In the spring, while stuck at home avoiding the coronavirus, I read Lea Singer’s forthcoming novel, The Piano Student, which tells the story of Vladimir Horowitz’s affair with a 23-year-old male protege, Nico Kauffman. Drawing from Horowitz’s actual letters to Kauffman, Singer depicts a forbidden relationship in which Horowitz vacillates between ardently declaring his love and coldly insisting he’s no longer interested in an illicit affair. Reading Singer, I began to think more about the relationships—romantic and platonic—that have complicated the lives of great pianists. These relationships have been memorialized in biographies, of course. But how many, I wondered, have been imagined in fiction? I did some looking and discovered there are many novels about pianists who have had life-altering relationships with lovers, students, friends, and others in their orbit. These novels brim with insights into the nature of creative genius and life in classical music. Here’s a list of the works I enjoyed reading the most.
The Piano Student by Lea Singer
Lea Singer’s novel begins in the 1980s when Nico Kauffman, an old man who plays piano in a Zurich bar, encounters a stranger named Robert Donati, who has just abandoned his plan to end his life thanks to Schumann’s “Träumerei.” Kauffman quickly bonds with Donati and confides in him the story of his turbulent pre-War relationship with Vladimir Horowitz. Reading aloud old letters from the maestro, Kauffman paints a startling picture of Horowitz as a complicated man torn between his desire to be with men and his duty to his wife, Arturo Toscanini’s daughter. This is an engrossing, beautifully written novel that brings into focus an inimitable artist who ascended to great heights as a pianist despite his hidden life as a gay man.
Adrianne Geffel by David Hajdu
This playful, poignant, and often very funny oral history parody tells the (fictional) story of Adrianne Geffel, an American pianist and composer who disappeared from public life in 1985 on the night she was to perform at Carnegie Hall. Music critic and cultural historian David Hajdu pretends to interview the people who were closest to Geffel—her parents, teachers, contemporaries at Juilliard, girlfriend, and music industry execs—to shine light on why a musician, whose work was “so powerful, so disruptively unshakable,” might vanish. Hajdu never finds out where Geffel went, but he constructs an indelible portrait of an artist who struggled with a rare neurological disorder that causes its sufferers to hear music nonstop. We find out that Geffel coped with her condition by putting what she heard in her mind down on the keys of the piano, making idiosyncratic, emotionally charged “music that’s not music.” Listeners raved about her unique sound until she fell in love and her compositions turned as placid as Debussy’s “Reverie.” If all of this sounds somewhat convoluted and leaves you questioning what’s fact versus fiction, that all serves Hajdu’s sophisticated satire, underneath which lurks many sharp insights into the music world.
The Piano Teacher by Elfriede Jelinek
Nobel Laureate Elfiede Jelinek’s searing novel details what happens when 38-year-old Erika Kohut, a piano teacher at the prestigious Vienna Conservatory, begins a sadomasochistic relationship with her 17-year-old student, Walter Klemmer. Walter “resolutely wishes to conquer” Erika; he wants to teach her about passion, become her master, and then discard her for someone younger. Erika, however, thwarts him by writing a letter describing what violent sexual things she wants him to do to her; she believes that if Walter is merely doing what she asks him to do in her letter, she remains his master. When Erika finds that she actually loves Walter, she conceals her love so that she “won’t have to endure defeat.” This is a complex political book circling gendered power dynamics and the question of whether pain is ever really a variety of pleasure. (The film adaptation is also deliciously twisted.)
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
This compact masterpiece centers on Dimitri Shostakovich’s relationship with power in the Soviet Union. The novel begins in 1936, when Shostakovich is denounced by Pravda for composing an opera that is “muddle instead of music.” Shostakovich’s “sin” attracts the attention of a Big House inquisitor, who is trying to uncover a plot against Stalin. Only by chance does the renowned pianist and composer evade becoming another victim of the Great Terror. Shostakovich confronts power again twelve years later, in 1948, when he is made to deliver a speech defending Soviet values at a cultural conference in New York City. This is “the greatest humiliation of his life,” or so he thinks until 1960, when power comes for him again, this time forcing him to join Khrushchev’s Party. Through Shostakovich’s eyes, the Soviet Union is a place where “the self cracks and splits” and the only defense against tyranny is irony, “truth’s disguise.” Taut and understated, The Noise of Time is an important work illuminating Shostakovich’s struggles with the relationship of his actions and his art to a totalitarian state.
Body & Soul by Frank Conroy
Set in 1940s New York City, this dazzling novel imagines the life of Claude Rawlings, a piano prodigy who ascends to great heights as a pianist and composer despite having “come from nowhere.” When Claude is six years old, he begins teaching himself to play the little white “night club” piano with 66 keys that happens to be in the filthy apartment he shares with his mother. Disciplined, ambitious, and talented, Claude progresses rapidly playing everything from Mozart to Gershwin. As a teen, he is taken on by the best, most serious teachers and asked to perform for New York City’s wealthy and well-to-do. Before long he secures a scholarship to an elite college and a senator’s granddaughter falls in love with him. Everything falls into place for Claude, and yet as he comes of age—and plays everywhere from Carnegie Hall to a London jazz club—he struggles with loneliness and feels tormented by his mother’s unwillingness to discuss his paternity. A riveting saga about a young man discovering that his “most valuable and personal source of strength” is music, Body & Soul resonates as powerfully today as it did three decades ago.
