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LISZTS | 11 Canadian Novels That Classical Music Lovers Should Read

Par Rebecca Anne Clark le 13 décembre, 2017

Canadian novels about classical music: Do not say we have nothing, by Madeleine Thien
Canadian novels about classical music: Do not say we have nothing, by Madeleine Thien

Music is a language as universal as human emotion, and it has the power to console, inspire, and even incite revolution or acts of heroism. It’s unsurprising, then, that it has featured so prominently in other forms of art, including the written word. Here are 11 novels by Canadian authors that explore classical music and its profound impact on the human soul.

 

1-Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

Published 2016, Knopf Canada

Giller Prize winner, Man Booker Prize nominee

Do Not Say We Have Nothing is a family saga telling the story of communist China through the eyes of a family of musicians and storytellers. First imagined while Thien listened to the Goldberg Variations, the novel relies on music as a storytelling device, describing the terror of a regime fueled by denunciations and the characters’ inner conflicts by way of their relationships with the music of Bach, Beethoven, Prokofiev, and others, and even the way the enjoy, perform, and think about music.

MISE À JOUR: UNE TRADUCTION EN FRANÇAIS DE CE ROMAN A ÉTÉ PUBLIÉE AUX ÉDITIONS ALTO SOUS LE TITRE NOUS QUI N’ÉTIONS RIEN. 

Synopsis from the publisher:

With the ease and skill of a master storyteller, Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations – those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the mid-twentieth century; and the children of the survivors, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square in 1989, in one of the most important political moments of the past century.

 

Canadian novels about classical music: The Piano Maker, by Kurt Palka
Canadian novels about classical music: The Piano Maker, by Kurt Palka

2-The Piano Maker by Kurt Palka

Published 2016, McClelland & Stewart

Somewhere between a mystery-thriller and an adventure novel, The Piano Maker takes time in between swashbuckling and courtroom drama to discuss the finer elements of piano manufacturing and playing through the eyes of its strong female protagonist.

Synopsis from the publisher:

Helene Giroux arrives alone in St. Homais on a winter day. She wears good city clothes and drives an elegant car, and everything she owns is in a small trunk in the back seat. In the local church, she finds a fine old piano, a Molnar, and she knows just how fine it is, for her family had manufactured these pianos before the Great War. Then her mother’s death and war force her to abandon her former life. The story moves back and forth in time as Helene, settling into a simple life, playing the piano for the church choir, recalls the extraordinary events that brought her to this place.

 

Canadian novels about classical music: River Music, by Mary Soderstrom
Canadian novels about classical music: River Music, by Mary Soderstrom

3-River Music by Mary Soderstrom

Published 2015, Cormorant Books

Set against the historical backdrop of mid-twentieth-century Montréal, River Music depicts the struggles that Canadian, and especially female, musicians faced in this era. Gloria is an ambitious heroine — some, especially people of her era, might even say self-serving — whose story will be familiar to any musician who has felt the tension between their love of music and the demands of turning that love into a career.

Synopsis from the publisher:

Gloria Murray’s daughter jokes that Gloria would have sold her first born to further her musical career — a reproach closer to the truth than anyone but Gloria suspects. Gloria knows from the moment she hears a soaring song played on the piano that she must follow that river of emotion. After an adolescence playing in churches and hotel lobbies, she prepares to study in post-World War II France, but then another sort of passion intrudes and she finds herself forced into a hard choice that she shares with no one. Back in Canada, her career blossoms, and her secret seems best forgotten — until, thirty years later, her past and her career collide.

 

Canadian novels about classical music: Us Conductors, by Sean Michaels
Canadian novels about classical music: Us Conductors, by Sean Michaels

4-Us Conductors by Sean Michaels

Published 2014, Random House

Giller Prize winner

Michaels’ debut novel is as atmospheric as the instrument at its core, whether that atmosphere is the glitz of the jazz era or the chill of Stalinist Russia. “[Michaels] succeeds at one of the hardest things a writer can do,” said the Giller jury of Us Conductors: “he makes music seem to sing from the pages of a novel.”

