The Soul of the Violin - Getting it Right in Fiction
(Doublestop Magazine)

Original content...

Friday, November1, 2007


Recently I’ve been seeking out what I’ll call “classical music fiction,” ever hungering for the story that might soothe—or feed—the addictive hold classical music has over me. You might know the feeling: a sweet desperation, a nameless pain that only the sound of the violin can soothe. The world can be closing in around you, but the moment the strains of Brahms, Schumann or Sibelius waft past, you are transported to safety. And for the chance to explore, fictionally, this venerated world, or the lives of those who make the music? The minute I hear about a new “classical music novel,” I’m on it.

The king of the hill: Vikram Seth and his novel, An Equal Music. The most recent contender: a novel called Overture, by Yael Goldstein, which chronicles the life of a violin virtuoso and her contentious relationship with her own musically-inclined daughter. For the first hundred pages, as the young Tasha discovers her flair for violin playing and music composition and comes of age, I was enjoying the ride. Then a deepening conflict during college years with her composer-boyfriend and her ensuing success in a violin competition commence her journey toward unparalleled fame and acclaim. This is where the car developed engine problems.

It took me a while to figure out why the story stopped working for me. Goldstein, in an impressive debut effort, produces smooth narration and detailed, evocative prose. Technical details of music and playing the violin aren’t lacking. The plot itself wasn’t grounds for the antipathy I began to feel for both protagonist and story. Then I figured it out. The author, not a string musician herself, didn’t get any violin details “wrong.” But what is missing from her story is the soul of the violin—the intensity of the craft, its beauty and mystery, its relentless grip on those it favors.

Author Barbara Quick captures the soul of the violin more effectively in another contender, Vivaldi’s Virgins, which fictionalizes the world of 18th century virtuoso Anna Maria dal Violin, student and protégé of maestro Antonio Vivaldi. But while Quick has caught the beauty of classical music and the essence of 18th century Venice, what her story lacks is the technical details of violin-playing that Goldstein employed so well.

Why is it so hard to write about a violinist? It’s as if the writing takes on the nature of the instrument, making it seem more difficult, temperamental and elusive than anticipated. Violinists spend a lifetime attempting to master their craft. Virtuosos don’t become that way without dedication, talent, perseverance and hours upon hours spent practicing, puzzling, listening and adjusting. This is not a penny whistle, that you pick up and play. Nor is it a piano with its equal temperament and keys you strike to produce the very note you intended. The same attention to detail and nuance must be applied, it stands to reason, when writing about a virtuoso or the violin. Alas, the number of classical music readers like myself, ever in pursuit of a music novel that Gets It Right, is a small fraction of a novel’s projected readership. Vivaldi’s Virgins offers mainstream appeal to women’s fiction readers (with a cover that bears a strong resemblance to blockbusters The Girl With the Pearl Earring and In the Company of the Courtesan, no coincidence there), and, as such, has surely sold well.

And for those of us who crave the real thing? Happily, Eugene Drucker, violinist and founding member of the acclaimed Emerson Quartet, has stepped up to the plate, taking a heavy subject—the Holocaust—and using his musician’s sensibilities to produce a searing, pitch-perfect tale. In a nutshell: German violinist, Gottfried Keller, languishing in the waning days of WW II, is conscripted to perform solo violin masterpieces in a concentration camp as part of a macabre experiment on the healing, vital power of music. The subject is painful, but the writing is exceptional, both when Drucker explores the memory of his conservatory years and when he describes the music he plays. He has a sumptuous way of describing the ineffable about the violin, the craft.

He thought of all the Eastern European violinists he had met, their Russian and Polish accents lending an air of worldly experience to everything they said about music. He remembered their easy, elegant way of spinning a phrase with that sumptuous “Russian tone.” The violin seemed like a natural extension of their bodies; they had the ability not only to sing but also to speak through their instruments. He remembered the Jewish players from Hungary and Romania, the Gypsy influence, their “parlando-rubato” style. Even the native-born German Jews seemed to have imbibed some of that spontaneous approach with their mother’s milk.

