Novelist needs violin music advice for book research

Edited: September 13, 2018, 4:49 PM · I am a novelist creating a character for a book - a young woman (early 30s) who is a medical researcher by trade, but whose true passion is playing the violin. I would like to introduce a piece of music that she has tried to master for years, but, due to its complexity, she has never been successful. The piece should be technically difficult, but also heart-breaking and beautiful when played well. Maybe a bit on the romantic side. For her, being able to play this piece would be a major milestone in her development as a musician. I know this is probably an odd request for this forum, but I would appreciate hearing from you.

Replies (37)

September 13, 2018, 3:19 PM · I think the sibelius violin concerto might be a good fit for this, although the plot device isn't totally believable for anyone who is familiar with the profession (not that that matters... It seems that most authors tend to use violin as a tool for struggle within their stories, and therefore it doesn't really matter whether or not all the details are accurate).
September 13, 2018, 4:08 PM · Sarasate, Carmen Fantasy?
Edited: September 14, 2018, 9:00 AM · My father was an MD medical researcher (research pathologist) all his life. He was also an avid violinist who practiced every day after work and I heard that virtually every day from my birth for the 17-1/2 years I lived with my family before leaving for college. He also played in string quartets, community orchestra and sonatas with pianists.

His practice that I recall listening to through my childhood included the concertos of Bach, Mozart, Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky. He died from cancer prematurely in 1954, and I still have all his music. Of course I have also played through all his solo, concerto and chamber music and lots more, but I find the Tchaikovsky and Brahms more romantic to my ears than the Sibelius.

For many amateur violinists performing concertos like some of those is a more aspirational than realistic goal. That being the case, the Brahms double concerto for violin, cello and orchestra and the Beethoven triple for violin, cello and piano with orchestra may offer even more emotion-laden content in practice. It all depends on what you want to do with the inner and outer lives of your protagonist. Listen to the music that is suggested in this thread and decide for yourself where you find her.

ADDED LATER: When we were students we played the music our teachers assigned. Sometimes we may have had some say in the choice, but when we are adults, continuing to grow musically on our own, we often hear or see a piece of music that resonates with our souls and want to make it our own. It is not unusual for this to be the slow movement (2nd) of some concerto. We find it fairly easy to read through this and pretty much make it our own. But our egos require that we make it complete by also learning the two more technically difficult outer movements with the thought in the back of our minds of perhaps performing it with an orchestra some day. In spite of those early years I spent really working on the Mendelssohn and Beethoven concertos and messing with Brahms and Tchaikovsky, the only two pieces I ever actually performed in front of an orchestra (finally in my 40s) were the Beethoven Op. 50 Romance and the Vivaldi Winter Concerto from the Four Seasons. The latter because I had totally fallen in love with its slow movement upon hearing it years in the 1950s on an LP recording by the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra (that has actually recently been reissued on CD*** - of the dozens of recordings I have of the 4 Seasons, no other has ever come close to this one - in my opinion). I had previously performed the slow movement for some weddings, but tackling the more technically demanding first and third movements in a manner that satisfied me was much more of a challenge.

Having performed solos in those two orchestra concerts, I stopped feeling I wanted to continue on that path.


September 13, 2018, 4:48 PM · Thank you for this Andrew. And you're right, this is simply aspirational, not realistic. I will listen to your suggestions.
Edited: September 13, 2018, 5:00 PM · Franck sonata, or Faure sonata, or the Saint-Saëns sonata in D. The Saint-Saëns has all of those connections with Proust.
September 13, 2018, 4:59 PM · My vote is for the JS Bach Ciaconna from Partita II.
September 13, 2018, 5:00 PM · Brahms violin concerto also fits.
Edited: September 13, 2018, 6:15 PM · I have a hard time imagining an amateur musician being so serious about any concerto as to spend years not achieving mastery in playing it--and knowing perfectly well from the start that she won't succeed. So this music must be more serious than that, something like one of the Bach solo pieces or maybe a late Beethoven quartet. Those are technically hard but not completely out of reach for amateurs (most of Beethoven and at least some of Bach). This is the kind of music one can stay with for years. And one struggles with the music per se, not just with the technique.

