The Well-Tempered Ear

I like classical music in fiction: Can you offer suggestions? Plus, piano doc airs tonight

September 22, 2009
16 Comments

By Jacob Stockinger

(A Pre-Script: Just a reminder that the documentary “Note By Note: The Making of Steinway L-1037,” about the building of a Steinway concert grand piano, will air tonight — Tuesday, Sept. 23 — from 9 to 10 p.m. on Wisconsin Public Television WHA-TV Channel 21.)

I love reading fiction – short stories and novels – that use classical music. So I am always on the look out for more.

I always think it reflects well on writer’s ability to compose musical sentences, to have a sense of poetry – cadence, alliteration, assonance, even rhyme – in prose. Often such allusions also add a layer of cultural and psychological meaning to the characters and story.

The latest comes from the new novel, “A Gate at the Stairs,” which I just finished, by Lorrie Moore (below right). Lorrie Moore
Here is how Moore, who lives in Madison and teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Madison,  uses her protagonist Tessie to describe pianist Glenn Gould (pictured left) Gould3 performing J.S. Bach’s French Suite No. 1 in D minor: “It was someone humming along with the light dirge of the Bach. Later I would own every loopy Glenn Gould recording available, but there in the car with Sarah was the first time I’d hear him play. The piece was like an elegant interrogation made of tangled yarn, a query from a well-dressed man in a casket, not yet dead. It proceeded slowly, like a careful question, and then not: if x=y, if major=minor, if death equals part of life and life part of death, then what is the sum of the infinite notes of this one phrase? It asked, answered, reasked, its moody asking a refinement of reluctance or dislike. I had never heard a melody quite like it.” (Page 39) Moorebook

I think Moore, who also alludes to Mussorgsky and Mozart and who describes someone as “fretful as a Bartok quartet” in the same novel, has written an outstanding description of what it is like to listen to that particular piece done by that particular artist. (I just played it again to check.)

I can think of many other similar examples.

Another current book is Eva Hoffman’s new novel “Appassionata,’ which deals with a touring piano virtuoso who falls in love with a Chechan terrorist.

And Haruki Murakami uses many references to Western classical music, as well as to jazz and pop culture, in his short stories and novels, including “Kafka on the Shore” and “Sleep.”

Thomas Mann discusses Beethoven’s late string quartets and other music in “Doctor Faustus.” In “Tristan” he uses Wagner and in “The Magic Mountain” he writes of Schubert.

Marcel Proust uses a lot of music – not surprisingly, French music — in “Remembrance of Things Past”  (In Search of Lost Time).

William T. Vollmann makes Shostakovich pivotal is his historical novel “Europe Central,” which won the National Book Award.

Willa Cather has a moving account of the power of music in her story “A Wagner Matinee.”

Swedish detective writer Henning Mankell has his hero/anti-hero police detective Kurt Wallander listen to opera in his car.

Julio Cortazar refers to the composer Alban Berg in his experimental novel “Hopscotch.”

But I am certain there are many more.

So, readers, can you help me out?

Can you suggest literary works with references to classical music?

What ones are your favorites?

The Ear wants to hear.


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