Wednesday, June 19, 2013

10 Novels Classical Musicians Will Love

In 2001, an award-winning author named Ann Patchett published the wildly popular novel, Bel Canto, the story of a group of hostages in an unnamed country, including an opera singer. But for those who know anything about classical music, the repertoire choices of this singer are a bit... odd. Most opera singers will be able to immediately identify the singers that Patchett was listening to because the repertoire choices are so very idiosyncratic - Renee Fleming with a soupcon of Maria Callas. The singer in the book, Roxane, seems to be endowed, like Willy the Whale, with at least two different sets of pipes. For most people, it doesn't matter because most people wouldn't sit there wondering why on earth this woman is singing Rusalka, Carmen, and Gilda. But for those of us who do wonder, here is a list of great novels about music and musicians that musicians will love.

Lucy Gayheart and The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather
Lucy Gayheart tells the story of a young music student who gets a chance to work with a world-class singer, when his usual collaborative pianist is ill. The novel is quietly romantic and its rehearsal scenes are excellent. The Song of the Lark, a significantly longer work is about Thea Kronberg, an ambitious young musician, and her long, slow climb to the brink of a career. Cather cultivated friendships with musicians and her extensive knowledge lends a sense of verisimilitude, lacking in so many other authors' efforts. Both novels are also moving coming-of-age stories.

The Lyre of Orpheus and A Mixture of Frailties, by Robertson Davies
The Lyre of Orpheus is about the composition of an opera, written from a myriad of perspectives, from the composer to the librettist to the men funding the project. It's a fascinating account of one of the most complex of all artistic collaborations. A Mixture of Frailties is about a young Canadian singer who gets a chance to study in Europe, where she meets a troubled composer in the midst of writing an operatic version of Apuleius's The Golden Ass. Towards the end of his life, Davies himself would in fact write a libretto for an opera entitled The Golden Ass, set to a score by Randolph Peters.

The Girl who Trod on a Loaf, by Kathryn Davis
Davis's novel is about the friendship between Frances, a single mother, and Helle, a Danish composer whose last, unfinished opera, is a setting of the Hans Christian Andersen story that share its title with the novel. Interwoven within the chronological narrative is a fascinating version of the Andersen fairy tale. The novel is intense and disturbing, as much about the composition of one's own life as the composition of an opera.

A Small Rain and The Severed Wasp, by Madeleine L'Engle
A Small Rain tells the story of teenaged pianist Katherine; The Severed Wasp returns to Katherine when she is in her seventies, just returning to New York after a European concert tour. Both books examine similar themes, though from radically different perspectives, of friendship, betrayal, sexuality, and the relationship between mentors and their protegee. These are L'Engle's best books for adults. She also wrote a wonderful young adult novel, The Young Unicorns, in which there is a blind pianist whose experience of music is beautifully described.

An Equal Music, by Vikram Seth
As great a novel as A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth's An Equal Music is a devastating story about a violinist and a pianist whose relationship becomes increasingly tortured because the pianist is becoming deaf. Seth's ability to portray the psychology of musicians is unparalleled and many critics noted the extraordinary accuracy of the technical aspects of making music.

Bone China, by Roma Tearne
Sri Lankan novelist Roma Tearne paints a complex portrait of class, race, and culture both in her native Sri Lanka and in Britain. The de Silva family is cultured and wealthy, their children artistically precocious, but ethnic violence shatters their comfortable life. A gem from an author that deserves greater recognition.

The Kreutzer Sonata, by Leo Tolstoy 
A bitter story narrated by a rabidly jealous husband that makes a case for sexual abstinence, The Kreutzer Sonata, named for the piece by Beethoven, is essential reading for any musician. The climax of the story comes with an intense and deeply emotional scene describing the performance of the sonata. It is no surprise that the great master describes perfectly the experience of listening to a deeply felt performance. This novella has inspired countless other works across artistic disciplines, including Janacek's first string quartet.


  1. Yes, yes, that's all very nice, but I can't believe you've left out my favorite: "57th Street", by the immortal George Selcamm (1971). I've got a deteriorating paperback copy that I will never de-accession from my personal library. Let me quote you the synopsis from the back cover: "The world of the professional musician is a dedication, a frustration, a business, and a way of life. And on New York's 57th Street are the most famous of America's musicians: the symphony conductor, dedicated to his art and desperately guarding the secret of his private life; the gifted woman pianist who can be ruthless in the pursuit of her goals; the flamboyant impresario; the energetic press agent. All are caught up in their relentless search for artistic and personal success, a search as fervent as the need for sex and love that sometimes drives them to ruin in their private lives and careers."

    And the celebrity blurbs! "A charmingly wicked novel" (Gian Carlo Menotti) "There is no more accurate and delightful portrayal of backstage life than 57th Street" (Ned Rorem) "A rattling good story....I loved it" (Jan Peerce)

    If you're VERY responsible I might let you borrow it. But I'll require a deposit.

  2. Oh, I would love to read it! I don't know George Selcamm.

    1. I bet you don't. I bet he was a one-book wonder. PS: you can tell your dad that the original owner of this book wrote his name in it: Joseph Smith.