When Music is the Muse

Susanne Dunlap talks to five authors

about bringing musicians to life in historical fiction

Susanne Dunlap in Historical Novels Review, Issue 44, May 2008

As biographical subjects, musicians are no different from any other historical characters except perhaps—with a few exceptions—in being less generally familiar to a wide audience. Yet in recreating the world of even the most famous and familiar of musicians or composers, writers face a unique difficulty. Namely, how does music look on the page? I don’t mean in the form of a score, a kind of coded communication that is meant to be interpreted by a proficient into a unique, temporal-aural experience. I mean simply this: how does a historical soundscape translate into material that forms part of a created world in historical fiction?

I spoke to four authors whose novels have taken us into the hearts and minds of important figures from music history about the challenges and rewards of writing their books, and one whose wholly created character, an engaging castrato, frequently interacts with the famous musicians and patrons of the 18th century. Rita Charbonnier (Mozart’s Sister) and Stephanie Cowell (Marrying Mozart) have taken characters around Mozart as their primary focus, while Barbara Quick (Vivaldi’s Virgins) and Laurel Corona (The Four Seasons) chose the little-known life of the most famous and listened-to classical composer in the world today, Antonio Vivaldi. Beverle Graves Myers adds another generic layer to her lively mysteries by making her hero a 17th-century Italian castrato, those strange creatures whose ability to procreate was sacrificed at a young age to preserve their high voices.

Why musicians?

A writer arrives at her subject matter in many ways. For Cowell, it was spending so much of her life singing the music of Mozart and coming to love it deeply that led, after a series of books around Shakespeare, to the world of the musical Weber sisters, one of whom eventually married the composer. Charbonnier’s work as a pianist and natural affinity for Mozart’s compositions served as a starting point for her work, yet it was discovering that the maestro had a less well-known but extremely talented older sister that got her creative imagination in gear. Quick, by contrast, is not a musician although she is an avid and appreciative listener, and was captivated by the story of the orphanage where Vivaldi taught music as a way into the life of the composer. And Corona had no musical training at all, finding her subject through “a single sentence mentioning Vivaldi’s work with female orphans (not entirely accurate) in Venice”.

Yet choosing a subject, getting drawn into creating that world for a reader, is only a starting point. While certain challenges are universal for all writers of fiction, historical or otherwise, all four of these authors shared the specific challenges—and rewards—, which they faced in researching and writing their music historical novels.

Stephanie Cowell found it “very difficult to fictionalize the life of an artist for many reasons. The standard problem in historical fiction when you fictionalize any real person is that you have to bend their lives and compress them to fit into the fictional arc. With an artist, you have to both create the inner world, the process of his creation, and the outer movement of his life circumstance.”

Here’s how Cowell introduces the young Mozart into the Weber family’s Thursday musical gatherings, conveying at the same time his character and his relationship with his music, and all by staying outside of him, giving us only what those around him observed and felt when first exposed to this remarkable individual:

The young man leapt up to the clavier; he pushed back his cuffs and began a sonata andante with variations. Each successive variation gathered in depth. Weber leaned forward. There was a rare delicacy to the young man’s playing and an unusual strength in his left hand, which made the musicians look at one another . . .[Maria Caecilia Weber] glanced briefly at the man with little white hands who played with such concentrated intimacy, noting that when a spoon she carried clattered to the floor, his shoulders stiffened slightly, and he did not lower them again for a few minutes.

Cowell’s Mozart is deeply absorbed with his music, not just on an emotional but also on an intellectual level.

Maria Anna (Nannerl) and Wolfgang Mozart.

Nannerl Mozart and the frustrations and limitations of her sex are the central themes of Rita Charbonnier’s novel, yet she felt that her primary challenge lay in how to approach the character of Mozart himself. “I had to decide precisely where to draw the line between reality and fiction. I didn’t know whether I should best wear the restorer’s hat, filling in missing parts of the painting and attempting to reproduce it exactly as it was before; or the architect’s, building a new construction on the pillars of the old one. In the end I chose the latter, but only after much emotional deliberation.”

