Novelist needs violin music advice for book research
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.
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).
Sarasate, Carmen Fantasy?
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.
Thank you for this Andrew. And you're right, this is simply aspirational, not realistic. I will listen to your suggestions.
Franck sonata, or Faure sonata, or the Saint-Saëns sonata in D. The Saint-Saëns has all of those connections with Proust.
My vote is for the JS Bach Ciaconna from Partita II.
Brahms violin concerto also fits.
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.
For complexity, solo Bach. The C major sonata. The Brahms violin concerto is another.
Another vote for the Bach Chaconne.
Yet another vote for Bach’s Chaconne.
I can't help but feel that the Chaconne feels a bit contrived.
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
Ernst- The Last Rose of Summer
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.
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.
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."
Another vote for the Bach Chaconne.
I have listened to a Linda Wang performance of Bach Chaconne and loved it. Definitely invokes a strong visceral, emotional response.
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.
Or perhaps her life parallels a segment of the life of the composer, and she gains understanding in that manner.
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.
That sounds pretty 'romantic' to me David.
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).
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 like the idea of a piece by a living composer such as Crumb or Penderecki.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The first piece that comes to mind is Chausson's Poeme.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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...
But, Paul Smith, the OP came to a board filled with violin nerds and asked. So they're going to get answers that reflect that fact. Note their specific request: they didn't say "what would be dark and moody, but also include words that a layman might be familiar with, like "Bach?"". Perhaps they wanted something more complex that wouldn't be so easily digested by any random Twilight reader?
I liked very much last Laurie's blogs in v.com about Richard Lin's win of the Indianapolis competition. Recommended read: https://www.violinist.com/blog/laurie/20189/27468/
Any of the "big" violin concertos (Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius...) would work fine!
Bach Chaconne. Not romantic, but it fulfills all the rest. There's really no need to specify the key and that it's from the 2nd Partita for solo violin. Any string player would know it as the "Bach Chaconne." However, I wonder how convincingly a non-string player can create such a character. For example, as often as SciFi writer Kim Stanley Robinson has written about sailing in his novels, he has yet to convince me that he's actually done much of it. Now on surfing (which I haven't done) he sounds more convincing. And David Foster Wallace wrote pretty convincingly of half-way houses in "Infinite Jest," claiming while he was alive that he was just that good a researcher. But it turns out that he had had first-hand experience, after all. Which is the best research that exists.
Erik Williams. You equate the Bach Chaconne with Twilight? Really?! "Contrived"?!! What the heck does that mean? You need to get out more if you think that "random Twilight readers" would know the Chaconne. "More complex"? "Easily digested"?! Wait, do you actually know the Chaconne or are you just trolling here? You seem to be confusing it with the Pachelbel Canon or something.
Lol, I love the chaconne and I do know it; I was trolling a bit, but my point was that trying to cater our musical suggestions to what the "common" reader would be able to relate to just seems so...contrived. It reminded me of writing for something like Twilight, in that it's dumbed down for the sake of being appealing to the broadest audience. Also, I do enjoy the emotional elements of the chaconne but I would still define them as "simple.". Melancholy, darkness, sadness, and brief intervals of joy throughout. They are deep emotions, sure, but still simple in their form. Something like sibelius expresses more complex emotions, in my opinion, and also has more to do with struggle (as the OP requested) than the chaconne does.
Here's a thought: how about a piece for a different string instrument? To me, the Elgar and Dvorak cello concertos and the Walton viola concerto all seem to fit OP's request nicely.
Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto!!!
As for melody and heartbreaking beautiful and a real sweet violin sound I would go with the Franck Sonata in A - 4th Movement
Any one of the three Brahms Sonatas for Violin & Piano. Very romantic material, and I can never decide which one is my favorite. For an ambitious and knowledgeable amateur violinist in a fictional work, I'd imagine one holding a preference for chamber works over the big concertos.
Don't forget to consider Beethoven's "Kreutzer" Sonata, and Tolstoy's as well.
Hello all. I have been away, but have had a chance to read this thread. It's amazing and I thank you all for your input. I have listened to every piece of music mentioned here and there are definitely some that are in the running for the final choice. However, I came across a piece of music that I strongly responded to and wanted to ask you all what you think about it. It is Paganini: 24 Caprices, Op. 1: No.24 in A Minor. I've listened to two performances, Perlman and Hilary Hahn. I really love the piece. I can imagine a less accomplished player becoming frustrated with the relentless pace and (in my perception) technical difficulty in some sections. But, I defer to all of you to let me know if this is a realistic piece for an amateur to strive to play and if it is as difficult to play as it sounds - at least to me. Thank you!
