A lit­tle read­ing mat­ter

Love Tchaikovsky and Tol­stoy? Beethoven and the Bron­tës? We dip into the best – and worst – nov­els writ­ten about the great com­posers


We read and rate ten nov­els fea­tur­ing real-life com­posers, from mas­ter­pieces to mon­strosi­ties

The tur­key’s been eaten, there’s noth­ing good on TV, and ev­ery­one’s fallen out playing Mo­nop­oly. What’s next? Per­haps it’s time to curl up with a cup of co­coa and a good book. Clas­si­cal book­worms can feast on a wealth of nov­els about per­form­ers, from Vikram Seth’s An Equal Mu­sic to Ann Patch­ett’s op­er­atic thriller Bel Canto. But how about if you head to the ‘com­poser’ sec­tion of the book­shelf? We’re not talk­ing fic­tion­alised artists – the likes of Adrian Lev­erkühn in Thomas Mann’s Doc­tor Faus­tus – but nov­els that take a look at the lives and worlds of real peo­ple. So read on to find out how we rate ten fic­tional yarns about the great com­posers, from Strozzi in London to El­gar in the Ama­zon…


FACTS: just how much do we learn about the com­poser and their world?

FUN: is it a rol­lick­ing read or one for the slush pile?

The Noise of Time JU­LIAN BARNES Vin­tage

A po­etic story based on Shostakovich’s life un­der Stalin’s dan­ger­ous gaze

This was quite rightly a best­seller when it was pub­lished in 2016. In his three-part tale, Barnes plunges us into Shostakovich’s ner­vous ex­is­tence. Wait­ing ‘On the land­ing’ the com­poser an­tic­i­pates an in­evitable ar­rest, fol­low­ing the Pravda ar­ti­cle that al­most ru­ined him. Then ‘On the plane’ he en­dures a flight to New York in the ser­vice of the Soviet regime, and fi­nally dur­ing a me­an­der­ing jour­ney taken ‘In the car’ he muses on his legacy as he en­ters his twi­light years. Through each he re­flects on the life he lived (mostly in fear of some­thing), the loves he en­joyed (and en­dured) and the mu­sic he wrote. Barnes’s prose is el­e­gant and the frag­mented struc­ture makes you feel that you’re inside the com­poser’s head, flit­ting from one mem­ory to the next. Of course, the mus­ings are re­ally Barnes’s – this is a fic­tional take on doc­u­mented events and bi­o­graph­i­cal de­tail – but his Shostakovich is a cred­i­ble char­ac­ter. A riv­et­ing story of sur­vival. MB

FACTS: ★★★★

FUN: ★★★★★

Mozart & the Wolf Gang AN­THONY BURGESS Vin­tage

A slightly outré but nev­er­the­less amus­ing look at a hand­ful of ar­gu­ing com­posers

A novel by An­thony Burgess? Surely some­thing to savour. Pre­pare, how­ever, to be dis­ap­pointed. Mozart & the Wolf Gang is a very dif­fer­ent beast to Burgess’s renowned 1962 dystopian novel

A Clock­work Orange. Pub­lished in 1991 to­wards the end of Burgess’s life (see p48), it is based around a set of dis­cus­sions be­tween fa­mous com­posers, and is writ­ten like a play. This is per­sis­tently in­ter­rupted by a per­plex­ing di­a­logue

be­tween two char­ac­ters named An­thony and Burgess, plus a fic­tion­alised nar­ra­tive of Mozart’s Sym­phony No. 40. It’s as er­ratic as it sounds.

There’s no real plot – in­stead, the nar­ra­tive arc is led by the con­stant bick­er­ing be­tween the com­posers, who re­lent­lessly put down one an­other’s mu­sic, na­tion­al­i­ties and po­lit­i­cal lean­ings. Amus­ing, if a lit­tle tir­ing. In short, this is a self-in­dul­gent ex­plo­ration of one of Burgess’s favourite com­posers, and it’s full of es­o­teric ref­er­ences that will be lost on a lot of read­ers. Re­ally, it reads like an ex­per­i­ment that per­haps shouldn’t ever have been pub­lished. FP


FUN: ★★★

Vi­valdi’s Vir­gins

BAR­BARA QUICK !Harper Collins"

The evoca­tive tale of a tal­ented or­phan vi­olin­ist, ex­plor­ing her roots in 18th-cen­tury Venice

OK, so the ti­tle might not in­spire con­fi­dence, but there is trea­sure within the pages of Bar­bara Quick’s 2007 novel. She paints a vivid pic­ture of Vene­tian so­ci­ety, from its glit­ter­ing mas­quer­ades to its down­right dirty un­der­belly, all seen through the eyes of a young or­phan grow­ing up in the care of the Osp­i­dale della Pi­età.

