I progressed, improbably, from preparing for a career as a professional violist to a position running a social justice foundation. Anyone who’s spent their formative years in music knows the training to be relentless and indelible. Ever since then, I’ve been on a quest for fiction that transmits classical music to the page. I crave writers who reach beyond the emotional clichés that have a nasty way of inserting themselves regardless of musical genre. I want music that’s so finely tuned it’s inseparable from the overall composition. Is it surprising that I’m rarely satisfied? It turns out that some of my favorite music books are not about music. Instead, music drives their exploration of intractable political, and ultimately, human problems.
The Time of Our Singing, by Richard Powers
“Democracy is not on the program” for Marian Anderson’s iconic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. In this spectacular novel, Delia Daley, a black singer from Philadelphia, meets her life partner that auspicious afternoon on the Washington Mall. He is David Strom, a physicist orphaned by the Holocaust. Their son Jonah becomes a star-touched tenor whose fast passages hang “motionless in flight, every note audible, one of those stop-action photographs.” Against accelerating social upheaval, Jonah and his pianist brother Joseph fight their way through classical music’s racist thickets. “Black or white?” their sister Ruth asks, which “is what the world asks of her.” The novel covers the vast uneven sweep of the Civil Rights movement as music’s splendor collides with craven racial violence, and family goes head-to-head with community. Written in soaring harmonies, The Time of Our Singing details our country’s conflicting legacies of hope and despair as the “American Dream and American Reality square off.”
(If you love this book, I recommend Richard Powers’ the Gold Bug Variations and Orfeo as well.)
Dvorak in Love: A Light-Hearted Dream, by Josef Skvorecky, translated from the Czech by Paul Wilson
Less successful, but interesting for its social commentary, Dvorak in Love is an early, experimental novel-in-linked-stories so popular today. Different characters narrate each chapter, recounting their interactions with the great composer primarily during his sojourn in New York and Iowa. Dvorak hovers like negative space in the middle of a painting as his friends, patrons, and family share insights and stories about him; his compositions integral to the plot. The novel notably explores xenophobia and prejudice, including America’s cavernous racial divide. Renowned African American violinist and composer, Will Marion Cook, who was, in fact, a student of Dvorak’s, figures prominently. One Bohemian (Czech) character comments incredulously about America, “It’s not true that they won’t let you into the fancy restaurants just because of the colour of your skin. You can be as white as Sam [another African American character], and they still won’t let you in. It’s not your skin but your blood.”
(Josef Skvorecky immigrated to Canada following the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia and wrote two wonderful novellas, published under the title The Bass Saxophone, that use jazz to probe Nazi and Communist oppression.)
The Cellist of Sarajevo, by Steven Galloway
As his beloved city disintegrates under bombs and snipers, a cellist goes out once a day to bear musical witness to the twenty-two people killed beneath his window by a mortar shell. The piece that the cellist plays may derive from Albinoni, but has been reconstructed by someone else; it is a piece with no identity. This is war, where claiming a true identity is an unbearable reminder of a shattered, tranquil past. When she imagines being asked the origin of her current name, the sharpshooting girl whose sole goal is to kill occupying soldiers answers, “I am Arrow because I hate them. The woman you [once] knew hated nobody.” This is less a story about music, and more one about the ravages of war, diminished, perhaps, by real life cellist Vedran Smailović’s claims that Galloway appropriated his story without permission.
