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Novels about pianists

I recently read two novels about pianists that my wife gave me for Christmas, and both were excellent. I will also briefly mention a third I read several years ago. I’m not going to try to write very thoughtful or complete book reviews here; I’ll briefly describe them and then point to reviews elsewhere.

The first, and better for the musically literate, is An Equal Music by Vikram Seth. He is probably best known for An Unsuitable Boy; Music is his second prose novel. The main character is a violinist in a top string quartet based in England. He pines for the professional pianist with whom he had a romance while they were both students in Vienna; by chance they meet again and embark on a passionate but sometimes painful affair (she is now married). The rich detail about the lives of professional musicians, and the experience of practicing as well as performing, is remarkable: it is very hard to believe that Seth is not himself a professional musician. The characters also convey a wonderful sense of the details and art of the music they play, as well as their emotional engagement with it. Yet, despite the serious and deep treatment of music, the novel is a very good yarn that reads easily and quickly. There is also a companion CD with good performances of the main pieces referenced in the book. The most enjoyable music novel I’ve ever read. [Amazon (UK) page with reviews] [The Complete Review]

The second is Body and Soul by Frank Conroy. This is the story of a development of a concert pianist, from age six to mid-30s, set largely in New York City. The musical writing is sensitive and accurate, though not as emotionally compelling as Seth’s book. Claude is an only-child of a single mother who lives in a basement flat and drives a taxi. His talent is discovered early by an old-fashioned music store owner who becomes his first and most-beloved teacher, before he necessarily moves on to study with the very best. One high point was the presentation of the different teaching styles and approaches to technique employed by his several teachers. His emergence in early concerts as a promising performer is quite moving. The personal story (family, romance, friendships) is portrayed very straightforwardly, but episodically, with surprising gaps that left me wondering. [Amazon page with reviews]

The third, which I read several years ago, is The Piano Tuner, by Daniel Mason. It’s the story of Edgar Drake, who is commissioned by the British Government to go to Burma in the late-1800s to tune the piano of a strategically important warlord. Drake, of course, plays, and there are some wonderful moments, particularly of him playing the Well-Tempered Clavier on the less than pristine Erard he finds when he arrives in Burma. The story is not as rich in musical detail as those above, though Mason does convey passion for and sensitivity to piano music. [Amazon page with reviews]

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