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Terez Mertes

Violin and Classical Music Novels

March 1, 2007 at 12:11 AM

I love novels. I love violins and the classical music world. Therefore, as you might guess, I love novels about the violin and the classical music world. Here are a few of my favorites:

Vikram Seth - An Equal Music
This is the Mecca of literary music fiction for me. Please, can someone help me find another like it? I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that its equal simply doesn’t exist.

Nathan Shaham – The Rosendorf Quartet
The closest to Seth’s equal, narrated through the perspective of four Jewish refugees, fleeing Germany in the wake of WW II, to Palestine. Thoughtful, soulful and a great peek in at the interpersonal dynamics in a string quartet.

Mark Salzman – The Soloist
Wonderfully written, lively, interesting story, featuring a 30-ish former child prodigy who can no longer perform and isn’t quite sure why. I’m sort of cheating here – the protagonist is a cellist.

Arnold Steinhardt - Indivisible by Four
Cheating again. No, this is not a novel, but it is has that irresistible Omigod-I-have-to-keep-reading feeling to it. It’s a memoir, and it’s one of the best-written ones I’ve read.

Virginia Euwer Wolfe - The Mozart Season
Recommended to me by member Theresa Martin. Even though it’s categorized as young adult, it is elegantly written, not too girlish or simplistic. I loved the way it put me into the head of a talented young violinist whose talent was still developing.

Paul Adam - The Rainaldi Quartet
I usually don’t read thriller/mysteries, and actually I wouldn’t recommend this to someone seeking just that, because that aspect is not what makes this book so good. Told from the point of view of a luthier, the violin details are exquisite and the story is compelling and heartfelt. One of those stories that you’ll remember long after you’ve read the well-deserved ending.

Kristy Kiernan - Catching Genius
A new kid on the block, coming out in a few days. I’m cheating again. This isn’t really a “violinist” novel as much as a story from the perspective of a woman who plays the violin. I’ve just reviewed this book, so I hope you’ll allow me to digress here. In a nutshell: two sisters, whose young lives were irrevocably altered when one was diagnosed as a math genius must now, as adults, deal with the fallout in their relationship. Young Connie, the “non-genius,” focused on playing the violin in order to regain their father’s attention, and while she reached great proficiency, she never excelled. Consequently, Estella and her genius “stole” Dad from her. As an adult, however, Connie still plays the violin, though now mostly for pleasure.

The author, not a violinist herself, has infused Connie with the proper authentic detail—the violin hickey, the clipped fingernails, the frustrations of tuning a recalcitrant violin and the sacred nature of a good bow and its hair. Scenes between Connie and the trio members she occasionally performs with are true to life. Connie, however, is never to be found in the story immersing herself in a regular routine of practicing, scales, études and arpeggios. She leaves her violin behind in the car. This frustrated me as a violinist-hungry reader until I realized this flaw was precisely what the author was trying to portray. Connie is not the prodigy – her sister is. Connie’s young son, however, it becomes clear, lives to play music, to experiment with music, to find music in everything. He can’t not play music. It inhabits his soul. He is the family’s new prodigy in, an irony that affects Connie on many levels.

There are some equally interesting math angles to the story as well, when the novel is narrated by Estella, the former math genius. The subject of “math meets creativity” comes up over dinner one night, offering the reader some fascinating tidbits to mull over, such as the concepts of dynamic symmetry, and the divine logarithmic spiral—how specific proportions will repeat themselves over and over in nature and how artists and poets and musicians throughout history have either consciously or unconsciously used those same proportions in their work. The novel is a great read—irresistible premise, good conflicts, nicely detailed but very accessible writing. (You can read the full review of this novel here.)

Those are my violin-and-classical-music-world favorites. Help me stack my shelves with more. What are your favorites?

From jennifer steinfeldt warren
Posted on March 1, 2007 at 1:09 AM
Vikram Seth - An Equal Music

One of my favourite books!

From jennifer steinfeldt warren
Posted on March 1, 2007 at 1:09 AM
Vikram Seth - An Equal Music

One of my favourite books!

Thanks for the list, too. I copied it down in my notebook. I've been needing a book list.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on March 1, 2007 at 1:56 AM
There is a new novel out, "Overture", by Yael Goldstein. ISBN 978-0-385-51781-2. I picked up my copy this morning, and am halfway through it. It is pretty good, especially for an author's first novel.

I like Arnold Steinhardt's new book "Violin Dreams". Plus, he is so tall...

