The Bellwether Revivals – book reading

Birkbeck creative writing lecturer Benjamin Wood’s debut novel The Bellwether Revivals (Simon & Schuster) was published in February this year, and is currently longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize. The Guardian praised it as “an accomplished novel, suffused with intelligence and integrity.” Here, Benjamin outlines the musical themes at the heart of the book, from which he will read at a special Hubbub event for Arts Week on Monday 14th May 2012.

My relationship with music has always been more visceral than intellectual. By that I mean I was drawn to teaching myself to play an instrument as a teenager, not because I wanted to comprehend the mechanics of music, but because I saw it as emotional release. In some of the most difficult periods of my life—as I’m sure is the case for most people—I have sought consolation in music, be it the mournful hush of a Jeff Buckley vocal, the skin-prickling harmonies of a church choir, or the searing hum of Bach’s cello suites. The impact a piece of music can have on our state of being—how a simple melody can comfort and relieve us, elevate our spirits, and bring memories as vivid as any picture to the surface of our minds—is what The Bellwether Revivals aims to explore.

In writing the novel, I wanted to find out if the redemptive power of music could be explained in definite terms. And so I began reading into music theory and got acquainted with the more cerebral aspects of music that I’d skirted around in my younger days. The themes within The Bellwether Revivals began to emerge when I discovered the writings of the largely forgotten Baroque composer, Johann Mattheson. I approached the novel wanting to build a story around a character who claims to be able to manipulate the properties of music for healing effects, and, before long, I conceived of Eden Bellwether, a gifted organ scholar at King’s College, Cambridge, who is inspired by Mattheson’s theories. I was also intrigued by the idea of what full-blooded commitment to honing musical technique might do to a boy and his family, the rivalry and tensions this could create amongst them, and how such profound musical talent might alter a person’s perspective on the world.

Through his skill and scholarship, Eden finds a way to connect the theoretical foundations of music with its more elusive, visceral powers—for Eden, the sadness we feel when we hear a sad song is something that can be designed and controlled by the composer. The lives of the characters in The Bellwether Revivals hinge upon how much they believe in the restorative properties of Eden’s music. The book investigates what might happen if the refrain of a cello, or the sound of a church organ, or the swell of voices singing in harmony, could hold more influence over us than we ever expected.

For more details on Benjamin Wood, you can visit his website at:

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