Classical music has long looked to literature for inspiration. The works of literary legends like Shakespeare and Pushkin have nourished composers for centuries, and list has only continued to grow with works based on books by contemporary authors like Margaret Atwood and Annie Proulx in recent decades.
But the flow of inspiration goes in both directions: the world of classical music and the musicians who inhabit it are fascinating in their own right! In honor of World Book Day, we’re swimming upstream with a short list of three works of contemporary fiction that take classical music as their muse…
For readers who love a good thriller
In Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, a recital turns into a hostage situation. Set in an unspecified Latin American country, a performance by a renowned American opera singer is used as a draw to lure a wealthy Japanese businessman—and fervent opera fan—to the region in the hopes of securing his financial investment. Unfortunately the prestigious audience also attracts a group of insurgents, who sneak into the house and take the soirée hostage. The blend of political intrigue, dramatic tension, and tender romance will alternately get your heart racing and pull at its strings. References to operas are woven throughout the the novel, as the soprano sings to her fellow hostages.
Viewing suggestion: At one point the wealthy businessman remarks that all he wanted was “to hear her sing Rusalka while standing close to her in a room”—a wish that is more than granted. Here is the great Renée Flemming (who Ann Patchett says was the inspiration for the novel’s opera singer!) singing a the heart-rending “Song to the Moon” from that very opera.
For readers who double as history buffs
Particularly those who can’t get enough of the Cold War.
In The Noise of Time, Booker Prize winner Julian Barnes offers a harrowing fictionalized account of the life of Shostakovich using a trio of the composer’s “conversations with power” as jumping off points. Through events like Stalin’s now-legendary 1936 review in Pravda—which described Shostakovich’s opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk as “muddle instead of music” (!)—Barnes offers us a first-person perspective of the complicated situation of an artist working under the Soviet regime.
Viewing suggestion: The War Symphonies: Shostakovich against Stalin, an incredible documentary blending archival images, interviews with a veritable who’s who of the Russian tradition, and an exploration of the music that emerged from this charged period.
For readers obsessed with family dynamics
Because a string quartet is really just a different kind of family.
Aja Gabel’s The Ensemble follows the members of a string quartet as they finish their conservatory studies and begin to build their careers. Over a decade and a half, we follow the quartet’s ups and downs, both professional and personal, as the four members each explore what it means to be a musician and part of a shared musical unit. Gabel is a cellist herself and her first-hand experience shines through brilliantly. As she said in an interview with NPR: “It is such a physical activity, and I really wanted to write about the way that you—especially if you’re playing with someone else—come to know their body, their movements, and the way that playing also wears on your own body.”
Anyone who’s logged hours in a practice room will of course be able to identify with their struggles but so will those whose knowledge of music is less visceral: the book is a rich and nuanced case study of relationships and how they can be impacted by the passage of time and journey into adulthood.
Viewing suggestion: Immerse yourselves in the world of the novel with a trip to the Banff International String Quartet Competition. The young quartets featured in this documentary expound on many the same themes–and treat us to performances of much of the same repertoire.
Have another suggestion? Let us know in the comments! Happy World Book Day, fellow bookworms 🙂