Bestselling author: A novel about music is impossible

Bestselling author: A novel about music is impossible


norman lebrecht

July 08, 2020

 David Mitchell, author of Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, tells the BBC: ‘Prose isn’t that good at describing music. After three or four sentences it becomes as intolerable as listening to someone else’s dreams.’

All right, let’s dispel his lamentable ignorance with a list of novels about music.

Starting with:

1 Tolstoy, Kreutzer Sonata

2 J B Priestley, Angel Pavement

3 Marcel Proust, A la recherche du temps perdu….

Care to add any more?




  • Cubs Fan says:

    The third movement from Joachim Raff’s Lenore Symphony (no 5) figures prominently in Manchester author Jessie Fothergill’s 1877 novel, The First Violin.

  • Jeffrey says:

    The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers.

    • Sue Mansi says:

      And Orfeo, also by Richard Powers. Wonderful writer.

    • Tichy says:

      ORFEO by R. Powers is also great! A composers life and an artists struggle, the way he writes and thinks about music in this book is captivating, imho.

  • chris says:

    Vikram Seth: An Equal Music

    • David says:

      Dreadful novel, straining at a musical theme which simply can’t exist in print. Yes, it’s probably not easy playing in a string quartet but this wasn’t the way to explore the inner tensions.

  • M2N2K says:

    Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann is one of the finest examples.
    Human Stain by Philip Roth has two very good passages about music: 1) Yefim Bronfman playing with Boston Symphony in Tanglewood and 2) the final movement of Mahler’s Third at a funeral.

  • Kingsley Amis’ “Girl, 20.”

  • Andyet says:

    Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus
    Nathan Hill, The Nix

  • Joel Lazar says:

    Mann: Doctor Faustus
    Forster: Howard’s End [ at least one major episode around Beethoven’s 5th]

  • David Gordon Duke says:

    Thomas Mann comes to mind…

  • Dennis says:

    Depends what one calls a novel “about music”…does it have to be the main subject, or just one that comes up a lot? Does a central character have to be a musician or composer, etc.?

    In any case:

    Mann’s “Doctor Faustus” would have to be top of the list. Though music is a big subject in “The magic Mountain” and others of his works as well.

    Thomas Bernhard’s “The Loser” and “Concrete.”

    Balzac’s “Gambara.”

    Hoffmann’s “Kater Murr,” and some of his short stories like “Ritter Gluck,” “Don Giovanni, and the “Kreisleriana.”

    Gabriel Josipovici’s “Infinity.”

    Vikram Seth’s “An Equal Music.”

    Dostoevsky’s unfinished “Netochka Nezvanova” might qualify.

    Schintzler’s “Road Into the Open.”

    Hesse discusses music a lot in various works, especially “The Glass Bead Game” and “Steppenwolf,” though I wouldn’t say those novels are “about music” as such though one of his early novels (relatively unknown these days), “Gertrude,” is a memoir of a composer.

    Music also features a lot in Hermann Broch’s work, though with him as well I wouldn’t any are “about music” as such.

  • david hilton says:

    I would have thought that Romain Rolland’s “Jean Christophe”, the life of a composer, would have been top of the list. It did win the Nobel Prize for literature for him.

    And HH Richardson’s “Maurice Guest” about young composers, pianists and early 20th-century Leipzig is very vivid too.

  • James Benson says:

    er…the Vyvyan Ayrs/Robert Frobisher section of Cloud Atlas by, um David Mitchell?

  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    Tolstoy’s dreary story is not much about music. A most repulsive work by a bigoted writer. I would suggest Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus.

    • John Borstlap says:

      I think you’re right about the Kreuzer Sonata. Although very well written, it degrades the music. But did Tolstoy dislike the music so much or was it merely his protagonist? Never confuse author with protagonist.

    • Dennis says:

      In what way was Tolstoy bigoted? I disagree with much of his “philosophy” (though he was a great writer and artist) – much preferring Dostoevsky myself – but I wouldn’t call Tolstoy a “bigot” in any reasonable sense of the word.

    • Grittenhouse says:

      Tolstoy bigoted? What are you, anti-Russian?

