Making Beautiful Music in Fiction

I exercise to music. Don’t we all? Relieves the boredom of repetitive motions. Sometimes, of course, music is just a backdrop for thoughts. I do get ideas as I move to music. Like, why not write a post on music in fiction?

We all love music. I think. My day never goes by without it and with the magic of the internet, I can pipe in music from all over the world.

Our area does not offer much classical music, anymore, but everyday, our system is programmed to broadcast from classical radio stations: at nine and at noon, from Paris, and in the evening, from Switzerland. Those hours add up to at least six of mere exposure as well as serious listening, not counting the rendezvous I have with my earphones. What can I say? I’m a bit of an anachronism—touched, thrilled, and thrown into tearfulness by rich, lingering works of long-dead masters. And I love opera, too.

In fact, I do listen to modern songs. But even in those, my tastes trend towards folk rock from the 70s to early 90s.

So, I weave music in fiction I write. But, I’m not alone.

Music is also a player in Jane Austen novels. Entertaining guests often means someone is going to be asked to play the piano or sing. Knowledge and skill in some musical instrument (usually, piano) is a mark of the accomplished lady of the period, so young women dedicate time and study to it. Sometimes a character finds music essential for her soul as Marianne does in Sense and Sensibility, probably the Austen novel in which music assumes the most prominent role.

English: "Marianne, wrapped up in her own...
English: “Marianne, wrapped up in her own music” – Austen, Jane. Sense and Sensibility. London: George Allen, 1899, page 145. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In Margaret of the North, Margaret and her cousin, Edith, do a duet of Mozart rondos at a party during which Margaret and John’s families meet for the first time. Edith, then, goes solo with a sonata.

In Hello, My Love!, Greg and Elise meet at an Indian restaurant where a Spanish song, Besame Mucho is playing. In an earlier scene, Elise’s mother, an accomplished piano player, treats her guests to a Mozart Fantasy (KV 475 was what I had in mind when I wrote this scene.)

The current novel I’m writing is both a short sequel and a relatively long prequel to Hello, My Love! that relates the early life of Elise’s mother who in Hello! is referred to only as Mrs. Halverson. In this new novel, we learn her first name (Agnieszka—for now, also the tentative title) and how she started out with hopes of becoming a concert pianist (alluded to in Hello!).

Music gets top billing in this novel. Agnieszka’s passion for music is stirred when she first hears her great-aunt, who played at concerts in Poland, give a recital. Here’s an excerpt where an older Agnieszka describes her experience at eight years old. When I wrote this, I was listening to Mozart’s Fantasy KV 396.

She swept her fingers over the keys so they sounded like each one was running into the next. The music they produced jolted me into paying attention. The fluid sway of Aunt Jola’s body as she reached for the keys, as well as the flourish in the gesture of her arms and hands, seemed part of the music. I sat up straight to watch closely and listen. I was proud that she singled me out to sit in front—as close as anyone could get to the piano—but I had thought that the recital was something I needed to endure. Instead, from those very first notes, I was caught, although I did not yet fully grasp what I was going through.

I only knew that my body tingled in anticipation. This was not the faraway tinkle of a piano I had heard on the radio. It was full and it was all around me. But just as that first run of notes grabbed me, the music slowed and became quiet, prodding me into a cocoon of my own thoughts. They kept on going, but they were also changing all the time, as if my aunt was exploring the many, many ways she could play those soft, slow notes. How was it possible that they could be sad and happy at the same time? How could they soothe me like a lullaby, but also tug at my insides in a way that made me squirm?

Before those first notes could lull me completely into my cocoon, the piano keys seemed to be colliding with each other again, but only for a breath or two. The soft notes that seemed to look inside of me took over again. The short sweep of notes alternated with the soft caress of slower notes, as if a conversation was going on between them. The music crept under my skin, wormed through my flesh down to my bones, until my arms and my legs were twitching with it. I closed my eyes and let the music take me somewhere I had never been.

Agnieszka is hooked.

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