Book with a quiet message

Eva Hoffman, Appassionata. It seemed at first like a quiet novel, but lovely and honest, about a concert pianist beginning a tour. All the music she plays is old music (the standard piano repertoire), and all the feelings she has about it seem inward-turning, emotions not strongly connected to the world outside. Of course that’s one of the things I don’t like about classical music now, but still I was drawn to the book, because, as I said, it’s so honest. And the honesty is both emotional and musical. This is one of the few novels I’ve read that — in its scenes of concert life, in its account of what the pianist thinks when she’s playing, and in its scenes from the pianist’s long-ago student life — really convey how classical music works. Hoffman herself was a pianist, and she’s both observant and wonderfully sensitive.

But then the story grows in a new direction. For those who don’t want any spoilers, I’ll simply say that the outside world starts to press in on the pianist. Classical music doesn’t seem adequate, any more, though this point is in no way underlined. It’s just something we can assume, from how the pianist reacts. In the end, she has to find an accommodation, and she does, in a small but serious way that I greatly admire.

But for those who don’t mind spoilers, or want to know more, here’s what happens. (Mild spoilers first, than more serious ones.) The pianist — whose life is in some ways empty — starts an affair with a man who goes to her concerts in Europe, and who turns out to be a Chechen political activist, someone in contact with Chechens who might be terrorists, and who might be a terrorist himself.

Now she’s caught up in discussions of what really matters in life. Classical music, by implication (nothing in this book is heavily done, or in any way obvious), is part of a culture that seems weak to the Chechen (though still he loves it; life, as Hoffman knows, is rarely simple).

And then — more serious spoilers coming — there’s a terrorist bomb that touches the pianist almost directly. Her lover disappears. Maybe he’s responsible. It’s too much for the pianist. She has a quiet, undramatic breakdown, cancels her concerts, disappears. In the end, she pulls herself together, and here’s how she does it, how she crosses the gulf between classical music and the rest of life: She starts to compose. And her first composition, Hoffman says, draws on both Liszt and Jimi Hendrix.

I can’t stress enough how quiet this is. Hoffman never draws a moral, never says, or even comes close to saying, “See, by bringing together rock and classical music…” She’s far too good for that (which means that in many ways she’s better than I am). She simply shows her pianist starting to make a new life, and this is one part of it. We never hear more about the music, never see it premiered, never see a new audience show up, ready to bring classical music into their larger world. The book is too honest for that. Maybe (this is me talking here, not Hoffman) these grand things could happen, but Hoffman hasn’t seen them. She writes what she knows. And so this small step toward a future seems all the more real because it’s not underlined. Appassionata is an honest book, and well worth reading.

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  1. Mary Agria says

    Loved this review. BTW: might interest you that I am a novelist and 2 years ago published a little sleeper of a book–VOX HUMANA: THE HUMAN VOICE that deals with the inner life and musical yearnings of force-retired Phillie career counselor who winds up reclaiming her roots as a barefoot church organist in a tiny parish in W. PA. It garnered a favorable review in the AGO by American U. Dean and organ faculty member Mardarasian for its insights into the tradition of informally but classically trained rural liturgical musicians and for its “reflective portrayal of the ascent of goodness, reconciliation and love.” If it is something you might enjoy, would send a copy for your review. Little do folks know what goes on in our heads and hearts as we play away week after week, stretching the limits of technique and imagination. I’ve done it since I was 12. We are a dying breed.

  2. Carol I. Crawford says

    Thank you for recommending this book which has obviously touched your heart. Reminds me of a recommendation I received years ago from the manager of an NPR station to read Anne Rice’s CRY TO HEAVEN. Although not a musician himself, the manager shared that he had never read anything which described the activity of making music in such a meaningful way to a non-musician like himself. On the basis of his words, I read CRY TO HEAVEN and just loved it. Rice’s approach was very different than Patchett’s BEL CANTO. I look forward to reading Ms. Hoffman’s book based on your words, Greg.

  3. Robert Berger says

    This really sounds interesting to me.

    As well as being a classical musician, I am a devotee of all things relating to that ancinet and fascinating region, the Caucasus.

    The Chechens are one of the many indiginous peoples of that region; they are muslims, and basically a middle eastern people. They are a very ancient people with a very ancient language which linguists believe may be a holdover from the ancient languages of Meospotamia .

    A fair number of Chechens live outside the mountains of the north Caucasus, but I don’t know how much connection they have to Western classical music. Their own folk songs and traditional music sound fascinating, and I’ve heard examples of spoken Chechen on the internet. What a weird but fascinating language. I’ve never heard anything like it.

    Try the website, which is also available in English. It’s fascinating, and you can hear their music on it.

  4. Jessica Weissman says

    I’m just starting this book, and it is strikingly promising as an account both of playing and listening to music.

    Another novel that does an excellent job of conveying musical activity is Richard Powers’ The Time of Our Singing.

  5. Suzanne Derringer says

    Hi, Greg – glad you’re back; I’ve been on a long holiday from music. This book sounds interesting but the lady’s personal synthesis of Liszt and Hendrix is obviously not intended as a solution to the problem of the survival, or relevance, of “classical” music.

    I happened to see the PBS program on Karajan the other night, and it seemed to me – since I have not thought about Karajan in a long time – that he embodied all the crisis of “classical” music in the postwar period. I have long felt that, especially in the German world, music in the years following WWII was clung to as a kind of redemption, a proof that we’re not all Nazis, barbarians, mass-murderers; indeed we have a soul – we have Beethoven and Mozart! Certainly Karajan and others of his generation used music to prove their own humanity, to make a place for themselves in the new world. And they did this by making “classical” music into a pseudo-religion – making it even more serious and fraught with social and political importance than it had when it was new, for the most part, in the 19th century. And so we have this desperate sort of anachronism…

    At the moment I’m at the Lincoln Center library, where I was idly perusing a book called A HISTORY OF MUSIC IN SCOTLAND, by Henry George Farmer, first published (interestingly enough) in 1947. Farmer says in his introduction:

    “The music of every age is determined by the particular form of society in which it is given expression. Because of this it is necessary that we should know the structure of this society if we wish to understand its music. That is why I have treated my subject as a part of social history, since all music is primarily a phase of social life, however much aesthetes may think otherwise. Yet the general run of music historians have preferred to treat music per se, as if every reader were a political historian and sociologist knowing the raison d’etre for each particular type of music…”

    But “classical” music is pretty much played, and listened to, out of this context. Here we are at Lincoln Center, a kind of cultural theme park; the offerings are often quite beautiful, but – as this fellow Farmer says a bit later on – no longer vitally connected to, a part of, the LIFE of this time.

    Good to see you here again, Suzanne. And it’s wonderful, the things we find in old books. I’m going to uncork a few discoveries in the blog (apart from Forster).

    There’s a repeat, of sorts, of the use of music that you describe Karajan making. It’s happening in Iran, and among some Palestinians. Classical music becomes a symbol of purity that transcends politics. Or which they hope can transcend politics. As I’ve said here before, that’s partly because classical music these days has no obvious content, apart from a general sense of elevation.

    “A cultural theme park!” You win the phrase of the week contest, if there was one. And they’ll HATE that at Lincoln Center.

  6. says

    Good to see you back, Greg. I hope you had some realxation and fun this summer. Can’t wait to hear about the cows.

    The book sound really fascinating. Thanks for the review. I love the comments on this blog. You have some of the most astute readers anywhere.

    Thanks, Dave. I love the people who read this blog. They’ll get a huge acknowledgment in my book. I’ve learned so much from them.