I'm writing about the first ever muzak

Work in Progress; Rose Tremain, novelist
In brief: I am working on a novel provisionally called The Music of Silence. It is set in Denmark in the early part of the 17th century at the court of King Christian IV. It is a story about an English musician, a lutenist, who joins the royal orchestra and has to submit to Christian's extremely eccentric treatment of his musicians.

Inspiration: It is built around an apocryphal story I heard when I was in Denmark some years ago. Christian was a mercurial king, rather like King Henry VIII, alternating between great passion and great loathing. He would make his musicians play in a freezing cellar underneath the royal apartments and he installed hidden pipes and ducts which carried the music up into the state rooms. Visiting dignitaries and ambassadors would marvel at where the music was coming from. It was the first muzak, circa 1629. When Christian felt tired of the sound, he would kick a trapdoor shut and the down draft from the door would blow out the musicians' candles and leave them in the dark.

Story: The heart of it is a Romeo and Juliet story of two young people, one of whom is my English lutenist, and the other is a young girl who works in the palace. They fall in love but are separated by the tyrannies of the people they serve, and so they have to try to find each other again against great odds.

Style: The book is what people would term a historical novel, but I am very uncomfortable with that term. It suggests that it will be escapist or light-hearted - all the things which historical novel writing can be. I would describe it as historical-transcendent. That is to say, where the ideas transcend the historical setting and speak loudly across time.

Subject matter: I love the idea of the powerful man in the lighted room and the creative people in the darkness. This is what the book is trying to be about, these states of opposition: the dark of the cellar and the light of the rooms above, and then the music made by the orchestra and the silence in which they were left. More generally, there is innocence and corruption, and youth and age. We are always in thrall to alternating, opposing states. It is something we are endlessly having to accommodate, particularly in the late 20th century, when life is moving so fast and nothing is stable.

Finally: The story is a legend and some people say that it never actually happened, that the musicians were in the summer house, or that there was a cellar, but it only happened once. There are many versions of it, but I like the original version that I heard. That is my story and I am sticking to it.

Interview By

Nick Fearn