Paganini wouldn't exactly fit the "heart-breaking" requirement, and doesn't have the musical complexity you claim to desire. But it is fast and difficult, so I guess there's that. I must ask: if you're looking to appeal to the least common denominator of audiences, why are you asking for the opinions of people here?
More to listen to:
Thank you both for your responses. And just to be clear, I'm not looking to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Not sure how that ever got conveyed, but absolutely not my intent. When I write novels, I do very deep research in areas unfamiliar to me. Authenticity and appealing to critical readers are both mandates that drive my work. John, I already really like Poem by Chausson and just heard Legende last night. Both of those are very appealing. I will give the Kriesler pieces a listen as well.
Well okay. Since we don't know who you really are, we don't know whether you're writing "bodice rippers" or you're the next Proust or Dostoyevsky. "Abbatoir" is a bit sinister, isn't it? I think there was a character on "Lost" by that name, and it does suggest dark themes.
Have you looked into works by Lindsey Stirling?
Out of curiosity, how extensive is your character's background on the violin? I think many of the previous suggestions are quite good, but some are also consistent with her having studied fairly seriously for a number of years.
How about Bartok's solo violin sonata?
Aside, I think it is really cool that the OP is asking here and is willing to explore peoples suggestions.
Thank you and Tammuz you make a great point about going for overt sentimentality. I think my desire to go there was cliched and uninformed. Now that I've had the chance to listen to all of your suggestions, I am beginning to see the incredibly broad and diverse spectrum of music capable to invoking more complex emotions. This has helped me to zero in more precisely on how the music relates to her. As a scientist, she has enormous potential. However, she has very little patience for the restrictions of research. She is a creative thinker with interesting theories, but her ego gets in the way and compromises her objectivity. The result is an inability to fully realize her potential and a bit of a pariah status amongst her colleagues. The Paganini piece was interesting to me because I could imagine her obsessively struggling with it, trying to force the notes, not really looking at it holistically. Again, having something to prove. Some of the other pieces have felt like they could be approached by her in the same way. I really like the added layer (learned from you) that it's not just about the technical complexities of the piece, that there is so much more. As far as her experience, I see violin as something she's pursued fairly seriously from childhood, but lacked the right parental encouragement to do what it would take to achieve a career in music. It was always something she was told was a nice hobby, but not something that could pay the bills. But she stuck with it for the love of it and the dream of being great. In that sense, I see it as quite tragic so it might be nice for the piece to, thematically, have a bit of tragedy to it, but not sentimentality. I hope this helps to clarify things beyond my original post. And, as always, I am grateful for your thoughts.
"It was always something she was told was a nice hobby, but not something that could pay the bills." Now that DOES sound familiar! I think the OP has been treated to a crash course in violin repertoire.
Not to mention the life of a writer.
I guess I should specify why do chose the Sibelius Vioin Concerto in this context. Sibelius became a composer rather than a solo violinist because he got too late of a start in the instrument (15 years old, I believe) and thus couldn't get enough of a head-start to ever have a chance of succeeding as a violinist. So composing was sort of his "safe" option to avoid becoming a starving musician. However, he always had a deep and profound regret for not being able to pursue that dream. If you listen to the Concerto, you can hear this story with great clarity. It goes through such a broad spectrum of emotions, mainly revolving around his struggles with the instrument. You can hear the "struggle" during the dissonant passages, which often involve scales and etudes done in a hasty, frustrated fashion. Then you can hear the distant dream of what could have been during the slow, melodic sections. I think his personal story most clearly reflects that of the character in your book.
Another vote for the Bach Chaconne (or maybe Vitali?)
You might want to take a look at an autobiography, Play It Again: An Amateur Against the Impossible,by Alan Rusbridger. He's a British journalist and former editor of The Guardian who gave himself a year deadline to learn the Chopin Ballade No. 1. The book is about how he finds time to practice, his struggles with the Ballade, the help he sought from professional musicians, etc. The book is not at all romantic but you might get an understanding of how at least one over-achieving amateur musician tackles a very difficult piece while maintaining a demanding career.
If you are going to have your protagonist approach the Paganini caprices, I suggest you also listen to the Paganini violin concertos (at least the first 2) to gain some understanding of the melodic passion of which he was capable.
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