Mendelssohn is on the Roof, by Jiri Weil, translated from the Czech by Marie Winn
Mendelssohn is on the Roof is a much more complex literary work. A Nazi officer orders the removal of Mendelssohn, a “Jewish statue,” from the Prague Academy of Music. Two bumbling workmen mistakenly remove the statue with the biggest nose—Wagner—the Nazi’s musical emblem. The novel progresses from the seemingly comedic to Nazism’s deadly underbelly. In a chilling melding of history and fiction, “Acting Reich Protector” Reinhard Heydrich, assigned the job of liquidating European Jewry, kicks back in a concert, listening to Mozart and planning the Terezin (Theresienstadt) concentration camp just outside Prague. Poor Heydrich, who must “renounce everything personal,” in service to the Leader (Fuhrer). Concerts and opera performances no longer bring him much pleasure. Heydrich’s assassination by Czech partisans falls at the book’s center, sandwiched between Prague’s set up as a once “golden city” peopled with a range of quirky and lovable characters, to a besieged “Protectorate” that attacks its children and forces its Jews into acts of betrayal before murdering them. “Life had become the common price for everything.” Music gets pushed farther and farther into the background as war trumps all. Weil, a Czech Jew, writes with the power and sensitivity of one who survived.
Us Conductors, by Sean Michaels (full disclosure–a Tin House book!)
Us Conductors is perfectly pitched between music and politics. Lev Sergeyvich Termen, inventor of the eponymously named theremin (an apparatus the musician plays hands free, seemingly conducting air), narrates his story sailing from New York to Soviet Russia in protective custody. The music in this book rings true, never more so as when Termen recalls his lost love, Clara Rockmore, violinist turned theremin player. Termen speaks of Clara in the second person with simple language that never fails to convey his longing. “You were there to perform Schelomo, by Ernest Bloch, a rhapsody for cello and orchestra…. It is a composition of sustained and devastating yearning, a wavering conversation between one voice and the ensemble. Your right hand was a fist. You opened it one finger at a time, asking and withdrawing…. In the heart of that hall, you were utterly solitary. I could not have given myself to you even if I had tried.” Summing up his lost freedom, youth, and romance, as well as his tortured present, Termen asks “How do you listen to a closed room?” This may be a love story, but it’s also a novel about the horrors of Soviet totalitarianism.
Poor and fatherless in New York, Claude Rawlings overcomes the odds and ascends to the piano world’s firmament. Claude’s trajectory is one long melody with very little dissonance, although along his musical journey, the novel explores 1950s red baiting, his mother’s mental illness, his mentor’s broken German past, and the gap between rich and poor. Conroy, a jazz pianist and legendary director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, described his challenge in this, his only novel: “[T]he experience of music is hard to convey in words.” A sample of how Conroy tried to meet that challenge: “The first three notes–the root, the fifth, and the minor third—seemed entirely magical. In their simplicity he heard the implication of the whole piece itself, and from that, from his awareness of the fugue, came an awareness of all-of-music, as if all-of-music were the overtones of any small part of music, as if all notes were contained in any single note. The perception was evanescent, but so powerful as to wipe away any thoughts of himself. Music is here!”
An Equal Music, by Vikram Seth
This is a book about music, accurately and beautifully rendered, that strikes the right balance between sentiment and music’s arduous demands. Here’s what it feels like to play in a string quartet. Details are satisfyingly accurate—from the fraught solo practice sessions, to the hothouse atmosphere of a string quartet, to the difficult professional choices forced on classical musicians. The novel unfurls the achingly gorgeous romance between violinist Michael Holme and pianist Julia McNicholl, characters whose problems may not be political, but are all too human. This book is a moving investigation of loss and love; the relationship between father and son; and the meaning of commitment to marriage, children, and above all music. In spare, elegant language Seth describes Julia’s playing as “a beauty beyond imagining – clear, lovely, inexorable, phrase across phrase, phrase echoing phrase…. It is an equal music.”
Martha Anne Toll is a professionally trained violist and writer. Her essays have appeared on NPR, in The Millions, Narrative Magazine, the Washington Independent Review of Books; and her fiction in Wild, Poetica Magazine, Referential Magazine (forthcoming), and Inkapture Magazine (forthcoming). She is the Executive Director of a nationwide social justice foundation based in Washington, DC. Please visit Martha at www.marthaannetoll.com or tweet to her @marthaannetoll.