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Musicians in novels: good reading for teachers and students.

When I mentioned to my colleague, Judy Solomon, that I was compiling a reference book of novels in which musicians are the main characters, she gave me a copy of an article entitled "Music and Fiction," written by Christopher Brennan for the April/May 1993 issue of American Music Teacher. Brennan's excellent article focuses on short stories, while I'm dealing with novels, but our intention is the same: to provide interested and curious music teachers and students with good stories about the lives of musicians.

Like Brennan, I've frequently observed that musicians often have a passion for literature. It's easy to identify with a fictional musician and enlightening to see what writers imagine about the lives of musicians. Music students contemplating a career would do especially well to see how writers treat musicians and where they place them in society.

My work on this project began some 25 years ago, when I myself was a student in the doctoral program at the University of California, Santa Barbara. One of my teachers, the distinguished British composer Peter Racine Fricker, casually mentioned once that every music major should be required to read Thomas Mann's Doctor Faustus. After doing so I could see why. Not only was it outstanding literature (Mann won the Nobel Prize in 1929), but it was, and remains, a strong warning against taking shortcuts and seeking or accepting outside help, like drugs, in any kind of individual or artistic endeavor.

The help a budding musician gets from a bona fide teacher, however, is quite a different matter and the subject of numerous novels, such as George Du Maurier's Trilby, Robert Starer's The Music Teacher and Robert Tanenbaum's The Piano Teacher: The True Story of a Psychotic Killer. This last title is based on a true crime tale in which a talented, yet profoundly disturbed, musician turns out to be several students' last teacher. Less grisly is the bittersweet Madame Sousatzka by Bernice Rubens. Here we meet an endearing, if eccentric, piano instructor, a Russian style grande dame who teaches gifted students both how to play and how to live. Her defiance in living in London in an Edwardian house scheduled for demolition provides a not-so-subtle insight into her personality, methods and effectiveness.

Madame Sousatzka was made into a 1988 movie starring Shirley MacLaine, and there are at least five film versions of Trilby, the best being the 1931 Svengali, starring John Barrymore and Marian Marsh. Dorothy Baker's Dung Man with a Horn, loosely based on the life of jazz great Bix Biederbecke, is another musician novel that received cinematic treatment: a 1950 Warner Bros. movie starring Kirk Douglas, Doris Day and Lauren Bacall, with trumpeter Harry James on the soundtrack. The story is a classic tale of a gifted but tragically self-destructive artist. Young Rick Martin is inspired by the ecstatic music of a small jazz combo, and with a second-hand trumpet and the guidance of an accomplished bluesman, he develops into a superb artist obsessed with music.

The theme of the suffering artist comes up frequently, and a vivid example is the case of Herr Kuhn in Hermann Hesse's Gertrude. Early in his career Kuhn begins to feel "that true creativity isolates one and demands something that has to be subtracted from the enjoyment of life."

While such a romantic notion is debatable, it animates this outstanding fictional memoir in which a composer recounts his life, particularly his relationships with Heinrich Muoth, a disturbed opera singer, and the beguiling Gertrude Imthor. Kuhn has a crush on Imthor, but she falls in love with Muoth, to whom she is introduced when Kuhn has them run through parts of his new opera.

Like Gertrude and Doctor Faustus, Willa Cather's Song of the Lark is a classic, which often means a book everyone knows about, but no one reads. Even the redoubtable Professor Solomon hadn't gotten around to it yet and later expressed gratitude for the suggestion. This outstanding novel tells the story of Thea Kronborg, one of seven children born into poverty in a small Colorado desert town. Kronborg's exceptional voice is recognized by a few, but most of the community believe that a woman's singing should be limited to church. Nevertheless, with her pioneer spirit, will power and the support of a few devoted fans, Kronborg triumphs first as a student in Chicago and eventually at the Metropolitan Opera and in Europe. Luckily for those who like Song of the Lark, there is another musical novel by Cather entitled Lucy Gayheart, as well as a collection of short stories, Youth and the Bright Medusa, in which five of the eight stories are about musicians. (1)

Song of the Lark is a novel about the development of a young artist, while at the very beginning of Anne Douglas Sedgwick's Tante, we meet someone who has already hit the height of her career. Actually, pianist Madame Obraska--"Tante" to her adopted daughter, Karen--is in decline and knows it. Nevertheless, Karen admires her aunt uncritically, and Obraska expects, indeed demands, similar adulation from everyone. Furthermore, she takes ingeniously wicked measures against those who deny her, including Karen herself when she marries. Still timely (who doesn't know a morbidly self-absorbed pianist?), the book was fashioned into a play entitled The Impossible Woman, which had a successful run at London's Royal Haymarket Theatre in the autumn of 1914.