Anna Maria is a sen­sa­tional vi­olin­ist, un­der the tute­lage of The Red Priest him­self – and ded­i­ca­tee of many of his works. Through her mus­ings and let­ters we learn about life in the Pi­età as a mem­ber of the ‘figlie de coro’, and get swept up in her search for her Mother. Vi­valdi is painted as both fa­ther fig­ure and mis­chievous ally, and there are mem­o­rable cameos, too, from ★an­del and Scar­latti. Quick has plainly done her home­work; there’s an abun­dance of mu­si­cal de­tail and while this is fic­tion she takes her lead from doc­u­mented peo­ple, places and events. A colour­ful, and some­times emo­tional, read. MB FACTS: ★★★★

FUN: ★★★★★



A bril­liantly imag­ined recre­ation of El­gar’s un­doc­u­mented ad­ven­ture to the Ama­zon

When An­thony Payne elab­o­rated the sur­viv­ing sketches for El­gar’s Third Sym­phony, he cre­ated a re­mark­able piece so El­gar­ian in feel that it was hard to tell mu­si­cal fact from fic­tion. James ★amil­ton-pat­ter­son achieves some­thing sim­i­lar in Geron­tius, which draws on what we know about the Bri­tish com­poser –his love of puns and of rivers, for in­stance – and fills in a pe­riod in his life that we know next to noth­ing about. In 1923, three years af­ter his wife had died, the rather lost, dis­il­lu­sioned and semi-re­tired El­gar (pic­tured be­low) de­cided on a whim to take a six-week voy­age to the Ama­zon, which is where this en­joy­able novel steps in. True, it starts with a weighty and tire­some dream se­quence, but the tale soon perks up. A vivid pic­ture of El­gar emerges, as he gets to know his fel­low sailors and en­coun­ters the heady Ama­zon. RF

FACTS: ★★★★

FUN: ★★★★

Sleep­ing with Schu­bert BON­NIE MARSON Bal­lan­tine Books

A lawyer finds her­self shar­ing her ex­is­tence with Schu­bert, with un­happy re­sults

You may lose the will to live should you choose to read this. But any­way, here goes. While out shop­ping, New York lawyer Lisa Durbin finds her­self in­hab­ited by the ghost of Schu­bert (not a premise that comes eas­ily). With her new guest on board, she be­comes an overnight pi­ano sen­sa­tion and, later, the medium by which the com­poser in­tro­duces a se­ries of pre­vi­ously un­heard works to 21st-cen­tury au­di­ences. As a host of grotesques – from her PR mon­ster of a sis­ter to a Juil­liard pro­fes­sor from hell – line up to take ad­van­tage of her ex­tra­or­di­nary gift, she has to come to terms with the idea of shar­ing her ex­is­tence with a 19th-cen­tury ge­nius.

One might sym­pa­thise were Durbin, our nar­ra­tor, not so in­sis­tently self-ob­sessed – we’re given reg­u­lar up­dates about her hair (large) and chest (also large), but learn lit­tle about her body-mate, poor old Schu­bert, other than that he gets giddy when­ever a pi­ano comes into view. Amus­ing? No. Touch­ing? No. Erotic? ★ardly. Don’t ex­pect Sleep­ing with Schu­bert to make the earth move for you. JP FACTS: ★

FUN: ★

Liszt’s Kiss SU­SANNE DUNLAP Si­mon & Schus­ter

A girl’s en­counter with Liszt marks a turn­ing point in her quest for the truth about her fa­ther It was the best of times, it was the worst of times: Paris is in the grip of a deadly water-borne dis­ease and Franz Liszt can’t keep his trousers up. At least, that’s how Dunlap’s book ini­tially un­folds. Liszt, the se­ducer of a 15-year-old aristro­crat’s daugh­ter, ac­tu­ally turns out to be a sen­si­tive sort, at­tracted to the mar­ried Marie d’agoult, and shacked up with his chum in a gar­ret where they seem to drink noth­ing but claret. Mean­while, our young pro­tag­o­nist Anne’s mother has died and her fa­ther has locked the fam­ily pi­ano away, al­though that’s soon the least of her wor­ries. Lessons with Liszt, en­coun­ters with a mys­te­ri­ous suitor, and a suave doc­tor, pro­vide the slightly flabby meat. But the mu­sic ref­er­ences are fun – Liszt emerges suit­ably flam­boy­ant and enig­matic, and Erard’s es­cape­ment mech­a­nism, Pa­ganini, Ber­lioz and Gi­u­ditta Pasta all get a look-in. But does Liszt get the girl? And is Anne as wet as she seems? The cliff hanger is at least worth wait­ing for. OC FACTS: ★★★

FUN: ★★★


A Novel of Hilde­gard Von Bin­gen MARY SHARRATT Mariner

A not-so-mu­si­cal ac­count of the fas­ci­nat­ing life of the com­pos­ing nun

A cur­sory glance at this book’s cover sug­gests it might be­long on the shelves of a mar­ket stall spe­cial­is­ing in crys­tals and tarot cards. For­tu­nately, how­ever, the con­tent inside is much more com­pelling. Mary Sharratt chron­i­cles the fas­ci­nat­ing life of Hilde­gard Von Bin­gen, who was sent to a monastery at a young age be­cause of the vi­sions she had been ex­pe­ri­enc­ing. Hilde­gard’s litur­gi­cal songs are pep­pered through­out the novel, pri­mar­ily as mo­tifs to ex­plain var­i­ous mo­ments of im­por­tance in her life. How­ever, her mu­sic takes some­thing of a back seat within the plot. The

