I would imagine that writing a novel that conveys the power of music is as difficult as writing a song about the spectacular beauty of an African sunrise, or painting the throbbing anguish of raw grief. But when one medium succeeds in conveying the reality of another, unexpectedly different experience, one’s admiration for (not to mention understanding of) both is profoundly deepened. So here are a few books which have helped me to marvel afresh at the wonderful, humanising effect of music. They underline the truth that music is one of the greatest gifts of common grace.
In their different ways, they resonate with that wonderful moment in Shawshank Redemption when the prison is stopped in its tracks by the ineffable beauty of Mozart played over the tannoy, not least because of Red’s (Morgan Freeman’s character) delightful description of it.
I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I’d like to think they were singing about something so beautiful, it can’t be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made those walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man in Shawshank felt free.
The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
This is a book that I’ve mentioned before. Loosely based on one or two real people (which attracted some controversy), although focused on several key fictional characters living around them, this is a poignant book about the terrors and deprivation of the Siege of Sarajevo during the Balkans War. It is heart-breaking – but brilliantly describes the power of irrational generosity to break the crippling cycle of ungrace and hatred – mediated through haunting musical beauty. It is a must-read for any wanting to understand something of life in such circumstances (as is the extraordinary, though not musically-related, Sarajevo Marlboro) – and restores hope for humanity amidst dark hopelessness. Here music is nothing less than an act of grace.
The Auschwitz Violin by Maria Angels Anglada
I have only just finished this book – and in some ways the title tells you everything you need to know. But of course, it also tells you nothing. This is a relatively short book written some years ago by a Catalan writer who died in 1999; but despite being superb, it has only recently been translated into English. It weaves its story with great skill without easy predictability – and yet again shows the twin powers of music and craftsmanship to humanise in the face of cruelty and horror. Remarkable stuff.
The Piano Shop on the Left Bank by T E Carhart
This is altogether a very different book. It is not set in traumatic circumstances (far from it), it is quirky and fairly idiosyncratic. It is not even a novel. But it is full of charm and wonder – not just about the instrument of the piano itself, but also the people who love them and the power of what they can do with them. For the author, it is a memoir of his entry into a hidden world of Parisian ateliers that is closed to all but the initiated aficionado. Heartwarming and nostalgic it may be, but a real joy for pianists and non-pianists alike.
Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks
Again, I’ve referred to this book before, and again it is very different from the others on this list. While it is an uneven book, it delves deeper into realms of which I must confess total ignorance: the power of the brain and the diverse, utterly weird ways in which it can be affected, sustained or hindered by music. Just fascinating.
Music and Silence by Rose Tremain
It’s quite a while since I read this historical novel, so I can’t remember all the details – but I do recall being swept up by this story of musicians employed by the royal Danish Court in 1629. Their unenviable job was to perform in a cold cellar connected to the royal apartments and reception rooms by pipes which gives their audiences above the impression of hearing music from heaven. Romance abounds, putting all those concerned at considerable risk of various court intrigues. So it is probably not everyone’s cup of tea. But as an evocation of a time when music was a status symbol (plus ça change?), this is a remarkable homage to the passions and sacrifices of the people who make it.
The Commitments by Roddy Doyle
Just to be a little more musically eclectic, here is an exuberant homage to soul music in (of all places) Ireland, when a couple of musicians hope to pioneer the growth of ‘Dublin-soul’. Even if you’ve seen the film, there is lots to love about this book. It is funny and incongruous – and if you’ve ever been part of a band, it captures beautifully the absurd power struggles and artistic temperaments of amateur music-making! But at its best, it is about the sheer joie-de-vivre of music and performance.
So for good measure, here is a few old musical lists of mine:
- My favourite classical music liver-shiver moments
- Some favourite African musicians
- Music for times of darkness