An Equal Music Review for Lovers of Classical Piano Music

Michael Holmes, the second violinist of the successful Maggiore String Quartet, by all counts should be happy. Yet ten years before, he abandoned Julia, the love of his life, at their Viennese conservatory. The loss of Julia haunts him.

Michael is the protagonist of Vikram Seth’s lyrical novel, An Equal Music (1999), my June Selection of the Month. Despite a few missteps in pacing, I liked this book’s humor, its intimate look at the lives of musicians, and most of all, its gorgeous language.

Rehearsals with Michael and the other three members of the Maggiore String Quartet make for some entertaining reading. Piers is the curt first violinist recently dumped by his male lover; Helen, Pier’s sister and the viola player, is voluble as her brother is taciturn; and Billy, the cellist, is also a composer who unsuccessfully hints that the quartet ought to play his music.

“It’s the weirdest thing, a quartet,” Piers muses. “I don’t know what to compare it to. A marriage? a firm? a platoon under fire? a self-regarding, self-destructive priesthood? It has so many different tensions mixed in with its pleasures.” During rehearsals, the group often quibbles—“Piers comes in like a gobbling turkey at forty-one,” Helen complains. Yet the Maggiore’s ritual of playing a “very plain, very slow three-octave scale on all four instruments in unison” is all the more sweet for their tussles.

Although the music that appears in the book is primarily ensemble music for quartets and quintets, classical piano music does surface with one character who is a pianist. Vikram Seth, a six-time book author, is not a musician, yet in An Equal Music’s dedicatory poem to his life partner, who is a musician, Seth says, “I list your gifts in this creation.” The inspiration he received hearkens to other famous life partners and collaborators such as Robert and Clara Schumann.

Much of An Equal Music’s action takes place in London, and the city comes alive here, especially musical spots such as Wigmore Hall, the “sacred shoe-box of piano music.” Yet Michael’s life as a second violinist and music teacher goes awry when he spots Julia on a London bus going in the opposite direction. After he tracks her down, he learns that she is married with a young son. How Michael resolves his unfinished relationship with Julia while continuing to rehearse and perform with the eclectic Maggiore quartet is the book’s main thrust.

Another interesting complication is that one character, also a musician, has a progressive hearing loss, a plot line that initially attracted me to the book since I have a high-frequency hearing loss. Michael wonders, “the cawing of a crow, the chacking of a magpie in a plane tree near the Bayswater Road, the buses roaring and sneezing—what can she hear?” Yet this musician refuses to wear her hearing aids because they distort sounds.

The book gets a bit bogged down towards the end when Michael and the Maggiore String Quartet perform in Venice. At this point in the story, rather than reading so much material about Venice’s setting (which nonetheless was skillfully rendered), I wanted to see how Michael would resolve the conflicts in his life.

Despite my impatience, I enjoyed this novel. I gained an appreciation for the interpersonal challenges of playing in a quartet, and I relished those laugh-out-loud moments. Most of all, I savored this book’s stunning language. “Music, such music, is a sufficient gift,” Michael declares at the book’s close. “It is enough, it is to be blessed enough, to live from day to day and to hear such music.”

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Copyright © 2017 Nancy M. Williams. All Rights Reserved.

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