BTW those are not "romantic" in music historical sense but I think in this context "romantic" means rather something like "emotionally evocative".

Edited: September 13, 2018, 7:06 PM · For complexity, solo Bach. The C major sonata. The Brahms violin concerto is another.
September 14, 2018, 1:40 AM · Another vote for the Bach Chaconne.
September 14, 2018, 2:15 AM · Yet another vote for Bach’s Chaconne.öthen/7179.article

September 14, 2018, 3:53 AM · I can't help but feel that the Chaconne feels a bit contrived.
Edited: September 14, 2018, 6:26 AM · For all the Concertos and (non solo) sonatas you would have to make space for accompanists/collaborating musicians at least at some point which could add something interesting to your narrative . If youre looking for a solo work...bach, paganini, ernst, ysaye...but if she's already a really good violinist, chances are shes worked through the bach sonatas and partitas and possibly paganini (more so the former than the latter). More experienced people than myself might confirm this. I agree that the premise of a composition being so complicated that shes been trying for years needs qualification: either she hasnt got to the stage where her technique is good enough (so maybe shes working with a teacher presently) _ thetefor it is more a question of her technical ability rather than complexity of music (that sone exceptional 9 yo kids would be probably playing on youtube) or she hasnt had the time to tackle it and now she does, again not about complexity per se
Anyway, fiction allows one to be 'romantic' and whatnot for people who like that...but violin practice is quite a non romantic endeavor.
Edited: September 14, 2018, 6:45 AM · Ernst- The Last Rose of Summer
September 14, 2018, 11:22 AM · I suggested sonatas because I think that a more compelling novel would have the protagonist struggle with interpretation (which would be tied to her inner conflict, whatever that is) rather than technique per se. The Franck et al have their mechanical difficulties, but I'd rather read a book about someone having trouble connecting with the feeling of the music (we are romanticizing playing the violin here, after all), which could lead to interesting conflicts with the pianist partner and/or maybe a teacher/coach, and all of this could be a metaphor for whatever is happening in the external story. This might be a more subtle and complex novel, as opposed to simply overcoming a technical barrier. Tammuz has a good suggestion about violin practice being unromantic, and possibly the protagonist could've gotten into a mindset about life in general as a list of tasks to do and problems to solve, rather than as an experience to be felt. That can all work out in a cliche manner, but something good could also be made of it, I think. My two cents, anyway.
September 14, 2018, 11:22 AM · I love all of your answers. Not only are you helping me with music suggestions, but this also very helpful in crafting this part of the character in an authentic way. My goal would be for critical readers, such as yourselves, to believe this part of her. At this point, I think it's best for me to focus on something Tammuz Kolenyo said. "she hasnt got to the stage where her technique is good enough." That feels right to me as the reason why she hasn't been able to play the piece. Also, let's forget the whole "romantic" thing. That is too subjective to be a part of the discussion. Thank you all for being real with me and offering your valuable opinions.
September 14, 2018, 11:28 AM · Having said that, I found Scott Bailey's reply inspiring: "I'd rather read a book about someone having trouble connecting with the feeling of the music (we are romanticizing playing the violin here, after all), which could lead to interesting conflicts with the pianist partner and/or maybe a teacher/coach, and all of this could be a metaphor for whatever is happening in the external story."

September 14, 2018, 2:26 PM · Another vote for the Bach Chaconne.
September 14, 2018, 3:41 PM · I have listened to a Linda Wang performance of Bach Chaconne and loved it. Definitely invokes a strong visceral, emotional response.
September 14, 2018, 4:07 PM · M. Abbatior,

This doesn't have to be totally unrealistic. In NYC there is "The Doctor's Orchestra" made up of only people with MD's who are also avid musicians. They are also quite skilled and sound "professional." Your character could be an orchestra member with a desire to play a concerto with that orchestra. You might also talk to some of the Doctor's Orchestra members (any on this site?)

