Music in literature

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Music in literature

For music lovers who also like a good read, how about some suggestions of books that feature music?

Can I begin with a recommendation of Vikram Seth's "An Equal Music"?  

Part of the blurb on the back cover of my edition is: "The finest novel about music ever written in English".   Over the top perhaps, but it's the best one I know of, although to be fair, it's first and foremost a love story.  The protagonists are musicians, the narrator being a second violinist in a string quartet.  A considerable list of chamber music features: selection, rehearsal, performance, the complex interaction between the players - but it is the intimacy and the detail of the effect of each piece that is so convincingly conveyed (to this non-musician, anyway).

The fact that Decca released a double CD with the music featured (466 945-2) shows how much music is involved.

I found the novel a truly great read, combining two of my greatest passions, and would love to know of other novels that feature music. Any suggestions?



RE: Music in literature

There are quite a few, but one that's at once fascinating and maddening, is Kazuo Ishiguro's The Unconsoled. It's about a concert pianist trying to get to a concert and continually being diverted. The whole thing is like a maze, with music (and the music of memory, too) at its centre.

RE: Music in literature

I agree with you about the Vikram Seth, Vic. And I agree with James about the Ishiguro: although I don't remember much about the musical side (perhaps appropriate for that dream-like novel). Ishiguro is clearly interested in music - his recent collection of short stories Nocturnes has music as a background 'theme'. Julian Barnes is also interested in music: he's written a number of short stories with a musical theme, including one apparently about Sibelius (he's not named as such, to my recollection) in his collection The Lemon Table. He also has a funny and evocative story in that collection about a Festival Hall concert (Haitink is conducting a Mozart piano concerto and Shostakovich's 4th Symphony!).

Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus is of course a composer... more than that I can't say as I found it too hard to get into, if I'm honest.

Lots of good/great novelists were fond of music - but it strikes me that there are very few (if any: the Seth may indeed be the best to date) great portrayals of music in literature. The debt seems to be in the other direction. I suppose this is because the medium, while allowing ambiguity, is too unlike music. If you compare reading with listening, what you naturally do with a book - cast your eyes over the words at the pace suitable for you (generally a steady pace), go back, clarify, 'pause' as you consider a point etc - you don't really do with music, and certainly couldn't with live music. Imagine asking Haitink (since he's been mentioned) to stop, go back, play that bit again three times and just hang on for a minute or two while you think about it!


RE: Music in literature

Beethoven's 5th in Howards End, Beethoven and Schumann or Schubert in A Room with a view - These all just go to show that you should not look for music in literature, or literature in music. Try and seperate the two - no matter how much of a misguided liberal you might be.

RE: Music in literature

There are Nicholas Jenkins' cronies in the middle books of Powell's Dance to the Music of Time. It's fun cross-referencing to his autobiographies to figure out who's who. Moreland, despite Powell's denials, has to be Constant Lambert perhaps with a dash of Walton thrown in. Maclintick is more of an amalgam. Warlock for starters, but perhaps with some Rawsthorne in there too although that would move Rawsthorne back in time. What other leftist embryonic composers were there, shortly pre-war? I've no idea who Carolo, the violinist, might be.

Then there's the Albert Murray trilogy Train Whistle Guitar, The Spyglass Tree and The Seven League Boots. But we're talking jazz/blues here, music that is, how should one put it, rather infra dig? - for some forum members.

RE: Music in literature

Philip-Clark wrote:

I read Ian McEwan's Amsterdam with a sinking feeling that, really, here's an author with no idea of what it is to be a composer, or any knowledge of the aesthetics of any branch of 'modern' music. Which is strange because he works regularly with Michael Berkeley; but not as strange as Amsterdam winning the Booker Prize. (Slightly off topic: but the composer in Kieslowski's film Three Colours Blue, Patrice de Courcy, is equally unbelievable. Kieslowski's film was pre-Karl Jenkins tat, but the idea of any composer writing music like that becoming the national figure implied in the film is kind of nonsense. Still a great film though.)

So another vote for Doctor Faustus; and let's not forget about Proust's fictional Vinteuil.

Amen on all counts.