A scene between the distraught and depressed Nannerl, who has just been told she must stay at home and give piano lessons to support the family while her father and brother travel to Italy, and the younger, impetuous Mozart, illustrates both the character of Mozart as Charbonnier imagined him and his relationship with his sister:

“I tried to persuade him,” he murmured after a long sigh, “but you know perfectly well it’s impossible. What was I to do? Refuse to go myself?”
He seemed to perceive in her a sign of assent but it was only his imagination, because Nannerl did not move.
“I thought about it, but then concluded that no one, in my shoes, would have done that. Think about it: Should I give up an opportunity so great for my career, for my very life? Mot even you, in my place, would have—come on, admit it.”
She rolled over, creating an abyss between herself and those words.
The boy then decided to be more honest. “I can’t stay in this provincial place, Nannerl. Truly, I can’t. Life here is nothing but a repetition of tired ballets for a crowd of stupid rich people. There is so much new music inside me—and I know that I’ll only be able to pour it out in the freedom of the wider world.”
Perhaps she had made herself temporarily deaf.

This difficulty with very famous historical figures is universal: how to overcome the entrenched images and strong, emotional attachment readers have to a character they feel they already know. Those who love Mozart might find it distasteful to see him as an ambitious, self-occupied boy who, while sympathetic with his sister, had his eyes fixed firmly ahead on his career.

While some authors do not trouble themselves over those questions, both Cowell and Charbonnier solved this problem—as many do—by focusing not so much on the famous character, but on the less well-known real people around him. Mozart emerges as a convincing, flesh-and-blood personality in both Marrying Mozart and Mozart’s Sister, yet our sympathies are really with the young Constanze in the first, and the repressed Nannerl in the second novel.

Engraved portrait of Antonio Vivaldi by François Morellon de la Cave, 1725.

Corona began digging into Vivaldi’s world by asking, “Where are the women?” A question, she says, that informs much of her scholarly work as a professor of humanities. “I love music, but at the most basic level,” said Corona. “The Four Seasons started as an exploration of the lives of an interesting group of women.” It wasn’t so much the music as the historical facts that drew her in.

Quick also tells her story not from the perspective of Vivaldi himself, but from that of his most famous pupil, Anna Maria dal Violin, a supremely talented inmate in the convent of the Pietà. And for her, love of the music was an important part of the allure. Quick’s task was complicated, she said, by the lack of documentary evidence about Vivaldi himself. Despite being the most popular classical composer today, he “left very little behind in the way of written records. There are no diaries that have emerged, and not one single letter that could be classified as personal.” Such historical lacunae are often stumbling blocks for music historians, but can be a positive boon to writers of fiction. Lack of written records coupled with a degree of unfamiliarity gives a writer scope to explore the “What if?” more freely. As Quick said, “I finally realized, after digging and despairing, that Vivaldi left a wonderfully revealing personal record behind in his music. That’s where his personality emerges unmasked: his narcissism, his ambition, his tenderness, his passion, and his faith. I was pleased to find in more than one instance that something I had divined from immersing myself in Vivaldi’s music was confirmed by some other source I was able to get my hands on—an obscure traveler’s account or hard-to-find piece of scholarship.”

Quick’s Vivaldi is presented to us through the eyes of a young girl who is so deeply enmeshed with the music she draws from her violin that all she wants to do is please him:

To hear him speak, the entire future of his career as a composer—to say nothing of the future of the Republic—is in our hands. And we are lazy and vain, and we laugh too much, and God will punish us if we don’t play the music as it’s meant to be played. The maestro prays and rails at us and then begs and cajoles us, and brings us sweets and pulls funny faces. But by the end of our rehearsal, he has more often than not squeezed the music out of us that he wants.

But the question of the music itself remains, of the degree to which it is even possible to convey in words how it threaded through the lives of composers and musicians in previous centuries. Indeed, Charbonnier confessed that although her approach ended up as much a result of instinct as consciousness, she knew that, to write the portrait of Nannerl she had to “…try to express the power of music and its ability to transform the emotions and communicate them in a way that is both universal and subjective at the same time. In short, I absolutely could not skirt around the problem.”

