Ten of the best (and worst) novels about composers
The BBC Music Magazine team reviews a selection of works of fiction which feature the great composers
Time to curl up with a cup of cocoa and a good book? Classical bookworms can feast on a wealth of novels about performers, from Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music to Ann Patchett’s operatic thriller Bel Canto.
But how about if you head to the ‘composer’ section of the bookshelf? We’re not talking fictionalised artists – the likes of Adrian Leverkühn in Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus - but novels that take a look at the lives and worlds of real people.
So read on to find out how we rate ten fictional yarns about the great composers, from Strozzi in London to Elgar in the Amazon…
FACTS: just how much do we learn about the composer and their world?
FUN: is it a rollicking read or one for the slush pile?
Julian Barnes (Vintage)
A poetic story based on Shostakovich’s life under Stalin’s dangerous gaze
This was quite rightly a bestseller when it was published in 2016. In his three-part tale, Barnes plunges us into Shostakovich’s nervous existence. Waiting ‘On the landing’ the composer anticipates an inevitable arrest, following the Pravda article that almost ruined him.
Then ‘On the plane’ he endures a flight to New York in the service of the Soviet regime, and finally during a meandering journey taken ‘In the car’ he muses on his legacy as he enters his twilight years.
Through each he reflects on the life he lived (mostly in fear of something) the loves he enjoyed (and endured) and the music he wrote.
Barnes’s prose is elegant and the fragmented structure makes you feel that you’re inside the composer’s head, flitting from one memory to the next. Of course, the musings are really Barnes’s – this is a fictional take on documented events and biographical detail – but his Shostakovich is a credible character. A riveting story of survival.
Anthony Burgess (Vintage)
A slightly outré but nevertheless amusing look at a handful of arguing composers
A novel by Anthony Burgess? Surely something to savour. Prepare, however, to be disappointed. Mozart & the Wolf Gang is a very different beast to Burgess’s renowned 1962 dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange.
Published in 1991 towards the end of Burgess’s life, it is based around a set of discussions between famous composers, and is written like a play. This is persistently interrupted by a perplexing dialogue between two characters named Anthony and Burgess, plus a fictionalised narrative of Mozart’s Symphony No. 40. It’s as erratic as it sounds.
There’s no real plot – instead, the narrative arc is led by the constant bickering between the composers, who relentlessly put down one another’s music, nationalities and political leanings. Amusing, if a little tiring.
In short, this is a self-indulgent exploration of one of Burgess’s favourite composers, and it’s full of esoteric references that will be lost on a lot of readers. Really, it reads like an experiment that perhaps shouldn’t ever have been published.
Barbara Quick (Harper Collins)
The evocative tale of a talented orphan violinist, exploring her roots in 18th-century Venice
OK, so the title might not inspire confidence, but there is treasure within the pages of Barbara Quick’s 2007 novel. She paints a vivid picture of Venetian society, from its glittering masquerades to its downright dirty underbelly, all seen through the eyes of a young orphan growing up in the care of the Ospidale della Pietà.
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Anna Maria is a sensational violinist, under the tutelage of The Red Priest himself – and dedicatee of many of his works. Through her musings and letters we learn about life in the Pietà as a member of the ‘figlie de coro’, and get swept up in her search for her Mother.
Vivaldi is painted as both father figure and mischievous ally, and there are memorable cameos, too, from Handel and Scarlatti. Quick has plainly done her homework; there’s an abundance of musical detail and while this is fiction she takes her lead from documented people, places and events. A colourful, and sometimes emotional, read.
James Hamilton-Patterson (Faber & Faber)
A brilliantly-imagined recreation of Elgar’s undocumented adventure to the Amazon
When Anthony Payne elaborated the surviving sketches for Elgar’s Third Symphony, he created a remarkable piece so Elgarian in feel that it was hard to tell musical fact from fiction.
James Hamilton-Patterson achieves something similar in Gerontius, which draws on what we know about the British composer –his love of puns and of rivers, for instance – and fills in a period in his life that we know next to nothing about.
In 1923, three years after his wife had died, the rather lost, disillusioned and semi-retired Elgar decided on a whim to take a six-week voyage to the Amazon, which is where this enjoyable novel steps in.
True, it starts with a weighty and tiresome dream sequence, but the tale soon perks up. A vivid picture of Elgar emerges, as he gets to know his fellow sailors and encounters the heady Amazon.
Bonnie Marson (Ballantine Books)
A lawyer finds herself sharing her existence with Schubert, with unhappy results
You may lose the will to live should you choose to read this. But anyway, here goes. While out shopping, New York lawyer Lisa Durbin finds herself inhabited by the ghost of Schubert (not a premise that comes easily).
With her new guest on board, she becomes an overnight piano sensation and, later, the medium by which the composer introduces a series of previously unheard works to 21st-century audiences.
As a host of grotesques – from her PR monster of a sister to a Juilliard professor from hell – line up to take advantage of her extraordinary gift, she has to come to terms with the idea of sharing her existence with a 19th-century genius.
