Given all of its terminological pitfalls, referencing music is notoriously difficult for non-musicians. I read a lot, both fiction and non-fiction, and far more often than not music references are bungled by both authors and their editors (who allow those bungles to slip through).
(It has only just now occurred to me that I should have been keeping a list of such musical miscues; we’d have some real boners to discuss about had I done so. Things like referring to a Beethoven symphony as a “song”; assertions that Mozart “waltzed through the night” at a time when the waltz was not yet danced in urban areas; references to Frank Sinatra’s “scintillating tenor voice”; he was a baritone, etc.)
If the occasional music reference can be problematic for non-musicians, then actually writing about music can be a downright disaster. In correspondence with my Patreon patron, the professional writer (and musical patron) Howard Jay Smith (whose own historical novel – Beethoven in Love; Opus 139 – I, pathetically, have yet to read), we discussed how ripe for literary depiction was the Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann, Johannes Brahms ménage a trois. In the course of our correspondence I mentioned two books that had come highly recommended to me (I bought them in 2009 according to my Amazon account) on just this subject: Boman Desai’s Trio and Trio 2. Rarely do I stop reading a book; even more rarely do I give one away; and even more rarely do I simply throw one out so to spare another reader my experience. Sadly, with no disrespect intended towards Mr. Desai, whose sincerity and love-of-subject is apparent on every page, both his volumes met the latter fate in my recycle bin. The opening pages of Trio that I read were a direct “dramatization” of the principal English-language biography of Robert Schumann by John Daverio (Oxford, 1997), in which narrative lines from Daverio’s biography were altered slightly and put into the mouths of the characters as dialogue. In the end (or at least after the 50 pages I was able to read before I could read no more), I had to conclude that Desai understood neither the personalities involved nor the music under discussion. The issue wasn’t one of interpretation or the necessary conjecture and dramatization that comes with novelization; no, as best as I can surmise, he simply didn’t know enough or understand enough to get it close to capturing his subjects. We are told that Mr. Desai is both an “amateur musician and a songwriter,” though in this case that wasn’t nearly enough for him to get a handle on the music.
Back to my comment regarding Boman Desai’s lack of bona fides as a musician. I’m not saying that you have to be a high-end musician to write with insight and intelligence about music, but oh my goodness, does it ever help! Which is why this week’s prescription/recommendation is something of a miracle. I’m not recommending this book, beautifully and imaginatively written though it is, for its basic story line. Rather, I’m recommending it for its frame and the world it so brilliantly evokes.
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