The pretentiousness of classical musicians is a frequent theme in this body of literature, and it's well illustrated in Paul Horgan's first novel, The Fault of Angels. Horgan, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 1955, tells the story of a group of musicians in the fictional city of Dorchester, New York. The eccentric millionaire Henry Granson has endowed the community with a music center and school, and he now brings in the Russian conductor Vladimir Arenkoff. The story focuses on Arenkoff's wife, Nina, who is young, beautiful and refreshingly spontaneous. She quickly recognizes the artificiality and even pomposity of the community and sets about trying to get its members to live as she does--directly and honestly. For those who like Horgan's style, another of his books, No Quarter Given, deals with a musician, in this case the aging composer Edmund Abbey, who goes to Santa Fe, New Mexico, for his health and experiences a rekindling of creativity.

Occasionally, if not more often, one appreciates a light and humorous novel like J.B. Priestley's wry, Low Notes on a High Level. Priestly wrote more than 120 books, and this is one of his best. It is the story of a young English musician who becomes caught up in the scheme of an eccentric inventor. As the story progresses, he sheds an arrogant fiancee and eventually finds more suitable employment. Here and there the BBC and other institutions get nicely lampooned. The fictitious offstage composer in this novel seems most likely to be Sibelius.

"There is no Frigate like a Book/to take us Lands away," wrote Emily Dickinson in 1872, and the science fiction/fantasy writer Anne McCaffrey takes us not only to distant lands, but to other galaxies. I'm very grateful to Texas Christian University Music Librarian Carl G. Alexander for introducing me to two of McCaffrey's series--the Harper Hall trilogy and the Crystal Singer trilogy--both of which focus on musicians, female musicians in particular. In Dragonsong, the first installment in the Harper Hall trilogy and set on the planet Pern, we meet Menolly, a gifted young musician who has been forbidden by her well-meaning but narrow-minded father to cultivate music in any way. She is thwarted and misunderstood in other ways too. She eventually runs away from home, taking shelter with a group of the planet's fire lizards, relatives of the magnificent dragons who help defend Pern against deadly spores called Thread. Menolly rediscovers her music, which opens up a new life for her.

Closer to home, even if set in France, is Balzac's Cousin Pans, one of the better novels in Balzac's 47-volume, 2,000-character La Comedie humaine series. This is the story of Sylvain Pans, a poor violinist who is systematically deceived by his relatives once they learn that his art and antique collection is valuable. All anecdotal subplot is Pans' mutually nurturing friendship with fellow musician Wilhelm Schmucke. As in the other Comedie humaine novels, Balzac paints a vivid picture of life in selfish, greedy early-19th-century Parisian society, a milieu in which material values reign supreme.

Many of my friends, colleagues and students like to read murder mysteries, and within this genre there are a great many novels about musicians. Although this specialized world so far lacks a Dick Francis or Patricia Cornwell to animate an immortal whodunit, there are several excellent choices. In Death of a Pooh-Bah by Karen Sturges, the arrogant Dr. E. Foster Ballard, appropriately is cast as Pooh-Bah in the Northampton (England) Repertory Company's production of The Mikado and is murdered after the opening performance. Given his odious personality, there are many suspects, including Foster's ex-wife. The operetta's choreographer and amateur sleuth Phoebe Mullins finds her investigation complicated by the murder of another member of the company.

By way of contrast, one might compare Sturges's story with Jesse Sublett's Rock Critic Murders. The author, a sometimes rock musician himself, presents the semi-professional bass player, part-time collection agency employee, and amateur sleuth Martin Fender, who agrees to take part in a reunion of the once popular True Love, an Austin, Texas area blues band. However, the performance is canceled when lead guitarist KC, having received a cash advance from a scurrilous club owner, is murdered. As Fender investigates, the case takes on a weird aspect when two rock critics are killed, a kilo of cocaine goes missing and someone steals the 2,000-pound bug landmark from the top of a local exterminator's building. The book paints a vivid picture of the world of rock music as well as the colorful Austin music scene.

Another sub-genre is juvenile novels, and here, one finds a great many offerings that make excellent reading for students, particularly those contemplating a musical career. In Barbara Snow Gilbert's Broken Chords, Clara prepares for the piano competition that could lead to a place at Juilliard, but she has doubts about the lifetime of sacrifice that a career in music would require. Eileen in Donna Jo Napoli's Changing Tunes, however, has more basic problems: her parents divorce and her dad leaves with the piano. Thankfully, she gets help from her friend Stephanie, and she finds an old school piano to practice on. Virginia E. Wolff's The Mozart Season presents violinist and softball player Allegra Shapiro, who finds sports analogies helpful when she becomes a finalist in a music contest. Mozart is more prominent in Stephanie Cowell's Marrying Mozart, a fanciful novel about Wolfgang Amadeus and his relations with the four sisters in the Weber family. Closer to home is Betsy Kuhn's Not Exactly Nashville, in which Ellen and Valery spend the summer between fifth and sixth grades writing country-and-western songs and entering a talent contest sponsored by their favorite country-and-western singer. Finally, fans of NPR's Prairie Home Companion's Garrison Keillor will likely enjoy The Sandy Bottom Orchestra, in which 14-year-old Rachel finds that playing the violin helps her deal with her eccentric family. This heart-warming story is available in video and audio, as well as book format.