One might sympathise were Durbin, our narrator, not so persistently self-obsessed – we’re given regular updates about her hair (large) and chest (also large), but learn little about her body-mate, poor old Schubert, other than that he gets giddy whenever a piano comes into view.
Amusing? No. Touching? No. Erotic? Hardly. Don’t expect Sleeping with Schubert to make the earth move for you.
Susanne Dunlap (Simon & Schuster)
A girl’s encounter with Liszt marks a turning point in her quest for the truth about her father
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times: Paris is in the grip of a deadly water-borne disease and Franz Liszt can’t keep his trousers up. At least, that’s how Dunlap’s book initially unfolds.
Liszt, the seducer of a 15-year-old aristrocrat’s daughter, actually turns out to be a sensitive sort, attracted to the married Marie d’Agoult, and shacked up with his chum in a garret where they seem to drink nothing but claret.
Meanwhile, our young protagonist Anne’s mother has died and her father has locked the family piano away, although that’s soon the least of her worries. Lessons with Liszt, encounters with a mysterious suitor, and a suave doctor, provide the slightly flabby meat.
But the music references are fun – Liszt emerges suitably flamboyant and enigmatic, and Erard’s escapement mechanism, Paganini, Berlioz and Giuditta Pasta all get a look-in. But does Liszt get the girl? And is Anne as wet as she seems? The cliffhanger is at least worth waiting for.
Mary Sharratt (Mariner)
A not-so-musical account of the fascinating life of the composing nun
A cursory glance at this book’s cover suggests it might belong on the shelves of a market stall specialising in crystals and tarot cards. Fortunately, however, the content inside is much more compelling.
Mary Sharratt chronicles the fascinating life of Hildegard Von Bingen, who was sent to a monastery at a young age because of the visions she had been experiencing.
Hildegard’s liturgical songs are peppered throughout the novel, primarily as motifs to explain various moments of importance in her life. However, her music takes something of a back seat within the plot.
The focus is instead placed on her pious life and relationships with the women around her. And she was quite the early feminist, which makes for an interesting subtext. Nevertheless, if you’re after a thorough examination of Hildegard’s musical output, you’ll likely be disappointed.
Wesley Stace (Vintage)
A superbly entertaining insight into the darker side of early 20th-century English music
Charles Jessold, taken under the wing of critic Leslie Shepherd (the book’s narrator), is one of the most promising English composers of his day, his works the toast of the town.
But he has a troubled soul – alcoholism, sociopathy, the occult… and a fixation on the murderous crimes of his near namesake Carlo Gesualdo that manifests itself in his Britten-esque masterpiece, the opera Little Musgrave. From there, things unravel at a pace.
Wesley Stace’s novel is more than a rip-roaring tale – he knows his stuff, and peppers the book with wonderful insights into the critic-musician relationship, London’s cliquey music scene and a delightful account of the premiere of Britten’s Peter Grimes.
What’s most astonishing is that, without hearing a note, Jessold’s music comes utterly to life thanks to Stace’s brilliant contextual writing. Half the fun, too, is guessing who Jessold is modelled on. Is it Warlock, Grainger, Holst – even Vaughan Williams? Utterly quirky, informative fun.
My Tango With Barbara Strozzi
Russell Hoban (Bloomsbury)
A quirky modern-day love story inspired by the Baroque Italian composer
When novelist Phil Ockerman takes a tour of an exhibition of composer portraits, he comes across an arresting picture of La Virtuosissima Cantatrice, Barbara Strozzi. ‘What a woman!’ he notes. Interest turns to an obsession with the 17th-century Venetian singer and composer.
He goes home to luxuriate in her music, which in turn leads him to try out a tango class. There he meets Bertha Strunk, a professional glass eyeball painter who he thinks looks so like Strozzi that he starts calling her Barbara.
The tale of their romance continues in this unlikely vein, and is packed with improbable coincidences and unexpected events that in a different author’s hands would seem ridiculous. Here, somehow, Russell Hoban gets at the strangeness of ordinary life.
We learn most about Strozzi at the start of the novel, but she then becomes a symbol for powerful infatuation. It’s a shame she’s not given her own voice – her real-life story is fascinating – yet this odd book might just inspire you to listen to her music.
Conversations with Beethoven
Sanford Friedman (New York Review of Books)
The composer faces death in the company of those who know him best
Now this is rather clever. What we have here is a chronicle of Beethoven’s last few months on this earth, depicted in a series of imaginary conversations that he might have had with those around him.
We, however, only get to see what they were saying to him, communicating by written notes on account of his deafness – his spoken replies are left to our imagination.
The narrative kicks off with the attempted suicide of Beethoven’s beloved but flighty nephew Karl, and thereafter we are introduced to a series of family members, friends and professional acquaintances who, as the great man’s health steadily declines, do little more than irritate him with their good intentions.
He, in turn, drives them to despair with his petulance, paranoia and painful bloody-mindedness. As the various names come and go, you may want Google close at hand to tell you a little more about them – there’s a lot to take in. It is, though, surprisingly engrossing.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.