The Well-Tempered Ear

I like classical music in fiction: Can you offer suggestions? Plus, piano doc airs tonight | September 22, 2009

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.

Posted in Drafts


  1. Here’s another one: I just published “The Not-Ready-for-Juilliard Players” from Rocking Horse Publishing. It’s about four music majors at a community college and a dastardly professor, who ends up murdered a decade later. Book guide on my blog (; available in e-book and paperback from Amazon.


    Comment by DugganPubs — May 4, 2016 @ 10:03 pm

  2. […] The second is this 2009 post from The Well-Tempered Ear in which the author cites a few stories that integrate classical music. As I was leaving from a […]


    Pingback by Inspiration Engine 15 – Art, Music and Stories | Creo Somnium — May 23, 2014 @ 11:27 am

  3. […] more, click here and […]


    Pingback by Bach's Influence, From Disco to James Bond — September 25, 2013 @ 10:13 am

  4. You might enoy looking at my bibliograhy at


    Comment by JOhn Gibbs — December 21, 2012 @ 2:09 pm

  5. The First Book of Classical Horror Stories (2012) – all based on classical music. MEGAZANTHUS Press.


    Comment by nullimmortalis — September 8, 2012 @ 3:38 pm

  6. I suspect this thread is so old you’ll never uncover it again, but a recent novel — “Xylophone Fragments” by Mark Woodward (okay, me) is full of classical music, and fairly literate about it. You will probably enjoy it.


    Comment by Mark Woodward — June 11, 2012 @ 8:41 pm

    • Hi Mark,
      Thank you for reading and replying.
      I checked out your book — e-book — on and it looks intriguing.
      I expect to read it sometime this summer, as I work my way through other books already on the list.
      I appreciate your recommendation.


      Comment by welltemperedear — June 12, 2012 @ 7:45 am

  7. Vaughn Petterson’s philosophical love story “Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas” has some of the best descriptions of music ever.


    Comment by Peter — January 11, 2011 @ 12:58 pm

    • Hi Peter,
      Thanks for reading and writing. I don’t the story, but will have to check it out.
      I appreciate your suggestion.


      Comment by welltemperedear — January 11, 2011 @ 2:54 pm

  8. “Rules for Old Men Waiting,” by Peter Pouncey: A good read, for someone who isn’t one at least, littered with enough classical references to release a CD.


    Comment by Caroline — September 7, 2010 @ 1:53 pm

    • Hi Caroline,
      Thanks for reading and replying.
      Sounds like i should check it out.
      Will get back and post a reaction.


      Comment by welltemperedear — September 7, 2010 @ 3:09 pm

  9. A couple come to mind:

    Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels. The main character’s sister, Bella, is a pianist, and the descriptions of her playing Brahms and Beethoven are lovely.

    Bel Canto by Anne Patchett. Patchett is one of my favorite authors, and this is one of her finest novels. Roxanne Coss, a famous opera singer, is trapped inside an embassy home in an unnamed South American country. Her daily arias lift the spirits of the captives and captors as they form an unlikely bond.


    Comment by Lindsay C — September 24, 2009 @ 5:56 pm

  10. This may be cheating, but I remember the moment in the screenplay of Peter Schaffer’s “Amadeus” when Salieri comes unstrung describing the opening of the Adagio to Mozart’s Gran Partita, the Serenade No. 10 in B-flat major for Thirteen Instruments, K.361(370a). It beings with an almost burlesque oom-pah passage, into which Mozart introduces a long, piercing, heartbreaking oboe line.


    Comment by Ron McCrea — September 22, 2009 @ 6:48 pm

  11. There’s always Romain Rolland’s mega-bildungsroman
    “Jean-Chrstophe” It was prety powerful when I read it as a young man, 168 years ago. Here’s the wikipedia link:


    Comment by Marius — September 22, 2009 @ 6:27 pm

  12. I am a big fan of E. M. Forster’s writing of classical music in his novels (particularly “Howard’s End” and “A Room with A View”), which incidentally Greg Sandow has just blogged about here:

    I haven’t read her fiction, but British music critic Jessica Duchen has
    written a few classical music inspired novels, the most recent being
    “Hungarian Dances” and “Songs of Triumphant Love.”

    Her wonderful music blog is here:

    Did you happen to see Alex Ross’s recent piece in The New Yorker, “Imaginary Concerts”? He focuses on the music of fictional composers, starting in Proust.

    A timely subject, apparently!


    Comment by Brian H. — September 22, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

    • Thanks for the tips.

      I did see the new New Yorker, after I drafted my post, but I haven’t finished reading it yet.

      Now I will.

      The Ear


      Comment by welltemperedear — September 22, 2009 @ 4:59 pm

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