A New York lawyer finds her­self sud­denly in­hab­ited by the ghost of Franz Schu­bert

fo­cus is in­stead placed on her pi­ous life and re­la­tion­ships with the women around her. And she was quite the early fem­i­nist, which makes for an in­ter­est­ing sub­text. Nev­er­the­less, if you’re af­ter a thor­ough ex­am­i­na­tion of Hilde­gard’s mu­si­cal out­put, you’ll likely be dis­ap­pointed. FP FACTS: ★★★★

FUN: ★★★

Charles Jes­sold, Con­sid­ered as a Mur­derer


A su­perbly en­ter­tain­ing in­sight into the darker side of early 20th-cen­tury English mu­sic

Charles Jes­sold, taken un­der the wing of critic Les­lie Shep­herd (the book’s nar­ra­tor), is one of the most promis­ing English com­posers of his day, his works the toast of the town. But he has a trou­bled soul – al­co­holism, so­ciopa­thy, the oc­cult… and a fix­a­tion on the mur­der­ous crimes of his near name­sake Carlo Ge­su­aldo that man­i­fests it­self in his Brit­ten-es­que master­piece, the opera Lit­tle Mus­grave. From there, things un­ravel at a pace. Wes­ley Stace’s novel is more than a rip-roar­ing tale – he knows his stuff, and pep­pers the book with won­der­ful in­sights into the critic-mu­si­cian re­la­tion­ship, London’s cliquey mu­sic scene and a de­light­ful ac­count of the premiere of Brit­ten’s Peter Grimes. What’s most as­ton­ish­ing is that, without hear­ing a note, Jes­sold’s mu­sic comes ut­terly to life thanks to Stace’s bril­liant con­tex­tual writ­ing. Half the fun, too, is guess­ing who Jes­sold is mod­elled on. Is it War­lock, Grainger, Holst – even Vaughan Wil­liams? Ut­terly quirky, in­for­ma­tive fun. OC FACTS: ★★★★★

FUN: ★★★★★

My Tango With Bar­bara Strozzi RUSSELL HOBAN Blooms­bury

A quirky mod­ern-day love story in­spired by the Baroque Ital­ian com­poser

When nov­el­ist Phil Ock­er­man takes a tour of an ex­hi­bi­tion of com­poser por­traits, he comes across an ar­rest­ing pic­ture of La Vir­tu­o­sis­sima Can­ta­trice, Bar­bara Strozzi. ‘What a woman!’ he notes. In­ter­est turns to an ob­ses­sion with the 17th-cen­tury Vene­tian singer and com­poser. He goes home to lux­u­ri­ate in her mu­sic, which in turn leads him to try out a tango class. There he meets Bertha Strunk, a pro­fes­sional glass eye­ball painter who he thinks looks so like Strozzi that he starts call­ing her Bar­bara. The tale of their ro­mance con­tin­ues in this un­likely vein, and is packed with im­prob­a­ble co­in­ci­dences and un­ex­pected events that in a dif­fer­ent au­thor’s hands would seem ridicu­lous. Here, some­how, Russell Hoban gets at the strange­ness of or­di­nary life. We learn most about Strozzi at the start of the novel, but she then be­comes a sym­bol for pow­er­ful in­fat­u­a­tion. It’s a shame she’s not given her own voice – her real-life story is fas­ci­nat­ing – yet this odd book might just in­spire you to lis­ten to her mu­sic. RF


FUN: ★★★

Con­ver­sa­tions with Beethoven SAN­FORD FRIEDMAN New York Re­view of Books

The com­poser faces death in the com­pany of those who know him best

Now this is rather clever. What we have here is a chron­i­cle of Beethoven’s last few months on this earth, de­picted in a se­ries of imag­i­nary con­ver­sa­tions that he might have had with those around him. We, how­ever, only get to see what they were say­ing to him, com­mu­ni­cat­ing by writ­ten notes on ac­count of his deaf­ness – his spo­ken replies are left to our imag­i­na­tion. The nar­ra­tive kicks off with the at­tempted sui­cide of Beethoven’s beloved but flighty nephew Karl, and there­after we are in­tro­duced to a se­ries of fam­ily mem­bers, friends and pro­fes­sional ac­quain­tances who, as the great man’s health steadily de­clines, do lit­tle more than ir­ri­tate him with their good in­ten­tions. He, in turn, drives them to de­spair with his petu­lance, para­noia and painful bloody-mind­ed­ness. As the var­i­ous names come and go, you may want Google close at hand to tell you a lit­tle more about them – there’s a lot to take in. It is, though, sur­pris­ingly en­gross­ing. JP

FACTS: ★★★★★

FUN: ★★★★

Cover ver­sions: which of these books should you add to your read­ing list?

Heav­enly gaze: Hilde­gard ex­pe­ri­enc­ing a vi­sion, with her sec­re­tary Vol­mar and con­fi­dante Richardis

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.