Piano by Jean Echenoz
Jean Eschenoz’s novel, set in modern-day Paris, tells the story of a great musician’s descent into “hell.” 50-year-old Max Delmarc is a famous concert pianist who drinks to cope with stage fright and chases women who look like Rose, the woman he loved and lost track of 30 years ago. When Max is stabbed in the throat by a thief, he dies and wakes up in a luxury hotel-cum-prison-hospital, a purgatorial way station run by dead celebrities including Peggy Lee and Dean Martin. During his week-long stay in limbo, Max is sentenced to plastic surgery and a new life in “the urban zone,” where he is forbidden to play the piano. At first, he tries to adapt to his new life as a bartender who mainly serves prostitutes and their customers. However, when he is recognized by an old handler, he begins to believe he can reclaim his former life as a pianist and even reunite with Rose. This is a perfectly paced, slyly entertaining work that could only have been written by a master.
Self-Portrait with a Russian Piano by Wolf Wondratschek
In Wolf Wondratschek’s novel, an unnamed narrator meets several times with an eccentric old Russian pianist, Suvorin, in a Vienna coffeehouse. Suvorin begins telling stories about his life as a pianist of international renown, seducing the narrator into what seems like a friendship. He recounts, for instance, how he deliberately damaged his career by playing only “the most difficult, the most undesired, the forbidden” pieces that drew “honest” applause. He also regales the narrator with his opinions about classical music: “What perfection is? Whoever knows it, knows nothing”; “The mortal sin with Schubert is trying to play him perfectly”; “Nowhere are there so many idiots as you get among lovers of music.” At one point he invites the narrator to meet his “new girlfriend,” a “very petite… very handy” woman, but “she” turns out to be the Japanese camera he has just purchased. You may laugh, but this is a superbly written, rhapsodic work that is surprisingly moving.
Conversations with Beethoven by Sanford Friedman
During the last decade of his life, Beethoven was (perhaps) completely deaf. To communicate with him, people had to scribble notes in one of his many notebooks. He replied, often very loudly, using his voice. In Conversations with Beethoven, Sanford Friedman imagines the entries that appeared in the great pianist and composer’s notebooks during his final, anguished year. These entries—written by family, friends, doctors, and others—tell the story of Beethoven’s failing health and efforts to protect and provide for his beloved 20-year-old nephew, Karl, who has squandered his education and botched a suicide attempt. Karl claims Beethoven’s “constant and… unjust reproaches” are what caused him to try to commit suicide. Beethoven, however, whose words, tone, and gestures we can infer, believes he has done nothing but offer Karl financial support and fatherly care. The tragedy here is that Karl slowly pulls away from Beethoven, who seems only to want a son’s loyalty and love. Friedman’s control of language is astonishing in this absorbing fiction that shows Beethoven as though in relief.
The Loser by Thomas Bernhard
The unnamed narrator of Thomas Bernhard’s novel could have been a piano virtuoso, but he, along with his friend Wertheimer, gave up on having a music career after becoming friends with Glenn Gould in a course taught by Vladimir Horowitz at the Mozarteum in Salzburg. “I would never have been able to play as well as Glenn,” he reflects. Now 28 years have passed since Horowitz’s course. Gould is dead (of a stroke while playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations) and Wertheimer has taken his life, leaving the narrator to puzzle through Wertheimer’s unhappiness and agony over never having achieved Gould’s level of success. When this novel begins, the narrator has arrived at an Austrian inn not far from Wertheimer’s house, where he plans to go the next day to search for notes that will hopefully illuminate Wertheimer‘s relationship with Gould. This is a brilliant, mesmerizing work exploring the costs of wanting “to be the best or not at all.”
An Equal Music by Vikram Seth
Michael Holme, the narrator of Vikram Seth’s novel, is a violinist who belongs to a successful London-based quartet that is preparing to perform in Vienna and Venice and record Bach’s “The Art of the Fugue.” He has fallen in love only once, ten years ago, with pianist Julia McNicholl, with whom he played in a trio. When by chance Michael runs into Julia in London, he wants to revive a romantic relationship, but Julia is married, with a young son, and has gone almost completely deaf. At first Julia resists Michael, but soon she admits she still loves him and decides to travel to Vienna and Venice with him to perform Schubert’s “Trout” Quintet. Moving among practice rooms and concert halls, Michael falls deeper in love, but Julia, who still loves her husband, alternates between pulling Michael close and pushing him away. Michael finds himself wondering what he means to Julia: “Am I for her a static mark, a reversion to the days when music was for her an actual sense, not merely an imagined beauty?” This is a work of intelligence and tenderness, about love and vulnerability, the agony of heartbreak, and the consolations of music. ¶