September 2010

More Classical Music Novels

September 30, 2010 16:28

It’s time for my annual blog where I share a recent classical music novel I’ve read and ask for recommendations for future reads. This year’s addition: An Unfinished Score, by Elise Blackwell. Here’s an excerpt:

“Playing chamber music involves an intimacy between people that is no weaker than the closeness of love or sex. To play with others is to be bound by and respond to their rhythms and desires without sacrificing your own. Like sex, great music can be made with someone you know well or not at all—and with someone you loathe so long as there is passion in your hatred. Yet, unlike sex, great music can be made even with someone you merely dislike. This explains why Petra, Daniel, and Suzanne play well with Anthony, even when they find his arrangements too facile. There is some other, unnamable sensibility they share.”

The story plays out as follows: Career violist Suzanne hears over the radio about the death of her lover, orchestral conductor Alex Elling, in a plane crash. She can only grieve secretly amid the members of her household, which include emotionally-distant husband Ben, a conductor, irreverent best friend and fellow musician Petra and her young, deaf daughter. But soon Suzanne discovers hers and Alex’s secret affair was no secret. His widow calls Suzanne and extorts a favor: for Suzanne to finish the viola concerto started by her deceased husband. Desperate to keep the affair secret, even now, Suzanne reluctantly agrees.

This is a good, smoothly plotted story that seems to find that sweet spot between commercial and literary. There are some wonderful passages that offer lyrical prose and thoughtful insight into music and its composition, the separation of the social classes, betrayal and loyalty. An intriguing side story is the deafness Petra’s daughter suffers from, and Petra’s exploration of cochlear implants as a possible auditory enhancement, paving the way for introspection on the concept of hearing in general, and what it would feel like to be forever closed off to sound, to music. The story carries the occasional false note: calling the San Francisco Symphony the San Francisco Philharmonic; an overload of viola jokes that stop getting funny after the first five or six or seven; and a “romantic” scene in a hotel room with a performing, blindfolded, young superstar violinist named Joshua Felder (um, sound almost-familiar?) a hotel bed four feet away, Suzanne and her philandering conductor lover… and oh, ick, enough detail, it was bad enough to read. And no, you are not supposed to cheer when the conductor lover dies. On page one. Stop cheering.  

Blackwell is a wonderful writer, however, and this is a worthy read, particularly for its clever "third movement."  You can read my whole review here, at Mostly Fiction:

For your further reading pleasure, here’s the annual compilation of classical music novels I’ve read and particularly enjoyed over the past few years. I welcome any suggestions that others consider to be must-reads!

The Rose Variations - Marisha Chamberlain

The Student Conductor - Robert Ford

While the Music Lasts – Alice McVeigh

The Song of the Lark - Willa Cather

An Equal Music - Vikram Seth

The Song of Names - Norman Lebrecht

Body and Soul - Frank Conroy

The Savior - Eugene Drucker

The Rosendorf Quartet - Nathan Shaham

The Soloist - Mark Salzman

The Rainaldi Quartet - Paul Adam 

On the list to be read: Paganini’s Ghost, also by Paul Adam: a thumbs’ up suggestion by Anne Horvath.


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