We are all readers.
I can say that with a pretty good degree of certainty because I know I am – and I know you are because you are reading this article right now. Perhaps you are a lover of non-fiction and that’s why you are reading it, or perhaps the title has drawn you in because it is something to do with fiction.
Some of you may also be writers, as I am.
There are many devices we can use to help us bring our writing to life. In this short series of articles, I take a fairly light-hearted look at just one of them. Music.
Licence to use obtained – Copyright: soleilc1 / 123RF Stock Photo
I don’t intend to become too scholarly about it, so, if you’re looking for in-depth analysis of the part music plays in fiction, I’m afraid you’ll have to look elsewhere. However, I do aim to share some interesting thoughts and examples with you, and hopefully get you thinking about how music is used in classical and popular literature, how I use it in my writing, and how you might use it in your own writing.
No matter whether you are readers or writers, or both, I wonder if you have noticed how much music features in fiction. Have a few titles sprung to mind straight away?
Titles like High Fidelity by Nick Hornby, The Piano by Jane Campion & Kate Pullinger, Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, or An Equal Music by Vikram Seth.
Maybe you remember The Mozart Season by the American children’s author, Virginia Euwer Wolff – not to be confused with the British modernist author, Virginia Woolf.
If any of these titles were the ones you thought of without hesitation, it may be because these are all books in which the main theme is music and/or musicians.
As a reader, you may assume it would only be if you had a strong interest in music that you would enjoy such books. As a writer, that you don’t know enough about the subject to build a novel round it.
What if you are mistaken on both counts? And what about the novels where music has a place, but is not the central theme?
These are some of the questions I thought we could explore together – because I’m hoping you will help me out over this short series of articles by sharing in your comments the titles that came to your mind when I brought up the subject. I’d love if you could share your thoughts on some of the novels you’ve read that use music as the central theme, mention it in passing, or use it skilfully to help move the story along or expand the characters.
Let’s start with novels that are mainly about the music or the musicians.
I read a great quote by Rolling Stone writer Anthony DeCurtis where he talks about “the edgy relationship” between music and the written word. “Words are long-standing symbols of permanence. Music ultimately is ephemeral, evaporating into your unreliable memory once you’ve heard it. In taking music as their inspiration, writers seek to capture some of that immediacy, that spirit of the moment, and hold it still for their reader’s pleasure.”
Isn’t that what every reader wants? For a story ‘to capture some of that immediacy, that spirit of the moment, and hold it still for their pleasure’? No matter the genre, is that not what writers strive to do?
One of the books in which that ‘spirit of the moment was held still’ for my pleasure was An Equal Music by Vikram Seth.
I am not a musician and I do not have a musical background. Nor am I knowledgeable about music in any way at all. But this book grabbed my attention and held it throughout.
Vikram Seth did not just write this novel – he composed it.
It is a simple story, a basic plot, boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again, yet it is a beautiful novel, a powerful and deeply romantic tale of two gifted musicians whose love story is orchestrated to take the reader to places as different one from another as Rochdale, Vienna, Venice and London, all beautifully accompanied by music.
You could almost say that music is one of the main characters in the story because this novel is full of descriptions of various pieces of classical music by composers such as Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. In fact, you might even say the true love affair is with music.
Vikram Seth says in the “Author’s note” to this book, ”Music is dearer to me even than speech.” I believe him.
And that’s what makes the writing work for me, the music. Vikram Seth writes in such a way that I can almost hear the music as I read.
Ann Patchett’s novel, Bel Canto, sings of the ability of music to unite and remind men and women of their common humanity.
Coming from more than half a dozen different countries, and holding no language in common except music, a large group of international hostages and their terrorist captors forge unexpected bonds during the months of a stand off with the authorities. The music that works this magic is that of a world-renown soprano and her accompanist who are caught up in the incident and also held captive.
With writing that is suitably lyrical, and melodic, this bittersweet novel would have it that operatic arias prove more effective than a S.W.A.T. team and diplomats combined at resolving an international incident. So, once again, music plays a central role in the story, and, once again, the writing makes it live.
I want to write like that. I want to be able ‘to capture some of that immediacy, that spirit of the moment, and hold it still’ for my readers’ pleasure. Knowing nothing about music, I’ll be unable to do it by using music as my central theme, but I wonder if I have managed to come some way towards my goal by using some of the pieces I like in my writing. I’d love to think so.
In one of my earlier novels, Flying Free, classical music has a role to play in the central character’s life. For instance, when she attends an orchestral concert the different pieces of music affect her deeply and reach her in ways she would not have thought possible. In her mind, one of the pieces becomes inextricably associated with Tom, another of the main characters: Bellini’s Oboe Concerto. It is such a beautiful piece – but perhaps I’ll let Jayne tell you about it:
~~~ Tom’s Music ~~~
Bellini’s Oboe Concerto.
At first it was gliding… slowly, luxuriously… floating on the warm current of air that was the melody. It was all around her, lifting her gently, tumbling her softly in its caress. When she closed her eyes, she could look down from her lazy cloud and see Tom as she had seen him only a few short hours ago, sitting on a park bench, his long legs stretched out, his face turned to the sun, totally relaxed, contentedly waiting. The gentle warmth of the sun, it was soothing, so soothing. She was there beside him, relaxed, waiting. Like the music. She held her breath as it seemed to hover, watching, watching Tom open his eyes, the radiance of his welcoming smile.
He was off the bench and the music started to soar, taking her with it, making her laugh with sheer delight, catching her breath with its joyousness, its love of life. It made her want to dance, to spin round the room the way Tom had spun her as a teenager when he was teaching her and Rosie how to dance, the way he had spun her round in the park at lunchtime. Like this glorious music, Tom had spun her off-balance. She was intoxicated, drunk with its wine.
This was Tom’s music. It echoed his energy, his impulsive, spontaneous passion for life. She would never hear it again without thinking of him, without remembering their crazy, heady “flight” through Princes Street Gardens and all the way to London.
What are your favourite books about music or musicians? Was music the central theme, or did it play a minor role? Was it used to move the plot along, or to deepen your understanding of the characters?
As a reader, did the musical theme enhance the story for you? As a writer, did it inspire you to use music in your writing?