Skip to content

A James Ellroy Playlist: Composure

April 15, 2021

Classical music is one of James Ellroy’s greatest passions, and his novels are littered with references to it. For my latest piece on Ellroy and music, I am going to examine the personalities of two of Ellroy’s favourite composers and look at how their obsessions influenced his writing.

Anton Bruckner

In Brown’s Requiem, the lead character Fritz Brown, a repo-man cum private detective, is an admirer of the Austrian composer Anton Bruckner: ‘I heard the Bruckner Third the other night on KUSC. Haitink and the Concertgebouw. Lonely Anton at his peak.’ He takes inspiration from Bruckner’s chaste dedication to his craft, although Brown is too worldly a man for abstinence. He is addicted to booze and women. His admiration for Bruckner’s ideals, yet failure to adhere to them, haunts him in his final confrontation with the antagonist Haywood Cathcart. Having tracked the vicious killer Cathcart to his house in Del Mar, Brown holds him at gunpoint. Rather than beg for his life, the wounded Cathcart asks Brown to look inside his desk drawer. To his surprise, in the drawer Brown finds two ‘loving mounted likenesses of Anton Bruckner’. Cathcart proceeds to lecture Brown on Bruckner’s character:

You love Bruckner. But you don’t understand him. What his music meant. It’s about containment. Refined emotions. Sacrifice. Purity. Control. Duty. The muted melancholy throughout his symphonies! A call to arms. A policeman who loves Bruckner and you can’t feel his essence. He never wed, Brown. He never fucked women. He wouldn’t expend one ounce of his creative energy on anything but his vision. I have been Anton Bruckner, Brown. You can be, too.

Brown shoots Cathcart dead before he can continue his speech. He is emotionally devastated that a morally repugnant man like Cathcart could love Bruckner’s music as much as he does, and even understand it better. All of which might seem highly unlikely and overwritten for a crime novel. But, if you adore Ellroy’s early novels as much as I do, you can admire how Ellroy the young writer, newly sober and rebuilding his life, is emotionally engaging on a very pure level with Bruckner’s music and his Romantic ideals.

Here is Bruckner’s Symphony No.3 in D minor, conducted by Bernard Haitink for the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Listen to this while you chew over the ideals of ‘lonely Anton’. Just don’t get upset if someone you can’t abide enjoys Bruckner’s music just as much you do!

Ludwig van Beethoven

Probably no other composer has been as influential on Ellroy’s life as Beethoven. He first heard the composer’s work in junior high school, ‘One day in class Hines (his art teacher) dropped a needle on a record. “Da-da-da dunnn. Over! It was just over. Immediately.”’ Ellroy still keeps a bust of Beethoven on his writing desk. In an interview I conducted with Ellroy, the author talked at length about his admiration for Beethoven:

What I love is the worse it got, the greater he got. In his famous quote when he started to go deaf, “I will take fate by the throat.” It’s just almost unfathomable courage. And the older he got, and he was dead at fifty-six, the more unfathomable and great and uncategorisable his music.

“I will take fate by the throat” became the epigraph to Ellroy’s memoir The Hilliker Curse. Ellroy alludes to parallels between his life and Beethoven’s in that when things went bad for Ellroy from 2001 onwards – the nervous breakdown, addiction issues, affairs and divorce he details in Hilliker Curse – artistically things started to get better. After recovering from this emotional meltdown, Ellroy wrote his comeback novel, Blood’s a Rover, which is among his most critically acclaimed. It features two female characters who could be considered Ellrovian versions of Beethoven’s ‘Immortal Beloved’. The Immortal Beloved was the addressee of a love letter Beethoven wrote in 1812. For years scholars have debated the identity of the woman Beethoven was writing to, and it has even inspired a feature film. In Blood’s a Rover, ‘Comrade’ Joan Rosen Klein and Karen Sifakis are based on real women Ellroy became romantically involved with. The dedication reads, ‘To J.M. Comrade: For Everything You Gave Me’. In the novel, FBI agent Dwight Holly is having an affair with the married and pregnant Karen. He drives by her house at night, to catch a glimpse of her domestic life which he can never fully call his own, ‘She’d sense him on the terrace and blast Beethoven string quartets. She’d leave a kitchen light on to pinpoint the sound.’

I tend to associate Beethoven with Eurythmics, and Annie Lennox would be many a man’s Immortal Beloved. In Hilliker Curse, Ellroy describes his crush on the ‘mesmeric mezzo’ Anne Sofie von Otter. He owns several posters of her over the years, one of which was gnarled to pieces by his dog Barko. Embedded below is von Otter singing Beethoven’s ‘An die Geliebte’ (To the beloved), which the musicologist Maynard Solomon has argued must be dedicated to the same woman of the Immortal Beloved letter. Enjoy this lieder while you think of your own Immortal Beloved:

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Dan permalink
    April 15, 2021 9:45 pm

    I’m not very knowledgeable in classical music but have always appreciated the references in Ellroy’s work. I distinctly remember Lt. Cathcart’s obsession with Bruckner in Brown’s Requiem and noticed that Dudley is a Bruckner fan in Perfidia. Between that and Cathcart’s obsession with “containment” I have my own fan theory of Cathcart as one of Dudley’s infamous protégés even years after Dud’s forced retirement.

    • April 16, 2021 6:47 am

      Hi Dan, I was never a classical music buff but I’ve started to listen to a lot of pieces which are referenced in Ellroy’s work. Another gift the Dog has given me! I’d forgotten Dudley mentions that he’s a fan in Perfidia. Jim Mancal, in his book on Ellroy, points out that the Nazis were admirers of Bruckner. If Ellroy could link the present Quartet to Brown’s Requiem, Lloyd Hopkins etc then that would be quite the achievement. After all, Dud is already in Clandestine! Of course, he is speaking about his own daughter when he describes the Dahlia case to Underhill!

  2. Dan permalink
    April 16, 2021 11:03 am

    Yes, I love the Jim Mancal reference book and would be great to see an updated version that includes the Second Quartet and other recent work. I’ve always wanted to see a follow-up to the epilogue in White Jazz where Dave Klein is heading back to LA to settle scores. The timeline would most likely be the late 70’s or early 80’s when most of the early novels are set. It would be a great end piece to Ellroy’s entire body of work and a way to bring his early stuff closer to “canon”.


  1. A James Ellroy Playlist: Golden Oldies | The Venetian Vase

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: