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Custodians of Sound

An Equal Music, Vikram Seth, Phoenix House (1999) 

Avid reader friends of mine recommended An Equal Music for its beautiful poetic language. In fact, the first page is a lovely poem, followed by a John Donne quote on page two wherefrom the book appears to derive its title. With the further promise of travel and lively dialogue, I settled in quickly into the heretofore unknown world of musicianship.

An Equal Music is both a story of a youthful love gone awry, rekindled ten years hence, and a fully considered affair with music. The main characters are the members of the Maggiore Quartet comprised of Michael Holme (our narrator), Piers, Helen and Billy.  The sensual love interest is Julia who forms the quintet for a single engagement. We travel from a humble but beautiful top floor London flat with a view of Hyde Park, to Vienna, Venice and back.

The members of the quartet are talented, complicated and appealing. “Billy is far too fat, and always will be.  He will always be distracted by family and money worries, car insurance and composition.  For all our frustration and rebuke, he will never be on time.  But the moment his bow comes down on the strings he is transfigured.  He is a wonderful cellist, light and profound: the base of our harmony, the rock on which we rest.” Michael, the quartet’s second violin, has never felt unhappy with his position, though he says he agrees with whoever said it should more properly be called “the other violinist”.  He does not consider his spot the lesser, in fact, he believes the second violin is a more versatile chair. “Sometimes, like the viola, it is at the textural heart of the quartet; at others it sings with a lyricism equal to that of the first violin, but in a darker and more difficult register.”

Michael is preoccupied by the re-emergence of the love of his life. I often forget Julia’s name because I never feel I know her quite well enough. The Maggiore Quartet holds her in the highest regard, but I found her emotionally distant, inaccessible. She is all about silk slips and composure, in and out of the concert hall, even as she juggles a husband and child, career and Michael. With about half the book dedicated to the affair between Julia and Michael, I leave it to the reader to determine if Julia’s career shift from piano accompanist to soloist, and the reasons for it, creates a satisfying enough character. Michael’s stunted emotionality had me grappling with why he wasn’t seeking therapy. It took a second reading to cut him a little slack and find his vulnerability believable. At first blush, the force of his angst, at once debilitating and then fierce, doesn’t seem fully earned.

In Seth’s deft hands, a love of classical music and all that it conjures is finely articulated. Early in the novel, the Maggiore Quartet is to play a concert of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, in that order. As Piers puts it, there’s a thematic connection, each quartet contains a fugal movement. Billy thinks they are getting the key relations all mixed up. “It’s total confusion. First three sharps, then one sharp, then four.  There’s no sense of progression, no sense of progression at all, and the audience is bound to feel the structural stress.” He wants to change the order of the Mozart and the Haydn so that there will be an ascending order of sharps, and thereby a sense of perceived structure. Helen offers that the Mozart was written after the Haydn to which Piers questions the audience’s chronological stress. Billy says they can change the Haydn A major and perform a later Haydn, one that was written after the Mozart,Opus 50 that’s in F sharp minor.  “It’s also got three sharps, so nothing changes.  It’s terribly interesting.  It’s got all sorts of – oh yes, and it too has a fugal last movement… ” Michael disagrees contending that the audience doesn’t care about the order of sharps. Billy retorts “but I do and we all should.”

Vikram Seth offers his most poetic words for Michael as he reflects on what is to come.  “A winter evening in the Wigmore Hall, the sacred shoe-box of chamber music.  We have spent the last month practicing intensively for this night.  The fare is simple – three classical quartets:  Haydn’s opus 20 no. 6 in A major, my most beloved quartet; then the first of the six quartets that Mozart himself dedicated to Haydn, in G major; and finally, after the interval, Beethoven’s steeplechase-cum-marathon, the ethereal, jokey, unpausing, miraculous, exhausting quartet in C sharp minor, which he composed a year before his death, and which, just as the score of the “Messiah” had consoled and delighted him on his deathbed, was to delight an console Schubert as he lay dying in the same city a year later.”

The quartet’s quibbling over Bach, to record or not to record The Art of Fugue is equally enjoyable. The piece’s length gives Piers to voice that they could never perform it, “Quartets don’t do that sort of thing on stage. Besides, Bach didn’t write it for string quartet.” Billy thinks that if the string quartet existed in Bach’s time he’d have written for it. Piers is weary of Billy’s hotline to dead composers. It is here, with The Art of Fugue, that we get to know Helen, who must find a viola she can tune down a fourth, which leads her to a talkative instrument maker and then, in turn, to an early music devotee who, according to Piers, plays a baroque fiddle, wears sandals and sports a beard.  There appear to be stereotypes among musicians.

The Art of Fugue, Die Kunst der Fuge BWV1080 Contrapunctus I, JS Bach (1685–1750)
Emerson String Quartet, Deutche Grammophon, 2003

After the Wigmore concert, the quartet prepares for Vienna where they will perform Schubert’s Trout Quintet (accompanied by Julia on the piano).  One critic hates the Trout for all its “tedious charm.  It knows exactly what the right moves are, and it makes them all.  It’s light and it’s trite.  I’m astonished that anyone still plays it.” Piers loves the Trout and regrets that “everyone treats it as if it’s a sort of divertimento – or worse.” It turns out Piers’ feelings for the piece are mixed.  He says, “It’s a funny old piece.  It stops and starts and has so many repeats but I truly love it.” Michael thinks it is one movement too long.

The book is smart and does justice to the tight rope an artist walks between natural talent, discipline, focus, respect and intuition. When Michael considers giving up music, Piers’ response is no more than the basic truth of the matter.  “…I’ve stopped thinking creating anything short of a masterpiece is pointless.  I just ask myself two questions about what I’m doing here in my niche in the galaxy.  Is it better done or not?  And is it better that I do this than something else?” He pauses, then saying,  “And I suppose I’ve just added another one:  is it better that someone else does this than me?”

For an enchanting description of Venice, Seth gives to us, “The stone bridge at the Rialto, the wooden bridge at the Accademia, the great grey dome of the Salute, the columns and bell-tower of San Marco, the pink–and-white confection of the Doge’s palace pass over us or by us one after the other; and all so luxuriously, so predictably, so languidly, so swiftly, so astonishingly that there is something about it that is disturbing, almost gluttonous.  It is a relief to be in the open basin of the lagoon, unhemmed by gorgeousness.” No matter how many times I scan this paragraph, I continue to be transported by it.

I first read this book the summer before last and all that fall played Schubert’s Trout and Bach’s, The Art of Fugue (both string and piano).  My most recent read of An Equal Music included interludes of Beethoven String Quartets (a full box set was marvelously found in my husband’s CD collection).  My music education is slim at best, and I’ve never read a novel that prompted hours of attentive listening. But there I was, and still am, a little lighter for the Trout’s cheeriness, unequaled in obsessed contemplation as for The Art of Fugue and continually dumb struck by big bad Beethoven who seems to be able to do whatever he wants.  It is the love story with the music that is by far the tale of this novel that soars.


  1. Hi there, this weekend is fastidious in favor of me,
    because this time i am reading this enormous educational article here at my residence.

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