September 14, 2018, 4:19 PM · Instead of "romantic", how about a piece that reflects her internal conflict. As she is able to resolve that, the piece and interpretation begin to take form. All the missing pieces fall into place. She now understands what the original composer meant. Of course, then you might have to figure out what the original composer meant in order to work it into the story. And you might get a lot of disagreement on that part.

September 14, 2018, 4:50 PM · Or perhaps her life parallels a segment of the life of the composer, and she gains understanding in that manner.
September 14, 2018, 6:25 PM · I second George's suggestion. NYC isn't the only place where there are orchestras entirely made up of people in a non-music profession that requires substantial training. Several major cities have doctors' orchestras that perform at near-professional level (e.g. the Texas Medical Center Orchestra in Houston), and the Los Angeles Lawyers Philharmonic is of similar caliber.
September 14, 2018, 6:30 PM · That sounds pretty 'romantic' to me David.
Actually, it would be Romantic without the inverted commas.
Edited: September 14, 2018, 8:38 PM · Personally I would not vote for the Chaconne, for a few reasons. I think it is just too obvious (and not in its right place) and, agreeing with Erik, too contrived. Also grosso modo I think it is difficult to go beyond superficial fetishism of one piece or the other within literature. Much better to think how it plays a role in the narrative of the story , which reminds me of Tolstoys the Kreutzer sonata rather than in undulging in 'atmospherics'. If you want to delve more into what David Ford alludes to (there is nothing bad about being Romantic per se), how the internal workings of the music mirrors that of the protagonist's psychology, maybe you need to talk to musicologists/research some music history and theory. Like there is this genre ofliterature that bases itself on either a real author or her/his writings (think The Hours and Virginia Woolf).

About how some music is unfortunately used as populist atmospherics and to add a hollow sophistication, though they might work for their purpose, think Bach goldberg variations and Silence of the Lambs. Or, worse, moonlight sonata and Interview with a Vampire. On the other hand, they do create moods. That might be what theyre reduced to, at the end, employed as mood makers.

Edited: September 14, 2018, 9:28 PM · It may be of interest in this context that Pablo Casals worked on the Bach Suites for years (don't remember the exact time) before daring to play them in public (this is at least his story). And not all of them are technically challenging for a professional, let alone Casals.

I do think that this sort of "performing block" is more interesting and engaging than a mere technical insufficiency (which is normal for amateurs). Technical problems are boring for all but violinists. On the other hand: How many amateurs (like your character) are there who struggle so intensely with musical difficulties, especially in a piece like Bach's Chaconne which presents a ton of technical problems?

Of course there are very few amateurs who would waste years of practice time on the unachievable project of mastering the Brahms concerto, especially if they are intelligent enough to be medical researchers. So your plan presents some problems.

September 14, 2018, 9:42 PM · I like the idea of a piece by a living composer such as Crumb or Penderecki.
Edited: September 14, 2018, 10:36 PM · Albrecht, I'm not sure where you're located, or where OP's character lives. In certain large cities in the US, I think it's more likely for an amateur capable of Brahms to be a medical researcher (or work in STEM) than to be in a non-STEM field.

If OP is writing about an amateur violinist's struggle with interpretation and wants technique to be less of an issue, it's reasonable to make them a medical researcher.

September 15, 2018, 12:07 AM · Borodin Quartet #2 in D Major 1st movt or 3rd movt, the Nocturne. Less pyrotechnics than Sarasate, less technical than Bach Chaconne, lusciously romantic. I knew an MD researcher who brings his violin to the lab and practices at night. Whether or not the piece is technically difficult will depend on the level of the player as well as how polished the presentations to be. A quartet also introduces the potential for conflicts with three more characters.
September 15, 2018, 12:54 AM · Frieda Francis, both where I grew up (Switzerland) and where I live now (California) medical professionals are overrepresented among amateur musicians, followed by "STEM" people. People with degrees in the humanities or the law on the other hand are surprisingly rare among musicians. So the choice of medical research for the character is spot on.