  • Bill blake says:

    The Soloist, by Mark Salzman; The Lyre of Orpheus, by Robertson Davies

    • David K. Nelson says:

      Let me second Bill Blake’s nomination of Robertson Davies’s Lyre of Orpheus, and there is informed writing about music and musicians and musical instruments in other novels of his as well. His novel A Mixture of Frailties is thought by some to be essentially about Peter Warlock, given a different name in the novel. Davies had musical training and education.

      Perhaps some do not consider it a “novel,” but I do, and thus I would say the finest, funniest and most thoughtful novel about music that I have read is Hector Berlioz’s Evenings With The Orchestra. The “plot” is simplicity itself; the narrator happens across members of the orchestra for an opera house which if memory serves, Berlioz never names. He is invited to join them in the pit. Once the music starts, and the opera of the evening is almost always bad, a relatively few members of the orchestra actually play. The rest sit around and swap stories, gossip, complaints, or dreams of favorite foods. It is a way for Berlioz to put a variety of opinions into the mouths of a variety of characters. When the opera happens to be good, it gives Berlioz a hook on which to hang some marvelous critical writing about music and composers. And when the opera is a great one, Mozart and Gluck being examples, Berlioz puts the intense emotional responses into the characters in a way that uniquely paints the privileges and pains of being a day-to-day professional.

      • Grittenhouse says:

        I don’t know if I knew of this book, I can’t wait to read it. I loved his memoirs and his disparaging comments on German orchestras, particularly their harps and harpists.

  • Adam Stern says:

    “If a literary man puts together two words about music, one of them will be wrong.”

    — Aaron Copland

    • John Borstlap says:

      Writers treat music psychologically, not musically. Proust is a great example of very sensitive writing about music, he knew a lot about it, and his big novel is written with Wagner’s continuity and Leitmotifs in mind.

  • frank says:

    David Mitchell has a point, an idiotic point.

  • Simon says:

    Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus

  • Stephen Gould says:

    The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M Banks.

  • “Isn’t that good at” is a far ways from “impossible”.

  • V. Lind says:

    Hey — Jilly Cooper: Appassionata. And its follow-up, Score! (The latter is great fun if you are a fan of Don Carlos, the latter a tale of a violinist who becomes a conductor…hmmm — where have I just read of such a thing?Maybe that’s why I am sympathetic to his appointment!).

  • Alan R in Philadelphia says:

    “Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer” by Wesley Stace (AKA folk/pop singer/songwriter John Wesley Harding).

    From the Amazon blurb:
    England, 1923. A gentleman critic named Leslie Shepherd tells the macabre story of a gifted young composer, Charles Jessold. On the eve of his revolutionary new opera’s premiere, Jessold murders his wife and her lover, and then commits suicide in a scenario that strangely echoes the plot of his opera—which Shepherd has helped to write. The opera will never be performed.
    Shepherd first shares his police testimony, then recalls his relationship with Jessold in his role as critic, biographer, and friend. And with each retelling of the story, significant new details cast light on the identity of the real victim in Jessold’s tragedy.

  • Bone says:

    Always enjoy reading Bukowski describing Bruckner and Mahler.

  • M2N2K says:

    Among recent novels, Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien is a very food one, mostly about musicians but somewhat about music as well.

  • marcus says:

    Prose writing about music? Pretty well the entire output of the NME (admittedly a good deal of that was detailed descriptions of getting twatted on the train to meet the various bands/singer songwriters etc.)

  • Adam Stern says:

    One of the major supporting characters in Turgenev’s “Home of the Gentry” is an old music professor, Lemm, who, after years of creative silence, is inspired to compose again as he observes the budding romance of the protagonist Lavretsky.

  • Jean says:

    Elmer Diktonius wrote much poetry about music (for those who know Swedish).
    He started as a composer and corresponded with Schoenberg before changing into literature…

  • Harold Stover says:

    I’ve seen one of my favorite quotesattributed to Mendelssohn (but don’t hold me to that): “The reason that it is difficult to speak about music is not because music expresses thoughts that are too vague for words, but rather those that are too precise. Having just written that, I’ll still mention Ian McEwen’s “Amsterdam “,

  • Celia Thaxter says:

    I am reading Dr. Faustus by Thomas Mann right now. Incredible on music. Among contemporary writers, Richard Powers has no equal.