UNE VERSION FRANÇAISE DE CE ROMAN A ÉTÉ PUBLIÉE SOUS LE TITRE CORPS CONDUCTEURS AUX ÉDITIONS ALTO

Synopsis from the publisher:

Lev Termen, the Russian scientist, inventor, and spy, tells the story of his life to his “one true love,” Clara Rockmore, the finest theremin player in the world. We learn of Termen’s early days as a scientist in Leningrad during the Bolshevik Revolution, the acclaim he receives as the inventor of the theremin, and his arrival in 1930s New York under the aegis of the Russian state. In the United States, he makes a name for himself teaching the theremin to eager music students and marketing his inventions to American companies. Eventually, he is forced to return home, where he’s soon consigned to a Siberian gulag. Only his wits can save him, but they will also plunge him even deeper into the dark heart of Stalin’s Russia.

 

Canadian novels about classical music: All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews
Canadian novels about classical music: All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews

5-All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

Published 2014, Knopf Canada

Giller Prize nominee, Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize winner

Toews is surprisingly witty in her descriptions of emotional pain and the various ways of experiencing and expressing it, including through art and music. Music can express that which is otherwise private, unknowable, or unpalatable to others; in fact, it’s even predicated on pain, as described by Yolandi who says, “Sure, let’s get rid of shame but then we can kiss art goodbye too.”

Synopsis from the publisher:

You won’t forget Elf and Yoli, two smart and loving sisters. Elfrieda, a world-renowned pianist, glamorous, wealthy, happily married: she wants to die. Yolandi, divorced, broke, sleeping with the wrong men as she tries to find true love: she desperately wants to keep her older sister alive. Yoli is a beguiling mess, wickedly funny even as she stumbles through life struggling to keep her teenage kids and mother happy, her exes from hating her, her sister from killing herself and her own heart from breaking.

 

Canadian novels about classical music: A Secret Music, by Susan Doherty Hannaford
Canadian novels about classical music: A Secret Music, by Susan Doherty Hannaford

6-A Secret Music by Susan Doherty Hannaford

Published 2014, Cormorant Books

Winner of the 2016 Grace Irwin Award

Though A Secret Music has a story similar to River Music, both drawing on the same historical era and premise of a piano prodigy from a humble background, it takes a different stance: young Lawrence embraces the responsibilities that take him away from the consoling world of music. Beautiful and vivid depictions of musicality and performance make this a gem of a read for musicians and music lovers alike.

Synopsis from the publisher:

Set in 1936 Montreal, A Secret Music is the story of Lawrence Nolan, a sensitive fifteen-year-old piano prodigy who grows up in the shadow of his mother’s mental illness. Forced to keep this shameful secret, he attempts to raise himself and his ten-year-old brother. He counteracts the deep ache and creeping mistrust caused by his mother’s emotional absence by escaping into the intense realm of Chopin and Schubert, the only language he understands. When his brother becomes ill, he is left with enormous responsibilities. At a piano competition in Montreal, Lawrence makes a climactic decision that puts his future on hold in order to salvage his family life.

 

Canadian novels about classical music: Incidental Music, by Lydia Perovic
Canadian novels about classical music: Incidental Music, by Lydia Perovic

7-Incidental Music by Lydia Perovic

Published 2012, Inanna

This debut novel contrasts the intellectualism of politics and history with the emotionality of music and erotic desire and is full of vivid detail. The ageing Romola blends fact with fiction in her own mind as her past operatic roles intrude on her life. Fans of Incidental Music may also enjoy Perovic’s latest novella, All That Sang, described as “a visceral tale of obsession and creativity, unrequited passions and the power of music,” (Esplanade Books, 2016).

Synopsis from the publisher:

Petra is new to Toronto and eager to establish roots, but she keeps losing jobs, and finds it impossible to make friends or adopt a cause. Martha is prosperous, intellectual and compassionate, and just might have built everything in her life on an impressive amount of self-deception. A retired opera singer, Romola left Hungary after the failed 1956 uprising, having played part in it as a member of a group of performing artists who called themselves Sektor 7. She is trying to cope with the haunting memories of an old love and her reasons for leaving the country, but her excursions to the past usually end mired in her long-ago operatic roles. The lives of the women overlap, but there is never any unison. Petra, Martha and Romola are like the three operatic voices soprano, mezzo and alto that sometimes pair up their melodic lines but never sing in complete accord.