From Emily Liz
Posted on March 1, 2007 at 3:09 AM
An Equal Music is perhaps the greatest contemporary novel I have ever read. It is my dream to write a novel incorporating music someday, and I hope that whenever I get around to it, my effort will have something of the same vitality, beauty, and honesty that AEM does... One of these days I will get around to reading A Suitable Boy, although it has nothing to do with the European classical music scene. (Is it true that A Suitable Boy is the longest single-volume work ever published in English?) Thanks for your other recommendations. Wish I had gone to the library before this nasty winter storm set in. :)
From Stephen Brivati
Posted on March 1, 2007 at 4:17 AM
you know, I read a really weird novel years ago about a woman everyone thought had a `phantom` pregnancy but it was really a reincarnaiton of Heifetz lurking in her stomach.
Anyone know the one i am talking about?
From Donna Clegg
Posted on March 1, 2007 at 2:15 PM
Thanks for the reading list!
From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 1, 2007 at 2:47 PM
>I read a really weird novel years ago about a woman everyone thought had a `phantom` pregnancy but it was really a reincarnaiton of Heifetz lurking in her stomach.
Anyone know the one i am talking about?

Oh, I am looking forward to the answer to THIS!

Anne - the Overture novel sounds great! Going on my list. Ditto Arnold's Violin Dreams, which got a starred review in Publishers Weekly which is my ultimate reference guide (kind of like the way Roger Ebert is for me and movies).

Emily - the re-issue of A Suitable Boy by Harper Perennial comes in at 1488 pages. I mulled over getting it once, but then acknowledged that there was no way I could get through it with my busy, fractured schedule. And in the end, it's the music of AEM that I so adore.

Keep your comments coming! I love to hear book recommendations and what others love or hate. (Interesting to note that sometimes the same novel will be coveted by one person and despised by the next. Even when you were SO sure that person would LOVE the novel. Ah well - a subjective business, book reading.)

From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 1, 2007 at 2:56 PM
Skirt and the Fiddle by Tristan Egolf

Anyone read this? Picked this up at the library the other day simply because of the title. (Did the same with Anne Rice's Violin. ) The description on the dust jacket tells me it’s about “a brilliant violinist, who, embittered by a truly horrendous gig, has kissed the fiddle and the entire straight world goodbye.” Now, if the violin angle disappears after the first chapter as well, maybe I’ll rethink my interest, particularly since the author has been called “one of the most audacious and inventive young writers in America” and in the end, I’m really not looking for audacious and inventive as much as simply a great story about a character I instantly care about. And who cares about the violin. Or hates it. Heck, would be fun to read a story about someone who was trying to quit the violin but couldn't because the violin wouldn't let him/her go.

From Scott 68
Posted on March 1, 2007 at 4:47 PM
from russia to the west memoirs of nathan milstein
my first 79 years by isaac stern
heifetz by axelrod
get all the books titled "the way they play", theres 14 of them
Violin Virtuosos (Strings Backstage)
21st Century Violinists - Volume 1 (Strings Backstage)
Great masters of the violin: From Corelli and Vivaldi to Stern, Zukerman, and Perlman by Boris Schwarz
The Cambridge Companion to the Violin (Cambridge Companions to Music) by Robin Stowell
Violin Playing As I Teach It by Leopold Auer
Szigeti on the violin by Joseph Szigeti
Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations
From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 1, 2007 at 4:56 PM
Okay, Scott, but now I challenge you...


That said, I really enjoy the Strings Backstage publications - have read both on the soloists and one on quartets, and regularly pick them up to reread them. Can also put checks on another four from your list. Henri Temianka (sp?) also has a nice memoir out that is very Arnold-esque in its reading. Thanks for the new suggestions, tho.

But fiction. Novels. It's my poison right now, and I need a fix.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on March 1, 2007 at 8:40 PM
Terez, "Overture" is pretty good...Mother/Daughter conflict, performance/composition conflict...I am a bit wary of new American lit, and I tend to check these types of books out of the library, but I did buy this one. Grr, $27.00. My living author tastes run to Gurganus/Doctorow/Styron (may God rest his soul), and "Overture" is not in that class. But for what it is, it is OK.

I like Roger Ebert too. The local Birdcage Liner runs his reviews. Netflix has a whole section of Ebert's picks!