RE: Music in literature

Haruki Marakami loves music (as well as running, books and cats). There are frequent references to it, for instance 'The Archduke Trio' is listened to in "Norwegian Wood" and in his latest novel, "IQ84", Janacek's "Sinfonietta" has a prominent place in the opening pages. I enjoy his very original, often strange, not to say weird, novels. When it comes to the most musical of writers, of those whose work is imbued with music, Proust would come top of my list.


RE: Music in literature

Music begins where words end. So, attempting to convey its intangible yet visceral power is one of the most frustrating endeavours any music-loving auteur can undertake.However, it's among the most enticing too.

Some striking and apparently successful "endeavours":

-Leo Tolstoy : The Kreutzer Sonata - No other writer has latched on to the sexual power of music quite astutely as the great Leo. The celebrated short story slices open the equation of musical with sexual partnership, inspired by the elemental drive of Beethoven's homonymous Violin/Piano Sonata.

-Ivan Turgenev : The Song of Triumphant Love - Turganev was in love with Pauline Viardot, the famoso operatic singer. This peculiar short story presents music as a sort of black magic in a love triangle that offers disturbing resonances. Music, according to Turganev, can cast a spell more potent than human passions. (Does remind you some other thread's subject?)

-Marcel Proust : Swann's Way - Here, the author comes close to elucidating the most indefinable sensations of musical response.

-Ann Patchett : Bel Canto - A direct tribute to the transformative power of music.

-Louis de Bernieres : Captain Corelli's Mandolin - "Hail Hitler" versus "Hail Puccini"! The music as the strongest and the only one note of Hope. (Again, traces of the "subject" of another thread).

-Joanna Trollope : The Choir - The power of music to bring people together, properly celebrated through the refined music of a cathedral choir.

-Jilly Cooper : Appassionata - The power of music may drive some of the characters, but music may inspire the power hunger of a few outside egos too.

- E.M. Forster : Howards End - The scherzo of Beethoven's Fifth as never before (or after) envisaged.

-Jessica Duchen : Rites of Spring - The galvanising power of music shines out in a ritual of life and salvation.

So, Vic, enough "food for thought"?

Good exploration and eventual reading (I cannot bear it anymore).



RE: Music in literature

tagalie wrote:

Then there's the Albert Murray trilogy Train Whistle Guitar, The Spyglass Tree and The Seven League Boots. But we're talking jazz/blues here, music that is, how should one put it, rather infra dig? - for some forum members.

The Murray books are pretty good. But have you read James Baldwin's Another Country? 

The way jazz seeped inside Jack Kerouac's writing is very interesting. On The Road, the version we've known for years is great, but earlier this year I read the original scroll version - ie one para lasting about 650 pages - and the deep connection between jazz and Kerouac is even stronger. Highly recommended. 

RE: Music in literature

Thomas Mann's Dr Faustus must be one of *the* musical novels -- but it has so far defeated me twice now (whereas The Magic Mountain is utterly wornderful -- but music free, as far as I recall).

BUt here's an oddity: Thomas Bernhard's strange and compelling THE LOSER which features (at least in the recall of the narrator) a character called Glenn Gould who, like Wittgenstein's nephew, may bear some passing resemblance to someone real...

RE: Music in literature

Two oddball cases:

In the late 70s, Radio 3 broadcast a programme called "The Devil's Jig," including "realizations" by Humphrey Searle of the compositions of Adrian Leverkühn described in such great verbal detail in Doktor Faustus.  I still have the bootleg I made as a putridly earnest teen.  They ain't lining up for it - though to be fair I think Searle has been much and unfairly battered.

For mystery readers, the late Reginald Hill's On Beulah Heights, one of the Dalziel and Pascoe novels, is centred in various ways on Mahler's Kindertotenlieder.  Very early in the book there's an extremely funny parody of Radio 3's Record (now CD) Review, referred to as Coming Out.

RE: Music in literature

There are a few books whose form is based on a musical work.  The examples which come to mind are Richard Powers' Goldbug Variations, which takes its form from the Goldberg Variations, and Anthony Burgess' Napoleon Symphony, which takes its form from a source too obvious to mention.  Douglas Hofstadter wrote a dialogue in the form of a crab canon in Godel, Escher, Bach (i.e., two voices, one the exact reverse of the other).