  • M2N2K says:

    By “food” I meant of course some fine literary nourishment – or “a very good one” if you prefer.

  • Alexander Tarak says:

    Re Proust: I have always found his descriptions of the effects of listening to Vinteuil’s violin sonata the least convincing part of the novel.

  • Jonathon says:

    The Gold Bug Variations, The Time of Our Singing and Orfeo, all by Richard Powers.

  • Just saying says:

    Der Untergeher (Thomas Bernhard)
    The Unconsoled (Kazuo Ishiguro)

  • Clevelander says:

    E.T.A. Hoffmann – Kater Murr

    Thomas Bernhard – The Loser

    Alejo Carpentier – The Baroque Concert

  • Peter San Diego says:

    “Napoleon Symphony” by Anthony Burgess. It’s not “about” the Eroica Symphony, just as the Eroica is not “about” Napoleon. However, the novel’s structure is based on the Eroica, practically measure by measure.

    Burgess also wrote wonderful essays about music, some of them collected in his “This Man and Music”.

    • M2N2K says:

      Speaking of Anthony Burgess, music plays a rather important part in his Clockwork Orange as well. And in the great film by Stanley Kubrick, even more so.

  • X.Y. says:

    “The Polish Friend” by Maxim Osipov (1963) in his collection “Rock, paper, scissors – and other stories”. Only an author with a deep connection to music could have written this. Highly recommended.

  • JohnG says:

    Julian Barnes has written a few short stories set around music/musicians as a theme (is this different from fiction ‘about’ music), one of which is a darkly comic story (‘Vigilance’) set at a concert at the Festival Hall – programme (Mozart K595) and Shostakovich 4th Symphony – and performers – Schiff and Haitink – very precise. Later in The Lemon Table the unnamed composer in ‘The Silence’ is clearly closely based on Sibelius. Of course there’s the recent book too ‘on’ Shostakovich, The Noise of Time.

    Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music (with, I seem to recall, a section set in the late-lamented Harold Moores records).

    Thomas Mann’s Pathetique Symphony, on Tchaikovsky.

    Simon Boswell has written several ingenious and engaging mysteries with composers at their heart – The Seven Symphonies and (even better) The Elgar Enigmas.

    Jessica Duchen’s Ghost Variations.

    Modesty no doubt made NL omit his own Song of Names.

    …and having said all this, there’s clearly no shortage of successful fiction based around music/the musical world. I do think Mitchell had a point though. Some of these books have effective descriptions of music and its effects, but more use music as a backdrop or as context. It is difficult to write effectively about music. This might partly be because if you could say everything you wanted to in words, what would be the point of writing music at all?

  • Jackyt says:

    The Lost Stradivarius by John Meade Faulkner – music and a curse!

    Love is Blind by William Boyd.

  • Eric says:

    Between Each Breath – Adam Thorpe.

    ‘Jack Middleton, once ‘England’s most promising young composer’ now lives comfortably in Hampstead with his wife Milly, an heiress. Jack is no longer young nor has he ever quite fulfilled his remarkable promise. And then he visits Estonia, in search of inspiration, and falls for a young waitress, Kaja. Six childless years on and Jack and Milly’s marriage shows the strain, but they battle on better than most – until the past returns with a vengeance…’

  • Montebello says:

    Highly recommended: Nathan Shaham’s The Rosendorf Quartet. Description found on goodreads: “Four German Jews , all refugees from Nazi Germany, and all first-rate musicians, arrive in Palestine in the 1930s. There they join a symphony orchestra, which although made up of Europeans serves as a propaganda vehicle for the Zionist state-in-the-making. Unable to express themselves within this melting-pot orchestra, they join together to form The Rosendorf Quartet. In this compelling and provocative novel, awarded Israel’s prestigious Bialik Prize for Literature, Nathan Shaham examines the plight of these refugees, who must adjust to the old-new land—a place fraught with political struggle and impending violence.
    Kurt Rosendorf, the quartet’s founder and first violin, would like to believe that his true homeland is music. Forced to leave his Christian wife and daughter in Berlin, he cannot adjust to life in Palestine and tries to live “outside history and geography.” Konrad Friedman, second violin, is a young Zionist who constantly battles the urge to renounce the European, cultured life of the musician and dedicate himself to the Jewish cause. Bernard Litovsky, the cellist, is tired of wandering and longs for firm ground and a sense of home. The fourth in the quartet is the stunning Eva Staubenfeld, whose beauty and sexual liberation baffle and mesmerize her colleagues. Relieved to be far from the abuses of her past, she is furious that the accident of being born Jewish has disrupted her life.

    Uniting the four is Egon Loewenthal, a brilliant and underrated German author who has survived Dachau but cannot forsake the language of his persecutors. He decides that his next novel, written in German, will be about the quartet.

    The Rosendorf Quartet is not only a deft portrait of the complexities and contradictions that have gone to make up the state of Israel; it is also a stunning tribute to the curative powers of music, in whose realm dissonance, politics, and personal anguish dissolve into art, transcending human conflict and national boundaries”

  • Harold says:

    He’s right about Dr Faustus where there are long descriptions about music as well as its form which the reader has never heard and the description fails to convey the music, nor its emotion in the development of the protagonist. It”s not a shared experience and therefore impossible. That is also true of Proust and the Vinteuil Sonata although Proust does convey the meaning of the sonata to the narrator and in his aesthetic evolution.

    • M2N2K says:

      Not everything needs to be spelled out in fine literature, and in my opinion Thomas Mann’s novel does not fail at all in conveying any of the things you mentioned – that is for those readers who are able to use their literary and musical imagination.

  • Donald Wright says:

    Schlafes Bruder (Brother of Sleep) by the Austrian writer Robert Schneider, a novel about an untrained organist from a mountain village in the early 19th century who improvises with such supernatural and uncanny power as almost to open the heavens. The novel was also made into a very strange and compelling movie (of the same title) in 1995; it was Germany’s submission for Best Foreign Language Film.

    Schneider also wrote “Die Offenbarung,” a novel about the discovery of a lost oratorio by J. S. Bach. I don’t believe it has yet been translated into English.

  • Larry W says:

    Violinist and author Gerald Elias has written a series of novels with music and musicians at the center. Devil’s Trill, Danse Macabre, Death and the Maiden, Death and Transfiguration, Playing with Fire, and Spring Break are Daniel Jacobus mysteries. Being an accomplished musician (Boston Symphony and Associate Concertmaster of the Utah Symphony), he is especially in tune with the world of classical music. Never a dull moment in these books.

    Second The Rosendorf Quartet.

  • Nick says:

    The Garnet Bracelet by A. Kuprin

  • steven holloway says:

    I have always subscribed to the view that one of elements that comprise the essence of music is that it expresses what words cannot — it is ineffable. I’m far from alone in finding Proust’s seemingly endless effort to ‘describe’ a work by Beethoven the serious and unfortunate flaw in the work. Description and analysis are different endeavours. The latter is sometimes invaluable, the former very, very rarely more than a longeur in fiction. My reaction to Proust was to think “God above, why not just tell the reader to listen to the work!” In the Tolstoy novella, the sonata is a necessary element, for it is about T’s belief that carnal knowledge damages relationships, and that music inflames the passions. That’s it. There’s no Proustian description. Why the Priestley is another of your three examples I have not a clue. But I do have a suspicion about why you invite followers to offer others, hmmm?

    • Paul Carlile says:

      The Priestley does have an extraordinary description from the listener in the concert hall of Brahms’ 1st Symphony…as it happened, thru the four movements and the emotional effect. I haven’t read it for years but remember being greatly impressed as a teenager (who loved Brahms 1…!).

  • stanley cohen says:

    An Equal Music by Vikram Seth

  • jansumi says:

    Reginald Hill’s “On Beulah Height”

  • Gary Carpenter says:

    Jonathan Coe has a wonderful section on Honegger’s Pastorale d’été in Expo 58.