 

Canadian novels about classical music: Murder in A-major & The Mastersinger from Minsk, by Morley Torgov
Canadian novels about classical music: Murder in A-major & The Mastersinger from Minsk, by Morley Torgov

8-Inspector Hermann Preiss Mysteries: Murder in A-Major and The Mastersinger from Minsk by Morley Torgov

Published 2008 and 2012, Dundurn Press

For those in for some lighter fare, Torgov’s Inspector Hermann Preiss Mysteries put the historical fiction spotlight on some of the Romantic era’s biggest musical celebrities. Well-researched and absorbing details about the lives of Wagner, Brahms, and Robert and Clara Schumann are delivered in juicy, dramatic packages.

Synopsis from the publisher:

Schumann and Brahms are the stars of Torgov’s first Hermann Preiss mystery. Musical egos clash and murder ensues in mid-19th century Germany.

It is late March 1868. In Munich, composer Richard Wagner is completing his new opera Die Meistersinger von Nuremberg. It has been a difficult few years for him, and much depends upon the success of this new work. Following the tense auditions, an anonymous note warns Wagner that the premiere will be the date of his ruination.

 

Canadian novels about classical music: The Cellist of Sarajevo
Canadian novels about classical music: The Cellist of Sarajevo

9-The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

Published 2008, Knopf Canada

Giller Prize nominee

What do humans do in the face of inhumanity? In times of deepest sorrow, music is one of our strongest refuges. The Cellist of Sarajevo explores how we resist, exercise agency, and interpret the world around us, including through and with music.

UNE VERSION FRANÇAISE DE CE ROMAN A ÉTÉ PUBLIÉE SOUS LE TITRE LE VIOLONCELLISTE DE SARAJEVO AUX ÉDITIONS 10/18

Synopsis from the publisher:

One day a shell lands in a bread line and kills twenty-two people as the cellist watches from a window in his flat. He vows to sit in the hollow where the mortar fell and play Albinoni’s Adagio once a day for each of the twenty-two victims. The Adagio had been re-created from a fragment after the only extant score was firebombed in the Dresden Music Library, but the fact that it had been rebuilt by a different composer into something new and worthwhile gives the cellist hope.

 

Canadian novels about classical music: The Violin Lover, by Susan Glickman
Canadian novels about classical music: The Violin Lover, by Susan Glickman

10-The Violin Lover by Susan Glickman

Published 2006, Goose Lane Editions

Canadian Jewish Book Award for fiction winner

With music serving as both a theme and a structure, Montréal-based poet and author Susan Glickman’s debut novel is described as “gripping”, “beautifully written”, and was named one of the year’s best novels by The National Post.

Synopsis from the publisher:

Clara Weiss and Ned Abraham are an unlikely couple: he a self-possessed doctor and accomplished violinist, and she a struggling young widow. As the Blackshirts terrorize London’s Jewish community, harrowing consequences follow their secret affair, and Ned’s careless intrusion into the life of Clara’s son Jacob, a gifted 11-year-old pianist.

 

Canadian novels about classical music: The Piano Man Daughter, by Timothy Findley
Canadian novels about classical music: The Piano Man Daughter, by Timothy Findley

11-The Piano Man’s Daughter by Timothy Findlay

Published 1995, Harper Perennial

Giller Prize nominee

This novel is quintessential Findlay, with a family saga/drama that falls squarely into the “Southern Ontario Gothic” category. Music is woven into the narrative in different, subtle ways: as a motif, as a theme, and even stylistically, featuring characters who “dream in songs”.

Synopsis from the publisher:

In 1939, piano tuner Charlie Kilworth ponders two questions: who was his father? and, given the madness that consumed his mother Lily, does he dare become a father himself? His quest reveals more than he imagined about Lily, herself the daughter of a piano player, and her colourful, tormented life amid the lively characters and rich sense of early-twentieth-century Toronto.

LISEZ AUSSI /ALSO READ: 

PLAYLIST | Prix Opus: écoutez la crème de la crème des albums finalistes en 30 pièces et deux heures de musique

 

 

 

 

 

Rebecca Anne Clark

Rebecca Anne Clark is a Montréal writer, editor, and translator who likes culture, the arts, nature, and activism. She has been working in classical music media since 2008. She enjoys making music, food, and clothing, and can be found in Montréal's parks, libraries, concert venues and community centres.

Rebecca Anne Clark

Rebecca Anne Clark is a Montréal writer, editor, and translator who likes culture, the arts, nature, and activism. She has been working in classical music media since 2008. She enjoys making music, food, and clothing, and can be found in Montréal's parks, libraries, concert venues and community centres.
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