Reading and listening to music can offer immense joy and solace anytime, but especially so during these stress filled times. Music and books are major cultural touchstones, and if the two are well combined, the results can make for harmonious reading!
Some works of fiction are influenced by the lives of famous musicians and in others, a great musical composition or score may play an important role in the plot; and, musical instruments can play a starring role in some stories.
Novelist Rebeccal Kauffman writes: “ Music can reach us, surprise us, and offer a story of its own in the most unexpected places. The ways in which writers employ music vary immensely, from an entire work chronicling the life of a virtuoso to a single song serving as strategic backdrop to a scene. They may use works that already exist, reimagine or recontextualise them, or create them anew.”
Here are some music themed works of fiction available in ebook or audiobook form that can add some melody to your reads:
And After the Fire by Lauren Belfer
A powerful and passionate novel—inspired by historical events—about two women, one European and one American, and the mysterious choral masterpiece by Johann Sebastian Bach that changes both their lives.
In the ruins of Germany in 1945, at the end of World War II, American soldier Henry Sachs takes a souvenir, an old music manuscript, from a seemingly deserted mansion and mistakenly kills the girl who tries to stop him. In America in 2010, Henry’s niece, Susanna Kessler, struggles to rebuild her life after she experiences a devastating act of violence on the streets of New York City. When Henry dies soon after, she uncovers the long-hidden music manuscript. She becomes determined to discover what it is and to return it to its rightful owner, a journey that will challenge her preconceptions about herself and her family’s history—and also offer her an opportunity to finally make peace with the past.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
A bestselling novel that balances themes of love and crisis as disparate characters learn that music is their only common language. Terrorists raid a party held in honour of a wealthy and powerful Japanese businessman, where a renowned soprano has been hired to perform. The story, with Stockholm syndrome at its core, accelerates at a surprising clip while offering wonderful insights and lines about music: “Never had he thought, never once, that such a woman existed, one who stood so close to God that God’s own voice poured from her.”
The Ensemble by Aja Gabel
The addictive novel about four young friends navigating the cutthroat world of classical music and their complex relationships with each other, as ambition, passion, and love intertwine over the course of their lives. Brit is the second violinist, a beautiful and quiet orphan; on the viola is Henry, a prodigy who’s always had it easy; the cellist is Daniel, the oldest and an angry skeptic who sleeps around; and on first violin is Jana, their flinty, resilient leader. Together, they are the Van Ness Quartet. After the group’s youthful, rocky start, they experience devastating failure and wild success, heartbreak and marriage, triumph and loss, betrayal and enduring loyalty.
The Gunners by Rebecca Kauffman & Michael David Axtell- Audiobook
Music appears in various contexts in this novel. Classical music enthusiast Mikey Callahan is losing his vision and has begun to assign specific pieces of music to cherished images he wants to remember with as much clarity as possible – such as the faces of his childhood friends, a group called “The Gunners”, around whom the novel is based. Another character, a pianist, attended a conservatory in Manhattan on a full scholarship until her career was devastated by a mysterious injury. Various pieces of music performed by characters in scenes throughout the book are intended to evoke a particular atmosphere and inspire the characters along a certain line of thinking or towards a sense of togetherness.
The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce & Steven Hartley-Audiobook
It is 1988. On a dead-end street in a run-down suburb there is a music shop that stands small and brightly lit, jam-packed with records of every kind. Like a beacon, the shop attracts the lonely, the sleepless, and the adrift; Frank, the shop’s owner, has a way of connecting his customers with just the piece of music they need. Then, one day, into his shop comes a beautiful young woman, Ilse Brauchmann, who asks Frank to teach her about music. Terrified of real closeness, Frank feels compelled to turn and run, yet he is drawn to this strangely still, mysterious woman with eyes as black as vinyl. But Ilse is not what she seems, and Frank has old wounds that threaten to reopen, as well as a past it seems he will never leave behind. The journey that these two quirky, wonderful characters make in order to overcome their emotional baggage speaks to the healing power of music—and love—in this poignant, ultimately joyful work of fiction.
Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall by Kazuo Ishiguro
With the clarity and precision that have become his trademarks, Ishiguro interlocks five short pieces of fiction to create a world that resonates with emotion, heartbreak, and humor. Here is a fragile, once famous singer, turning his back on the one thing he loves; a music junky with little else to offer his friends but opinion; a songwriter who inadvertently breaks up a marriage; a jazz musician who thinks the answer to his career lies in changing his physical appearance; and a young cellist whose tutor has devised a remarkable way to foster his talent. For each, music is a central part of their lives and, in one way or another, delivers them to an epiphany.
The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes
A compact masterpiece dedicated to the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich:
In 1936, Shostakovich, just thirty, fears for his livelihood and his life. Stalin, hitherto a distant figure, has taken a sudden interest in his work and denounced his latest opera. Now, certain he will be exiled to Siberia (or, more likely, executed on the spot), Shostakovich reflects on his predicament, his personal history, his parents, various women and wives, his children—and all who are still alive themselves hang in the balance of his fate. And though a stroke of luck prevents him from becoming yet another casualty of the Great Terror, for decades to come he will be held fast under the thumb of despotism: made to represent Soviet values at a cultural conference in New York City, forced into joining the Party and compelled, constantly, to weigh appeasing those in power against the integrity of his music.
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
This early Murakami novel is named after the narrator Toru Watanabe’s favourite Beatles song. When he happens to hear an orchestral version many years later, the melody transports him back to the days of student revolt in the 1960s. Music is similarly potent for the other characters in a story that was a huge success in Japan and made the author a reluctant star. A magnificent coming-of-age story steeped in nostalgia, it blends the music, the mood, and the ethos that were the sixties with a young man’s hopeless and heroic first love.
The Song of Names by Norman Lebrecht
Martin Simmonds’ father tells him, “Never trust a musician when he speaks about love.” The advice comes too late. Martin already loves Dovidl Rapoport, an eerily gifted Polish violin prodigy whose parents left him in the Simmonds’s care before they perished in the Holocaust. For a time the two boys are closer than brothers. But on the day he is to make his official debut, Dovidl disappears. Only 40 years later does Martin get his first clue about what happened to him.
In this ravishing novel of music and suspense, Norman Lebrecht unravels the strands of love, envy and exploitation that knot geniuses to their admirers.
The Song of the Lark by Willa Cather
First published in 1915, this is the second novel in Cather’s “Prairie Trilogy”. It tells the remarkable story of Thea Kronborg, a talented young pianist, who leaves her small hometown of Moonstone, Colorado, to fulfill her dream of becoming a professional musician. Setting off on her own, her ambition takes her to Chicago at a young age where she works tirelessly on her music. It is there that a teacher hears Thea’s gift for singing and helps her refine her talent. While Thea misses her Colorado home and family, she will not give up on her dream and follows opportunities to New York and eventually Germany, where her beautiful singing is more appreciated. Thea’s relentless drive for success is not without its sacrifices and disappointments, but Thea is strong, resilient, and earns her success on her own terms.
The Song of Hartgrove Hall by Natasha Solomons
New Year’s Eve, Dorset, England, 1946. Candles flicker, a gramophone scratches out a tune as guests dance and sip champagne—for one night Hartgrove Hall relives better days. Harry Fox-Talbot and his brothers have returned from World War II determined to save their once grand home from ruin. But the arrival of beautiful Jewish wartime singer Edie Rose tangles the threads of love and duty, and leads to a devastating betrayal. Fifty years later, now a celebrated composer, Fox reels from the death of his adored wife, Edie. Until his connection with his four-year old grandson—a music prodigy—propels him back into life, and ultimately to confront his past.
Swing Time by Zadie Smith
Two brown girls dream of being dancers—but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It’s a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.
Tracey makes it to the chorus line but struggles with adult life, while her friend leaves the old neighborhood behind, traveling the world as an assistant to a famous singer, Aimee, observing close up how the one percent live. The book moves from London to the US to Africa, and tackles themes of class, creativity, talent and ambition.
The Weight of a Piano by Chris Cander
In 1962, in the Soviet Union, eight-year-old Katya is bequeathed what will become the love of her life: a Blüthner piano, on which she discovers an enriching passion for music. Yet after she marries, her husband insists the family emigrate to America—and loses her piano in the process.
In 2012, in Bakersfield, California, twenty-six-year-old Clara Lundy is burdened by the last gift her father gave her before he and her mother died in a terrible house fire: a Blüthner upright she has never learned to play. Now a talented and independent auto mechanic, Clara’s career is put on hold when she breaks her hand trying to move the piano, and in sudden frustration she decides to sell it. Only in discovering the identity of the buyer—and the secret history of her piano—will Clara be set free to live the life of her choosing.
Wonderland by Stacey D’Erasmo
Anna Brundage is a rock star. She was an overnight indie sensation, but lost her fame just as fast as she found it. Now forty-four, she pours everything into a comeback, selling her famous father’s art to finance an album and a European tour. A riveting look at the life of a musician and the moving story of a woman’s unconventional path, this novel offers us a glimpse of how it feels when a wish just might come true.
-Archana, Adult Services & Acquisitions Librarian