While not written specifically for them, there are many young people in Dame Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows. After reading it many readers will yearn to have been one of the Aubrey family. Perceptively narrated by daughter Rose Aubrey, this is the account of her family's desperately poor, but charmed life. While their writer-politician father goes off to earn money, the ex-concert pianist mother makes music a constant in the lives of her four children. The book is full of insightful and often hilarious observations about childhood, society and English folkways. It is said to be a fictionalized account of Dame Rebecca's own youth. Those who like Fountain will probably also like Margaret Kennedy's The Constant Nymph, about an even larger family, the Sangers (AKA Sanger's Circus) and what happens when they suddenly have to adjust to a conventional, orderly life. A major theme in both of these lively books is the conflict between civilized orderliness and the freedom necessary to the artistic temperament. A related theme is the difficulty some artists have with social skills.

Many readers prefer historical fiction to factual accounts, and luckily there are dozens of such books about Bach, Beethoven, Brahms and the rest. An especially interesting one is Meynell's Time's Door, in which a Bach devotee fancies himself related to one of J.S. Bach's pupils and furthermore is able to go back in time and be a member of Bach's Leipzig household, where he falls in love with one of Bach's daughters. Closer to the historical facts is David Weiss's Sacred and Profane, a novel about the life and times of Mozart. The author has done considerable research to flesh out not only Mozart, but also his contemporaries, which results in the characters emerging more fully than in many of the standard biographies. In 1971, Weiss, who must have had a good deal of leftover material, followed up Sacred and Profane with The Assassination of Mozart.

This article would not be complete without mention of the most famous, yet probably least readable of the 1,600 or so novels about musicians: Romain Rolland's Jean-Christophe. More than 1,500 pages long (depending on the edition), it is divided into three books and follows the life of a Beethoven-like German musician who spends a good deal of time in Paris. Like Beethoven, the hero suffers at the hand of a hard-drinking father, reluctantly becomes head of the family after the death of his long-suffering mother and has many desperate and disillusioning love affairs. Like the author, a prominent public intellectual in his day (and winner of the 1915 Nobel Prize in literature), the hero frequently offers philosophic reflections on life and society, brilliantly attacking materialism, corruption and nationalism. Jean-Christophe achieves a measure of happiness in the final section, "Journey's End," vis-a-vis a platonic friendship with Grazia, the beautiful Italian countess who had cheered him on at the beginning of his career. Furthermore, the younger generation of musicians begins to lionize him, and he even does a little matchmaking.

If the novels discussed here represent not even 1 percent of those available, there are also seemingly countless more in which music plays a supporting or minor role. Some titles that come to mind are: Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, Kate Chopin's The Awakening, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man, Clyde Edgerton's Walking Across Egypt, E.M. Forster's A Room with a View, Thomas Hardy's Under the Greenwood Tree, Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf, Aldous Huxley's Point Counterpoint, Jack Kerouac's On the Road and The Subterraneans, Toni Morrison's Jazz, Cynthia Shearer's Celestial Jukebox and Virginia Woolf's A Voyage Out.

Interested teachers and students can get at least some basic information from two electronic resources. "Music Fiction/Music in Literature: A Bibliography of Musical Fiction" by John R. Gibbs,, lists nearly 900 novels, with a focus on murder mysteries. More of the same kind of information, along with a list of the libraries that have lendable copies, can be found from the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), AKA FirstSearch database, which is accessible through most large city and university libraries. If you ask OCLC for novels with the descriptor "musical fiction," you'll be rewarded with a list that could easily keep you well supplied for the rest of your life.


For more information about the books discussed in this article go to the MTNA website, and click on "American Music Teacher," and from the dropdown menu click on "Bonus Bytes."


(1.) Those who still have Christopher Brennan's article will find that he listed "A Wagner Matinee," perhaps Cather's best-known short story, from Medusa.

Michael Meckna is professor of music history and musicology at Texas Christian University. He is the author of Virgil Thomson: A Bio Bibliography, Twentieth-Century Brass Soloists and Satchmo: The Louis Armstrong Encyclopedia.
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Author:Meckna, Michael
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2006
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