Charbonnier was fortunate to have skills at her disposal that helped her truly enter into Nannerl’s world of music. As she herself describes her process of putting the music into the written words: “I remember writing the page about Fantasia KV 397, a piece from Mozart that I particularly love. I wanted the act of playing it to pacify Nannerl with her illusions of the past and to make her understand things that Wolfgang had said to her, but that she hadn’t wanted to hear at the time. So I programmed my stereo to replay the CD continuously, then I sat on the sofa, which is right next to the piano, with my laptop on the piano stool and the score of the Fantasia propped up on a chair. Listening to the music coming from the speakers and looking at the notes on the score from time to time, I scribbled down visual and emotional images just as they came to me; then I’d stop the CD, get up and play a few passages on the piano, then go back and note down what came to mind, crying my eyes out as I did it… This was essentially the method by which I transferred musical experience to the written page.”

And the result is a verbal fantasia that draws the reader in just as the music draws in a listener:

…Suddenly a violent cascade of sound invades the entire space, and the hands speed along the keyboard, from one end to the other, crossing, and then two spaced-out chords, and an unlikely finale, which overturns every premise. It’s a game, barefoot children chasing a ball who stick out their tongue at you, or a carillon that enjoys its own insolence and hammers you with those sharp sounds: and you think, before the piece ends, we’ll have to go back to the beginning. We’ll have to return to sorrow and, so, close the circle…

The greatest potential of music to convey something on the printed page perhaps lies in this power to move a listener. While the primary thrust of Myers’s novel is the mystery, she never loses sight of the fact that her “detective” is an artist. Here she presents him performing, in all the glory of his professional skill, exhibiting the power he knows he possesses:

I sang the solemn bit with every ounce of conviction I possessed. Montorio’s eyes glazed over like a fish on a market slab, but Fabiani’s gaze locked onto mine as it had at the start of the concert. Only this time I was in charge. Now Fabiani was the one who was drowning, swept along by my heartbreaking lament, sucked beneath waves of sublime song until I chose to release him with one golden note that shimmered in the air long after the harpsichord had fallen silent.

The issue of music on the written page gets to the core of why musical figures have perhaps proven less popular subjects for fiction than artists. As Corona says, “Books on paintings at least give readers something to look at.” She expresses the wish—one I’ve also shared in thinking about my own music-based novels—that her book could come with a CD. While this would undoubtedly add to a reader’s ability to accurately imagine the music, a CD adds cost without any evidence that it will increase book sales.

Why music?

This may seem like the same question as the previous one, but there is a subtle difference. Musicians can be intrinsically interesting as people, just as a naval captain or a politician might be fascinating or mundane depending on the individual circumstances. But music itself—does it matter? Is it sufficiently important in history to warrant thinking about for itself, for what it shaped or reflected that can illuminate a period?

Corona believes that “Music gives us insight into what a particular era enjoyed and valued,” but doesn’t see it as a shaper of history—until the 19th century, when the artist as hero and the idea of individual expression became more prevalent.

Quick thinks of the arts in general as a way into history: “I’ve always found the arts to be the most attractive and pleasant entrance into the by-ways of history. The only history I could be bothered with before I wrote this historical novel was history reflected in the mirror of visual art, literature or music. History isn’t really anything in and by itself—children know this, and that’s why they’re almost universally bored by the subject!” And for Cowell, it is fiction itself that brings arts and their place in history to life. “To me, the flowering of mankind has been the arts, which of course includes architecture and this ranks close to science. I think fiction can get inside the mind of the artist. What fascinates me most as a writer is expressing both how ordinary and extraordinary great artists were: Shakespeare worried about his daughters who lived far away from him, about meeting his bills, about finding love and a clean shirt and about writing Hamlet, and it all happened at the same time.”