From Karin Lin
Posted on March 1, 2007 at 9:49 PM
Has anyone read the recently-published Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto by Joshua Cohen? The premise sounds interesting, but I saw an excerpt and it seems like it would be quite tiring to read.

Thanks for starting this list, Terez! I'll have to check out some of these.

From Stephen Brivati
Posted on March 1, 2007 at 11:06 PM
now I am having flash backs I think it may have bene czalled somethign like Spring Sonata.` That was what Heifetz kept playign while dosisng around in this ladies ever increasing waistline,]
From Anne Horvath
Posted on March 2, 2007 at 12:14 AM
That sounds like "Spring Sonata: A Fable" by Bernice Rubens,
ISBN 10: 0446328960
ISBN 13: 978-0446328968

published Feb '86 by Warner Books.

"Spring Sonata" is also a cheesy movie...what would Ebert say? I am going to buy this book now.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 2, 2007 at 12:11 AM
Karen - peeked on Amazon at the one you just mentioned - yes, does sound like it might be a bit tiring, a bit self-indulgent. Not to knock books that get published outside the mainstream, but this one sounds a little too out there. Have never heard of the press, but these days, there are tens of thousands of tiny presses, with the advent of affordable digital (self)-publishing. Sometimes writers get so caught up in what they want to say about life, they forget a novel is supposed to have a plot. (Speaking from the voice of experience here.)

Oh, and on Skirt and the Fiddle - this just in. Has nothing to do with the brilliant violinist being a brilliant violinist. The guy carries a fiddle in the first chapter en route to a gig and there are a few tantalizing hints of a violinistic soul, but after chapter one (meaning, page 11), bye bye violin. Forget it. Dust jacket book descriptions can be tricky. Good thing it was only a library book.


From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 2, 2007 at 12:20 AM
>That sounds like "Spring Sonata: A Fable" by Bernice Rubens.

Hey! Great sleuthing work today. Boy. : )

Amazon doesn't even have a descrip of the book, tho. Wonder if my library system has it in their database? Off to check.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on March 2, 2007 at 12:25 AM
I found the description of the novel on Amazon-UK, but I just bought mine from Amazon-US. (That one-click stuff is too deadly!). I was scrolling through Bernice Rubens' list, and evidently she wrote "Madame Sousatzka", which I remembered as a so-bad-it-is-good movie.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 2, 2007 at 12:47 AM
>she wrote "Madame Sousatzka", which I remembered as a so-bad-it-is-good movie.

Ha ha ha, I haven't thought of that movie in decades, and yet when you said it, it sprang right to mind. Just like you described. Shirley Maclaine, right?

Oh, and Karin - off topic: did you see they announced the line-up for SFS '07-'08 season? Josh is absent! OMG! But Gil is there, thank goodness. He is currently ranking the highest on my worship list. Haven't looked over the whole season - will be fun to do so when I have a few minutes free.

From Laura Madden
Posted on March 2, 2007 at 2:23 AM
Not Fiction but thoroughly enjoyable "Musical Madhouse: by Hector Berlioz. Trials and tribulations of a composer, conductor, critic and....scalpel judge!
From Cora Venus Lunny
Posted on March 2, 2007 at 4:31 AM
Seconding, or seventhing, An Equal Music.

Jilly Cooper's Appassionata is an absolutely unmissable read, as are the other music-oriented books in her interminable (and very readable) series. Let's see - The Man Who Made Husbands Jealous features an evil conductor and hilarious soprano, and Score has all the characters from Appassionata and more. Pulpy, raunchy, hilarious and wonderful in every way.

From Karin Lin
Posted on March 2, 2007 at 5:34 AM
Hey Terez, yes I did see it. I already moaned elsewhere about there being no Josh, but yes we've got Gil, Itzhak Perlman, and Julia Fischer! I'll catch at least one of them, I hope.
From Jude Ziliak
Posted on March 2, 2007 at 6:13 AM
My favorite music-related novel is "The Student Conductor," by Robert Ford.
From Karin Lin
Posted on March 2, 2007 at 7:32 AM
After all the recommendations, I just bought An Equal Music this evening, and I'm NOT one who is given to impulse shopping. If I don't get any sleep tonight, it will be all your fault, V.commers! ;)
From Mischa S.
Posted on March 2, 2007 at 8:40 AM
Rothschilds fiddle (Text): short story by A. Chekhov. Chekhov at his best.

"The Alien Corn": short story by Somerset Maugham. Little bit lofty sometimes, but a great plot.