RE: Music in literature

A bit of an obscure one, but Gunter Grass' novel The Meeting at Telgte revolves around a (fictional) meeting of German poets and intellectuals towards the end of the Thirty Years' War in 1647. There is an amusing passage where a major composer comes in whose very presence is towering, authoritarian and masculine and who treats the poets as if mere children. 

As it is 20 plus years since I read it I am not totally sure which composer it is - it might be Schutz as his dates would fit. Can anyone help me out?

Overall the novel, though of interest, was a bit of a dry read...


RE: Music in literature

Literary choices so far have been mostly high brow.Here is one for the beach 'The Music Lovers, a Harry Stoner Mystery' written by Jonathan Valin.
A good read,must be as one of the few books I have read twice!To give anyone interested a feel for the book I will quote the blurb-

Enter Leon Tubin,collector of vintage LP recordings,who is sure another member of his music-listening group is ripping him off.They're all jealous of his record library,especially his Wagner-loving rival,Sherwood Loeffler.Harry thinks the whole thing's peanuts,but Leon insists that the recordings in question are worth about $10,000.Moreover he's prepared to offer Harry a cash advance.Harry takes the case.

RE: Music in literature

Hi Alan!

Thankyou so much for that! Good to hear from someone else who read it at the time it came out like me, and who knows the background. It might well be Schutz then. It is amusing because the composer figure is far from gracious and compassionate but a great all-powerful and intimidating presence!

The passage in question, if memory serves, is somewhere near the beginning - first twenty or thirty pages or so.

I don't know if any composer attended the 1947 meeting. It might be an interesting mental puzzle to try to work out who it was if one did.

I don't know what happened to my original copy. Occasionally I have a book clear out and shift a box somewhere like a charity shop or a church fete, but I tend to keep hold of interesting novels especially in genres like magic realism and the nouveau roman. It's amazing what you can find in second hand book shops as I'm sure you know, as when I discovered BS Johnson a few years ago I managed to find an original copy of his second novel Albert Angelo in such a shop in Hebden Bridge. Thankfully Jonathan Coe's massive biography (Like a Fiery Elephant in Picador Hardback)came out shortly after I discovered Brian Stanley, and Picador brought out The Unfortunates (the famous novel in a box - that's the one with all the loose papers and little booklets that you shuffle and read in random order). Though smaller than the original (I think having seen a photo of BS holding the original version which looked like A4 size papers) it was badly in need of a re-print, though it is £20 the box set and I have seen some silly prices on Amazon.

One rarity I have is The Immortal One, a cine-novel by Alain Robbe-Grillet, which I once saw on Amazon around £150.
Mine came from Foyles I think in student days.

Anyway, nice to digress! I have checked today and I can get The Meeting at Telgte on Amazon (at a modest price), so I think I will re-order and have a re-read...

Another good thread with lots of suggestions to explore...



RE: Music in literature

All this is getting very up my street and down my alley.  There's apparently been some speculation that a model for Schütz in Grass's novel could be Henze, who in his autobiography Bohemian Fifths talks about being taken to a Gruppe 47 meeting by the author Wolfgang Hildesheimer (it's where he meets Ingeborg Bachmann). This has been disputed on the grounds that at the time Henze, about 21, would have lacked the stature given (inevitably) to Schütz in the book. A book by Bettina Varwig called Histories of Heinrich Schütz, which came out last year, raises more disquieting possibilities, though they don't turn on a specific Gruppe 47 identification for Grass's Schütz.

I've wondered: could it be that when Grass's Schütz appears we're meant to think of Karl Amadeus Hartmann?  I don't believe he ever attended a meeting of Gruppe 47, but his seniority and significance for postwar German composers were immense, and his withdrawn, "austere" demeanour in the book might point to Hartmann's stance of "inner emigration." Further, isn't Grass's Schütz looking to write an opera? - Hartmann of course did write a Thirty Years' War opera, Simplicius Simplicissimus, based on a work by Grimmelshausen, the novel's Gelnhausen (and, up to a point, Grass). I'm not suggesting a watertight connection here - fiction is never that simple - but I am honestly unaware if anyone has ever proposed this, and it seems at least plausible.  If anyone does find it somewhere, could they please announce?

I have, by the way, seen reviews of an opera based on Grass's novel by Eckehard Mayer, first performed at Dortmund in 2005.  Schütz's role is evidently a spoken one!  I'd like to hear the piece.


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