Charbonnier believes in the importance of having a true appreciation of music or art in one’s life as both a current joy and an opening into history.

Jan Vermeer, The Guitar Player (1672).

Here’s where it’s time for me to insert my own point of view about a subject that is my deepest, most passionate interest in life. Whether or not they have expressed it in our conversations, several of these writers have chosen to illustrate a very important aspect of our historical consciousness. Not just music in itself, but music as it was performed by or intertwined in the lives of women. While tales of wars and battles, political upheavals and momentous discoveries have involved women in peripheral ways, there is a special relationship between women and music that acts, in my view, like a microcosm of history. As Charbonnier illustrates so poignantly in Mozart’s Sister, women could have the same talent, the same ineffable feeling about music, the same skill at execution, and yet be prevented from realizing their potential by societal strictures that said, “ladies must not play the violin, or exhibit themselves in public, or compete with men.”

Both Quick and Corona have hit upon another startling illustration of the complex psychological and social ramifications of women as performers of music: They are almost without exception in some way controlled by men, who either facilitate their artistry or thwart it. The hothouse of the convent, a place that is both protecting and imprisoning, creates a safe space in which certain talented young girls could be allowed to reach a high level of artistry—but more as a special circumstance, a novelty, that was not without its titillating sexual overtones.

The sexually ambiguous castrato—the hero of Myers’s mysteries—is an odd distortion, created by the desire for a female-range voice with the power and acceptability of a male housing. Castrati were not “singers in drag,” as Myers well knows. They sang the heroic men’s roles. There is something in us that responds to the high notes, the “money notes,” as the opera world calls them. That this power would be appropriated to men is also an illustration of the love-hate relationship women performers of music have engendered throughout history.

I think it is the fact that music has been both empowering to women and illustrative of their limitations that has drawn me to the history of music not just as a scholar but as a writer of fiction. The challenges of putting the experience of music as a listener and a performer on the page are many. Yet these four authors and myself have risen to that challenge in different ways to tell the stories that inspire us.

One final citation to illustrate my meaning comes from my own book, Liszt’s Kiss. As a lifelong pianist, I experienced in my own way the complex feelings that made me want to disappear into the music I played, to escape from the “sordid perils of actual existence,” to quote the eminently quotable Oscar Wilde. And at the same time, performing placed one very much in the sightline of others, who, if the performance were worthy, would be able in some way to see into those hidden joys and fears—or interpret them in their own way, taking them over, as it were. Here is the way Pierre Talon, a medical student who is in love with the protagonist Anne, hears her performance at Marie d’Agoult’s salon:

…from the moment she began to play, Anne surrendered herself to the music. Each nuance of feeling was etched on her features. Pierre thought his heart would burst, and he prayed that this lovely creature who embodied the soul of music would consent to be his, forever.
Anne’s performance was by no means a disappointment after the great Liszt’s. It was a gentle denouement, a wistful coda. When the last, lingering notes died away, no one moved for several seconds. Anne looked up, and Pierre could see the realization of where she was gradually dawn again, and fear—yes, unmistakably fear—creep back into her eyes.

DunlapPerhaps the most rewarding outcome of writing any book is to discover that someone is affected by it in a positive way. One chance comment by a blogger, who said she was inspired to start playing the piano again after reading Liszt’s Kiss, made the entire difficult, lengthy process of writing, editing and publicizing worthwhile to me. Ultimately, the goal of historical fiction is to bring some aspect of history to living, breathing now on the page. If a reader can not only see the settings, feel the textures of the costumes, smell the food or the ordure, feel the pain of a sword wound or the exhilaration of a sea breeze, but hear the music that underlined the characters’ lives, then that little part of the past has been appreciated in a new way.

I hope many more authors tackle musical subjects in the future. Welcome! There are hundreds and hundreds of stories waiting to be told.

My thanks to Rita Charbonnier, Laurel Corona, Stephanie Cowell, Barbara Quick, and Beverle Graves Myers for sharing their thoughts with me so generously. All their books are available at Amazon.com.

Susanne Dunlap
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