I have heard amateurs play satisfactorily Bach's d-minor partita minus Chaconne, also the E-Major Preludio, the 3rd Schumann quartet and the first Brahms quartet, Brahms sonatas etc. but never anything as hard as the Brahms concerto. I have met professionals who are a long way from mastering the Brahms concerto for that matter. Which is why I think it is not a good choice for a character like this. The music should be plausibly within reach for a "normal" amateur.

September 15, 2018, 5:55 AM · True, medical professionals are overrepresented among amateur musicians, but I wouldn't discount lawyers. In Los Angeles, the LA Lawyers Philharmonic is of far higher standard than the LA Doctors Symphony -- and can maintain that standard with 100% lawyer and law student membership, while the LA Doctors Symphony is now less than half medical professionals. (I played in the LA Doctors Symphony as a medical student, and ended up leaving medical school to become a lawyer, so I've seen both sides.) In Sacramento, where I live now, lawyers outnumber medical professionals 3-to-1 or 4-to-1 in both my semi-pro orchestra and my mid-level community orchestra, though this may just be a function of the sheer number of lawyers in a state capital.

But that's off-topic.

September 15, 2018, 9:40 AM · The first piece that comes to mind is Chausson's Poeme.
It would even make a better book title than Chaconne.
Edited: September 15, 2018, 10:41 AM · As far as concertos are concerned I would have to say that Mendelssohn is a good example of a concerto that an adult amateur or returner might learn, if they were serious enough as a teenager to develop some technique -- but not quite good enough to have learned it then. It's a good "turning point" type piece, and it's not nearly as obvious as the Chaconne. (For that matter, just about any workhorse concerto is obvious.)

Chausson Poeme suggested by Scott is an interesting choice too, and I agree that would make a great book title. But along those lines I was kind of surprised nobody has mentioned The Lark Ascending. I just heard the last bit of it on the radio this morning as I was waking up, with Nigel Kennedy. You want romantic? That's one of the pinnacles of the repertoire, without a doubt. And great book title!! And it's very much the kind of piece one might hear for the first time at the age of 12 and long to play one day.

Edited: September 17, 2018, 12:07 AM · Did anyone mention the Barber concerto? It is a “beautiful” piece in the conventional sense and can be done quite well by many serious amateurs.

The three sonatas by Brahms could be another set of pieces that could stay with an amateur for a life time. Perhaps the relationship with the pianist could be a side plot......

September 17, 2018, 11:00 AM · I think it's an amusing comment on the narrow scope of European classical music education that anyone here thinks that the Bach Chaconne is "too obvious." You realize that this author is writing for a general audience, right? Not a roomful of violin nerds. It only seems obvious because it is such a perfect choice. Because the struggle is inside the main character, a solo piece makes a lot of sense, and if some general reader were to actually go to the piece to listen to it (seriously, folks, if you aren't a violinist you may never have actually heard the Chaconne), listening/watching a performance would deliver exactly the intensity the author suggested in the OP, and the fact that many people know the name "Bach," and might be aware of the S & Ps, and maybe even the Chaconne, would help (not hurt) the accessibility of the story.
September 17, 2018, 11:20 AM · Since most readers in a general audience won't know one piece of violin music from the next, the author can use almost anything at all; it will be up to her to create the dramatic conflict around the piece because most readers will have no familiarity with it and won't seek it out to hear it. She could just make up a piece and most people wouldn't know it was made up; see Proust's novel with the recurring imaginary sonata. The music is a prop; the novel surrounding it is what actually will matter. But I'll warn the OP that the more specific the details you include in the book about the music, the greater the chance that you'll insert embarrassing inaccuracies.
September 24, 2018, 9:03 AM · Unaccompanied Bach. a minor Sonata - the slow mvt in C major. I've been trying for 30 years, im still not sure i do it justice, but everything is in it. It's also impossible to play after a game of squash or tennis...

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