His passages of describing music offer a musicologist’s detail alongside a novelist’s flair for vivid language:

He began with the first solo sonata by Paul Hindemith, whose music was too progressive for the authorities. Hindemith had been condemned as a “Bolshevik” composer, and his music put on display as an example of “degenerate art.” Its pungent harmonies, tonal ambiguities and often ironic stance—its complete lack of sentimentality—were all anathema to the Nazis.

(…) It felt wonderful now to forget about the mute and dig into the bold, sharply accented opening movements, to let himself be propelled by its strong rhythmic currents. Within the first few notes the stage is set: the thematic material spans two octaves, with outlined triads and fourths vying for supremacy in the atonal fabric. Rising and falling sequences abound; motivic fragments are confronted with their own mirror images.

Drucker gets everything so exquisitely right in his story, the only problem is that the reader has to march through hell right there alongside the protagonist to experience it all. It is, nonetheless, well worth it, particularly for devotees of Bach’s Chaconne.

Robert Ford, in his novel, The Student Conductor, writes brilliantly about Cooper Barrow, an American student in 1980’s West Germany who has sought out Karlheinz Ziegler, a German conductor whose pre-WW II brilliance has grown into brooding, cruel, unpredictable behavior. Barrow, under his mentorship, and through an ensuing love affair with Petra, an enigmatic East German oboist, deepens his own understanding of conducting, Brahms, life, love and betrayal. While Barrow is a violinist, his focus in Germany is conducting (focusing particularly on Brahms’s Second Symphony). Less is more, here, however, and the following scene says so much.

One morning after breakfast, he hopped the tram for Ettlingen and re-entered his attic after an absence of ten days. He pulled out his violin, tuned the strings, tightened and resined the bow hairs, and played a slow chromatic scale that took in the range of the instrument. From the first scrape of his bow he felt alive in a way he’d forgotten, the first bearing down of his right arm, the pliable resistance from the E-string, the tremors back up through his elbow, a whiff of resin rising this side of the bridge. He’d never been satisfied with his instrument, a cheap Lupot knockoff; now he couldn’t care less. For three hours he played nothing but scales and arpeggios. He lost his mind. It was Petra’s doing. There were clenched-up parts of him that were loosening.

At noon ten-year-old Elisabeth appeared at the top of the stairs, occupying the same spot her little brother had two months before. He stared at her, tongue-tied from over-concentration. “Home already?” he finally said.

She nodded. Her fingers clung to the top banister, her eyes angled up tentatively.

“It’s loud?”

She nodded, pointing at his face. “What’s that?” she asked, and instinctively he touched the spot under his left jawbone and winced. Three months without playing had left his chin smooth and vulnerable. He’d been so intent on tuning intervals, one small correction after another, that he’d forgotten the need to work in a callus. He brushed a knuckle just behind the jaw bone and winced again. When he looked, there was a mosquito’s worth of blood on the back of his finger.

The author, interesting to note, studied neither the violin nor conducting while at Yale, but the flute and composition. Which leads us back to Overture, whose main premise revolves around the protagonist’s thwarted attempts at composition. Goldstein, having clearly researched the craft, does produce smooth paragraphs like this:

Some of the violinists had a rich tone I could never achieve on my best days; others had an enviable clarity to their notes; but none had managed to match the tone, the level of panache and splash, the vibrato, the attack, or any of the other infinite variables, with the underlying soul of the work—the spare, beige figure I had found staring out at me so obviously from behind Ebel’s cool, restrained music. Sitting there, I had begun to think about what Masterson had once told me, that no one could have completed his concerto as I had, and the comments that Annabelle had let slide from time to time about my singular ability to interpret a work, remarks I had dismissed. I’d always known I was good at playing the violin, of course, but I thought of this talent as similar to being good at plumbing. I knew the rules, I knew the machinery, and I did a diligent job.