Doctor Faustus (Thomas Mann): "A work written in old age and suffused with Mann's moral despair over his country's complacent embrace of Nazism, Doctor Faustus unrelentingly details the rise and fall of Adrian Leverkühn, a gifted musician (modeled, as Mann admitted, on modernist innovator Arnold Schoenberg) who effectively sells his soul to the devil for a generation of renown as the greatest living composer."

The Cremona Violin: short story by E.T.A. Hoffmann

Four weeks in the trenches (Fritz Kreisler)Strange to read someone like Kreisler writing about war.

Schlafes Bruder Novel by Robert Schneider:
In the beginning of the 19th century, Johannes Elias Alder is born in a small village in the Austrian mountains. While growing up he is considered strange by the other villagers and discovers his love to music, especially to playing the organ at the local church. After experiencing an "acoustic wonder", his eye color changes and he can hear even the most subtle sounds. Elias falls in platonic love with Elsbeth, the sister of Peter, a neighbor's son, who has loving feelings towards Elias ever since. After Elsbeth marries someone else, Elias (aged 22) decides to end his life by not sleeping anymore.
The movie is quite bad, but the book was a sensation, when it became published.

Biography of G. Piatigorsky One of the greatest cellists of any time, Piatigorsky relates the state of music as seen by a poor peasant in Russia whos only gift was his great talent. He had to survive the Russian Revolution, escape to the west, and survive in post WW 1 Germany seeking a career. He was befriended by Artur Schnabel, Jascha Heifetz and became official first cellist of the Berlin Philharmonic under Furtwaengler. He turned soloist and migrated to the United States with Valadimir Horowitz and Milstein.

... and finally some junk. =)

From Wayne Schafer
Posted on March 2, 2007 at 10:26 AM
The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather

The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West

From parmeeta bhogal
Posted on March 2, 2007 at 10:32 AM
A Suitable Boy is a must-read. The poem in the beginning is such a good warning of what is to come!!
I love all the music part in an Equal Music. However, the personal plot bored me to death: to many cliches, too predictable and no one had a motive as far as I could see for all the dithering...

I thought that was one book that could have used a CD with the music as and when it is played in the novel. Publisher/author, are you reading this?

And if you have read those two, you might like to read an account of the 2 years Vikram Seth spent as a student travelling in China & going home via Tibet entitled "From Heaven's Lake". It proves that music may even get you past beauracracy! (Read the book, I am not giving anything away.)

From Anne Horvath
Posted on March 2, 2007 at 1:52 PM
Terez, no one has brought up "Canone Inverso" by Paolo Maurensig. It is not my favorite, but it does have violins in it.

I really, really like "Dvorak in Love" by Josef Skvorecky, which is not strictly a novel with violins, but is good.

Wayne, I agree about "Song of the Lark", and Cather actually "gets" it.

Terez, when are you going to release your novel?

From Wayne Schafer
Posted on March 2, 2007 at 5:00 PM
Yes Anne,
Willa Cather surely gets it - in her depiction of the life of a musician (pianist-vocalist) in "The Song of the Lark" and about life in general in all of her fiction.
Another of her writings specifically about violin is the very dark short story "Peter" - her first published fiction.

Also I enthusiastically endorse "Dvork in Love".

"The Fountain Overflows" short changes in talent the older sister violinist in favor of her two very talented younger sister pianists - but a very good read.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 2, 2007 at 6:09 PM
Oh, these suggestions are SO great. Thanks so much, everyone, for contributing. Off I go to research them.

Anne - my own novel is currently in revision mode. It made the rounds in December to a dozen agents and I got some great feedback on how to make the story stronger. Ironically, I'd been so concerned the violinist (one of three narrators/protagonists) might not be seen as a marketable enough character when compared to the other two protags, but she's the only one all the agents agreed was the strongest part of the novel. So, now I'm at work, building up the other two characters' stories and backstories. (No surprise, really. I researched and wrote 10x as much for my violinist, then had to distill it down to size to match the other parts of the story. No wonder it read the best.)

From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 2, 2007 at 6:16 PM
Mischa - many thanks for posting those links - makes it so easy to check out your suggestions!
From Anne Horvath
Posted on March 2, 2007 at 6:54 PM
That is so exciting Terez. I am looking forward to reading it! Also, I am jealous of your talent!
From Anne Horvath
Posted on March 2, 2007 at 6:56 PM
Also, Wayne, where is "Peter" published? I have Vintage Classics "Collected Stories" by Cather, but that story is not included.

