOR-ee-ah, not door-EE-ah.


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