Tasha, the protagonist, wants to compose, not play the violin, which is no secret to either reader or her friends. Composing has stolen her heart and then fellow composer Jean Paul does the same. Months pass where Jean Paul, now her lover, is the focus of her world. Composing is second. The violin? In its case, gathering dust, save for a weekly lesson she admits to mechanically plodding her way through. A year later, battling feelings of inferiority toward the more talented Jean Paul’s composing efforts, she decides to cut her losses and enter an upcoming international violin competition. She won’t allow Jean Paul to come and watch, however. “The thought of him sitting there in the audience, proud of his fiddler playing other people’s music for want of another option, was too unnerving,” she tells the reader. This set off warning bells in my head. Resignation—even contempt—is not the mentality of a successful violinist, much less a virtuoso who rises to great acclaim. Nowhere in the novel does the reader pick up any sense of this violinist’s love or respect for the violin. This left me feeling sad, and oddly defensive.

Another reason this story stopped working for me is the inherent challenges that lie in a story narrated in first person. Tasha’s offhand explanations of her ensuing fame, the media quotes of her brilliance and style ( “The Greatest Violinist Since Paganini”), all came off as a bit too much. Particularly since Tasha apparently surpassed virtuosos like Kreisler, Heifetz, Oistrach and Milstein (none of whom are even referenced in the story), which I find very difficult to believe. Observing a virtuoso in the third person, however, offers greater opportunity to employ the superlative without alienating the reader.

Step in Norman Lebrecht and his novel, The Song of Names, which garnered the Whitbread First Novel Award in 2002. Lebrecht, acclaimed commentator and author of several books, including The Maestro Myth and Who Killed Classical Music?, leaves agenda behind to tell a story (flashing back to pre-WW II London) of two boys, Martin and Dovidl, the latter a young Polish refugee and violin prodigy. Martin’s father, a London music impresario, houses Dovidl during the war years that bring about the demise of Dovidl’s family in Poland. In the ensuing years, Dovidl remains with Martin’s family, growing ever more proficient on the violin, only to disappear on the eve of his biggest, most anticipated performance. Here, the media quotes of Dovidl’s peerless skills on the violin work, because it is the less talented, ever devoted Martin who narrates.

The story is gripping, haunting, yet highly entertaining and compulsively readable. Lebrecht, through Martin, offers descriptions of listening to music that are both interesting and enlightening, such as this description of rubato while Martin is judging a youth music competition:

To bring [Bach’s solo violin works] to life, the soloist must overcome the inertness of notes and infuse a gust of his own breath, like a paramedic performing emergency resuscitation. The crotchets and quavers are printed blobs on stave, to be played exactly as written. There is no license for improvisation or messing around. The only way for a performer to express himself within the strict traditions of classical music is by shading the relative values of the blobs – shaving a nanosecond off one note and adding it to the next.

(…) What virtuosi do is take hold of time and create an illusion that, imitatio Dei, they control it. They can stop time in its tracks, restore our dreams of youth and defy the march of death. Theirs are the hands on the clock-face of our lives. That is why, know it or not, we lose heads and hearts to master musicians – because they can spring us from the deadly treadmill of daily concerns and transport us to a realm where time is defeated.

A timid young violinist in the competition utilizes this rubato in a way Martin has only heard one other violinist do: Dovidl, who, when he disappeared forty years earlier, “took with him half of my being and all of my hopes. I have missed him, unmentioned, every day of my subsequent half-life. I cannot yet bring myself to utter his name, but as Peter Stemp’s echo of his trademark trick pricks my ears and floods my eyes, I need no further proof to know that I have somehow picked up his scent and maybe be on the way to retrieving a part of the life that was stolen from me by that unforgettable time-bandit.”

This is a book I’m not going to put down. I will read through the night in order to see that sense of yearning requited, and in order to catch a glimpse of the brilliant virtuoso, Dovidl, whose talent and charisma Lebrecht conveys in just the right amount of detail. His story, the tragedy that overshadowed his young life, haunts me.

Haunting. That’s how the violin sounds. That’s the impact it can have on a story. And now I see that a good classical music novel haunts its reader in the way a favored concerto or symphony does. The writer has put the ineffable allure of music into words, into story. The story, in turn, casts a shadow of sorts that transcends the narrative, making it seem all the more expansive, in a way that the reader might not even be aware of. They just know that art has been made. It is why we listen to classical music. It is why I will eternally search for another good classical music novel.

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