PSO Book Club: Winter Fire by Trotter – Meeting Sibelius in the forest

Snow and branches

Every month in the music department of the main branch of the Carnegie Library in Oakland, a group of music lovers gathers to discuss a book as part of the Pittsburgh Symphony Book Club. And this month, Jim Cunningham (WQED) along with Paul Silver (PSO: viola) led the discussion on Winter Fire by William Trotter.

Winter Fire follows a WWII German officer named Erich Ziegler as he serves the German Army in Norway and the Eastern Front. He is an infantry officer, who in his civilian life is a conductor. In particular, he had written an article on Jean Sibelius, the Finnish composer who was the pride of Finland. And after a period of exemplary service, he was tapped by German Army Intelligence to serve as what in the U.S. Army is known as a Foreign Area Officer, based on his expertise and special knowledge of Finnish culture. His stated mission: To ingratiate himself into Finnish society and take the pulse of Finnish leadership and military on their commitment to being allies of Nazi Germany in WWII.

In the course of his duties he is attached to a Finnish unit near the front. And he finds the wartime refuge of Sibelius. Over the course of the book, he is welcomed into the Sibelius household, falls in love, and develops deep relationships with the Finns he serves with. As the tide of war turns against Germany, he is buffeted by political forces including Nazi party members, officials more interested in promoting their careers and image then in accurate representation of the war to Hitler, and in the end, Sibelius and his Finnish hosts offer Ziegler refuge against the fall as Nazi Germany collapses, despite the Finns pledge to their new Soviet and Western Allies to expel the Germans in the last stages of World War II.

The book is of music and war, two topics that do not seem to go together. What we do see is how in both professions, Erich has to experience it intensely. When he in the combat front, every lapse of concentration has consequence, and in particularly intense areas this intensity can be debilitating. The intensity also opens him to moments where he becomes one with his environment, and his Finn comrades note that he becomes much like the Finns.

Similarly in his artistic experiences are intense. Being a conductor working with a new score, absorbing it and imagining what it can become. And with a new orchestra, turning that image into a reality. And the highs and lows of doing this, and being buffeted by his political environment of a depraved Nazi Germany where, just as has been documented in many other forms, the closer you get to Hitler the more craven officials become.

But a person can only maintain levels of intensity for so long. In this book Erich goes between the intensity of the combat front and instead of the breaks his comrades in arms would get when their units were rotated away from the front, he dives into the intensity of his art and political conflict.

In the end, a dream that Erich has been hoping for over a large part of the book is being denied. But another dream is being offered in its place. The Finns who have been alongside Erich through triumph and disappointment through the course of the war offer Erich refuge and hope for the future. And one after another, they present their dreams of a future for Erich. But it is not Erich’s dream, and he has to decide if he can come to terms of a dream denied.

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