Music and novels
I’ve recently read a number of novels where classical music is a strong concern. Aside from their inherent interest, I am planning a course for the summer of 2018 that will cover a few of these novels and branch out to explore the music they mention.
Some years ago I read Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam (a satire featuring rival composers) and Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music (features a string quartet). In the past few months I’ve read two novels about Shostakovich: Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time and Sarah Quigley’s The Conductor (about the Seventh symphony and the siege of Leningrad). I’ve also read Natasha Solomons’ The Song Collector (which touches on folk song collecting and mid-C20th English music), Steven Galloway’s The Cellist of Sarajevo, and Richard Powers’ Orfeo.
The Barnes novel I recommend because the writing is concise and thoughtful, and effectively terrifying in places in evoking the horrible stresses of life in a totalitarian regime, though it relies so much on biography I’m not sure it qualifies as a novel at all. I think it was Barnes who wrote an interesting short story ‘Silence’ about Sibelius and the mystery of the Eighth symphony.
Powers’ Orfeo is, for all its faults, a must-read for anyone interested in music as a life-changing phenomenon which goes far beyond just entertainment. This novel is saturated with musical reference at every turn, whether at the small level of metaphor and simile, epigraphs and quotations, to substantial digressions on several famous pieces, such as Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time.
Meanwhile Thomas Mann’s C20th landmark and lengthy music novel Doctor Faustus awaits …
Recent music I’ve enjoyed includes French songs from the late 1960s by Serge Gainsbourg, Arvo Part’s Tabula Rasa, John Adams’ The Dharma at Big Sur, and Lutoslawski’s Concerto for Orchestra.