  • Grittenhouse says:

    Peter Ackroyd’s English Music. Willa Cather’s Song of the Lark, and stories and other novels. Mozart in the Jungle by Blair Tindall!

  • Fiddlist says:

    Mitchell is correct! The literature you’ve mentioned is divine, but the sentences in them attempting to describe music are insufferable. The novels are masterpieces despite the musical descriptions, not because of them.

    In case you’re not convinced, remember what Tolstoy said to Rachmaninov?

  • M2N2K says:

    Music expresses what words cannot, therefore precise literal description of music through words is impossible. When fine authors write about music, they describe not the music itself but human response to it, emotional as well as intellectual. Some of the works of literature mentioned above are more successful in doing that and others are less so, but dismissing all of them is misguided.

  • Anonymoose says:

    The Music Programme by Paul Micou

  • Anonymoose says:

    T.S. Eliot, The Four Quartets

  • Anonymoose says:

    I know The Fpur Quartets is not a novel, but I hope poetry is allowed too?

  • Edgar Self says:

    Romain Rolland, “Jean Christophe”
    Henry Bellamann, “King’s Row” ad “Paris Mitchell of King’s REow”
    Robert Ford, “The Student Conductor”
    Hermann Hesse, “Steppenwolf” and “Magister Ludi, or The Glass Bead Game”
    Marcel Proust, “In Search of Lost Time”
    Thomas Mann, “The Magic Mountain”, chapter “Fullness of Harmony”
    and the greatest of all, Thomas Mann, “Doktor Faustus”, read and/or prised by Alan Gilbert, Bruno Walter, Clifton Fadiman, Furtwaengler, Hermann Hesse, Schoenberg, Heinrich Mann, Franz Werfel, Theodor Weiss-Adorno who aso contriuted to it, and your humble servant.

  • Edgar Self says:

    Impressive citations, rarities, and heartening unanimity on Thomas Mann’s music-besotted “Doktor Faustus”. Mann describes, analyzes, and virtually recreates Op. 111 Sonata 32 and the Credo with the fugue from Missa Solemnis [n fictitious lecture-recitals by a stuttering, brilliant German-American musician Wendell Kretschmar, a name from pre-war Berlin music,, along with imaginary works of his fictitious comooser Adian Leverkuehn, pl, in which hTeodor Weiss-Adorno helped him, later exaggerating his role. Even 12-tone music gets a look in, to the outrage of Shoenberg, who was not its inentor.

    After reading these passages, his friend Bruno Walter wrote Mann, “I had noidea eeply into our art.”

    Mann’s unforgettable novella “Tonio Kroeger” is consciously written in sonata-allegro form. Don’t tell Sue. ‘Tristan”, a short story, and “Infant Prodigy”, another, are music-themed. Mann loved Furtwaengler’s “Tristan”. F. calls Mann “the great psychologist” but had reservations about parts of “Faustus”.

    Mann’s eldest son Klaus wrote the Tchaikovsky, not the promising ffather who saised his brilliant son. Klaus and another son, violist Mihael. SFSO violist and sometime UC-Berkeley lecturer in German literature, killed themselves, Klaus in his parents’ lifetime. Klaus was named for his mother’s twin brother, conductor Klaus Pringsheim, active in Japan. Mann and his Princeton friend Albert Einstein were violinists; both declined the offered presidency of East Germany and Israel respetively, Einstein because he would have to wear socks. A neighbour in Princeton was Hermann Broch,mentioned here.

    Music is but one motif of “Doktor Faustus”though a leading one. It is a great novel, as Alan Gilbert wrote in his New York Times articcle, with Mann’s “Magic Mountain” the greatest I know, and as if written to order for this reader. I amglad new generations reading it as I have been for seventy years, wearing out two copies.

  • Edgar Self says:

    One more actually on my shelves: William Volkmann’s “Europe Central” with some bizarre scenes of a lurking Shostakovich that are not at all convincing or recognisable, also I think Siatoslav Richtr gets a look in if I’m not confusing this with another source.