Cornelia Funke | My Music: ‘Music is the most perfect time machine’

Monday, March 29, 2021

The children’s author on the relationship between music and her writing

[illusstration: Philip Bannister]
[illusstration: Philip Bannister]

I was often enchanted by the human voice, whether it’s reading aloud or singing. But when I started writing seriously, very soon the only music I could listen to while writing was Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier – a different kind of music, almost like a massage of the brain while you’re writing. Then later on, the more and more I fell in love with classical music, I really chose to listen to music related to the book I was writing – what period of time is it set in, what atmosphere do I want to evoke? When I wrote the Inkheart series, which is set in a fictional Middle Age, I listened to troubadour music, and – though he is too late – to Henry Purcell. When I was writing the Reckless series, set in the 19th century, I mainly listened to music of that era, because as we know, music is the most perfect time machine.

‘When writing, it’s very hard for me to listen to modern music – I can do that when illustrating – but often the emotional impact is of a different nature and distracts me too much from what I’m doing’


With Bach I mostly listened to Glenn Gould, who is humming and singing while playing, so there was always a very human presence while I was listening. Whereas for Purcell I always love to listen to his operas, to The Fairy Queen, and King Arthur, and especially Dido and Aeneas, and funnily I could always cope with the singing. I wonder how much of Purcell slowly seeped into the writing as I was so, so enchanted by his music.

When writing, it’s very hard for me to listen to modern music – I can do that when illustrating – but often the emotional impact is of a different nature and distracts me too much from what I’m doing. Whereas, interestingly, even the most intense classical music somehow always feels to me that it melts into what I’m doing and doesn’t contradict it or fight it for my attention.

I like to let my readers know now what I am listening to, and have given a few interviews about it. Teenagers and children ask ‘Do you listen to music?’, and so I give them these names they’ve never heard before. It’s a wonderful thing when you work with young adults as much as I do to give them that inspiration, and say ‘I know this may sound strange and unfamiliar’, but because it’s connected with me, they give it a try.

I have an old avocado farm in Malibu which I’m currently building into a place where young artists can come and have a little residency – illustrators, writers and musicians. I just had a workshop there run by the cellist Matt Haimowitz with four young cellists aged between 19 and 26 from the East Coast and Canada. And it was the first time that young musicians stayed. I could hear the cellos from all sides of the property, and then they even gave a little concert for friends of mine.

My friendship with Matt Haimowitz came about through a child – in my experience the most important things happen that way. The son of Lisa Delan, a wonderful American soprano who works with Matt and his wife Luna a lot, suggested, when they were thinking about a lullaby project for children, to introduce them to classical music through a story: ‘Why don’t you ask Cornelia Funke to write the story as I love her books?’ It sounded like a wonderful project so I asked what music they had in mind. When they sent me the selection I first of all said ‘This is impossible, this is a selection about life and death and heartbreak – that’s not exactly what I would write for four-year-old children!’ But then I locked myself into my writing house for a weekend and said ‘OK, this is an impossible task but, as with all impossible tasks, you have to try’. And the story – which became Angel Heart – came so easily, so playfully that I almost did not have to work.

I’ve been working with Matt on a new project. He broke his cello more than a year ago. He had an accident when he was giving a lesson on a Poulenc piece, he stumbled and fell, and the cello’s neck broke. He was of course absolutely traumatised, the cello was a part of him since he was a boy. So he called me and said this strange thing happened – and there is a story in this. So we started working on it half a year ago, just meeting from time to time. I want this piece to be about the connection that creativity forms between an instrument and a human being – the connection we make with music.

This article originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Gramophone. Never miss an issue – subscribe today

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