For the Love of Sound and Music

The Bells by Richard Harvell ★★★★

This historical fiction novel tells the story of Moses Froben, born in the mid 18th century to a deaf-mute woman who rang the “Loudest Bells on Earth” atop a small church in the mountains of Switzerland. Those who got too close to the church lost their hearing, but not so Moses, who spent his life directly under the bells and from the earliest age was able to isolate sounds and hear things not audible to the average person. When the local priest learns that Moses in not in fact deaf like his mother and is therefore aware of mortal sins he has committed, he attempts to drown the boy. Moses is saved by two Monks who bring him back with them to the Abbey of St. Gall against the Abbott’s wishes, and he soon joins the boy’s choir when his exceptional voice is discovered. The choirmaster, obsessed with his gift, takes him under his wing until one day he has Moses castrated against his will in order to preserve his voice. When the Abbott eventually learns of this sacrilegious deed, he gives Moses a choice: he can stay at the abbey as a novice if he agrees never to sing again, or he will be cast out into the world and starve. Moses agrees to stay, but as he grows older, love prompts him to break all the rules, and when he learns that his beloved has been married off to a rich merchant from Vienna, the young castrato* makes his way to the Austrian city to find his beloved.

Musici, or castrati, were superstars and sex-symbols during that period, when throngs of men and women fought to get a glimpse of their smooth faces and unusually developed physiques. Moses already had dreams of becoming a famous opera singer before arriving in the city and he gets close to realizing his dreams when the most idolized musico* in Vienna decides to take him on as his disciple. But his love for singing is only equal to his love for the young woman he has followed there. Moses is willing to take any risk to win her back again, and here, an even louder bell than that which he was born under will help him win back his heart’s desire.

I greatly enjoyed this novel. The first person account of how Moses came to be one of the greatest singers of his time is well-paced and filled with adventure. One can’t help but feel sympathy for this boy who is at the heart of a story about great passions, and one about great losses as well. There were many unlikely details great and small throughout, but I was willing to overlook them for the sake of an entertaining story that touched my heart and made it difficult for me to put this book down.

*A castrato (Italian, plural: castrati) is a man with a singing voice equivalent to that of a soprano, mezzo-soprano, or contralto voice produced either by castration of the singer before puberty or one who, because of an endocrinological condition, never reaches sexual maturity. Castrati were rarely referred to as such: in the 18th century, the euphemism musico (pl musici) was generally used, although it usually carried derogatory implications.

Click here to hear a recording of modern-day male soprano Radu Marian singing
a beautiful rendition of Antonio Maria Bononcini’s Vorrei pupille belle.

This review can also be found on LibraryThing.


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