Also, another book not mentioned yet is Helen Kopec's brilliantly funny "Notes From The Pit". ISBN 0-9728722-0-5. The based-on-true-life story is about a cellist, but that is OK. Not everyone is fortunate enough to play violin...

From Tom Holzman
Posted on March 2, 2007 at 7:09 PM
I highly recommend Norman Lebrecht's novel "The Song of Names." It is about a POlish child prodigy violinist who escapes the Holocaust and grows up with the family of an impresario where there is a male child of about the same age. The book is about their relationship and raises some interesting issues about the nature of genius and whether such people are entitled to live by special rules. Lebrecht is probably England's foremost music critic, so he knows the world about which he writes.
From Wayne Schafer
Posted on March 2, 2007 at 7:23 PM
Hi Anne,
I have the three Library of America three volumes of Cather's works. "Peter" is the first story in the third volume "Stories, Poems, and Other Writings".

Also you can read it online at:

The Willa Cather Archive

From Anne Horvath
Posted on March 3, 2007 at 12:15 AM
Thanks for the link, Wayne. My, that was so sad.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 3, 2007 at 1:16 AM
Tom! That novel sounds incredible. The WW II angle is Interestingly in line with my newest novel-in-progress (which has been bumped to the sidelines do to the revising of novel #2, the violin one). Sounds like it got great reviews, as well. At Amazon, used for $2.00 - boom, I just one-clicked and it is now mine. I'll be sure and let you know what I think.

Time to go order more of these...

From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 3, 2007 at 1:49 AM
Oh, silly me. Ghost Quartet. Not about a violinist, but about the classical music world and the challenges visited up aspiring composers, posing the question "How far will you go to further your career?" Recommended to me by v.commie Gabriel Kastelle. Great, absorbing, fast read. (Dark, tho...)
From Jude Ziliak
Posted on March 3, 2007 at 6:25 AM
Speaking of Cather and music, she was a close friend to the Menuhin family, and a violin is a central metaphor in My Antonia.
From Jim W. Miller
Posted on March 3, 2007 at 8:17 AM
I'm making a website with "one click" on it. You toss a virtual quarter in the virtual wishing well. I guarantee your wishes virtually come true. It's win-win.
From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 3, 2007 at 3:01 PM
>Speaking of Cather and music, she was a close friend to the Menuhin family, and a violin is a central metaphor in My Antonia.

That's it - I'm trying this book again. (Couldn't get into it. I admit it, I'm classics-illiterate.)

From Anne Horvath
Posted on March 3, 2007 at 3:17 PM
Jim, be sure to include Permanent World Peace, the Soil Strad, and The Art Institute of Chicago.

Terez, if you are re-reading "My Antonia", read "O Pioneers" as a companion piece.

I finished "Overture". I am looking forward to "Spring Sonata", which should get here next week...

From Wayne Schafer
Posted on March 3, 2007 at 4:15 PM
Hello Terez-
Let me endorse Anne's recommendation on works of Willa Cather. Also I will repeat the recommendation for the musically inclined of "The Song of the Lark".

I can heartily recommend anything by Cather. Especially "Death Comes for the Archbishop" and "Shadows on the Rock".

From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 3, 2007 at 9:33 PM
>Also I will repeat the recommendation for the musically inclined of "The Song of the Lark".

All right, then. Done. Requested from the library. And I chanced upon a wonderful genre on the online catalogue: musical fiction. Cool! Wonder if it will pull up all books in that category? Must bug the reference librarian about this when I work on Monday (fortuitously, at a library).

Oh... so many books, so little time!

From Phil Houghton
Posted on March 4, 2007 at 9:07 AM
Hey Terez

Another one for you to tryis The Fiddler and the Ferret by Douglas Boyd - concert violinist gets embroiled in art theft conspiracy. Not bad!



From Sheila Ganapathy
Posted on March 4, 2007 at 2:46 PM
"Body and Soul" by Frank Conroy. It's about a child prodigy pianist but I love it and it makes you love music more.


From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 4, 2007 at 4:18 PM
Sheila! I LOVE that book. Read it 10 years ago, before I ever thought of picking up a musical instrument and learning it. Sooooo good. And Phil, thanks for the book title - sounds great!

I'm thinking I will most decidedly have to compile all these wonderful suggestions into a reading list and post it over at the forums. Blogs get buried.

Thanks, everyone, for all of this!

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