The best novels featuring classical music

The Books I Picked & Why

The Noise of Time

By Julian Barnes

Book cover of The Noise of Time

Why this book?

In 1936, Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich is spending every night in a hallway by the elevator, ready for the secret police he’s sure are coming for him. By the end of the novel, he’s publicly celebrated, but the requirements of government approval weigh as heavily on him as government threats. What, both Barnes and Shostakovich himself ask, might his music have been like under different circumstances? “The last questions of a man’s life do not come with any answers; that is their nature. They merely wail in the head, factory sirens in F sharp.” Barnes’s slim, swift novel offers no easy answers as it examines how moral compromise corrodes a life and deforms that life’s work.


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The Loser

By Thomas Bernhard

Book cover of The Loser

Why this book?

To play music written in another century and played thousands of times since is to live and play inside infinite comparisons: between the way something sounds in your head, and the clumsier way your fingers deliver it; between your interpretation and a famous recording; between your effort and a classmate’s. In The Loser, Bernhard imagines the lives of two students studying piano alongside a fictional version of the real-life virtuoso Glenn Gould. Their recognition of Gould’s brilliance starts their own lives unravelling. The first-person narrator ruminates and rants without pauses or paragraph breaks, flapping memorably at the edges of the pages like a bird in a cage of its own making.


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The Queen of the Night

By Alexander Chee

Book cover of The Queen of the Night

Why this book?

To portray the title character in Bizet’s Carmen is only one of the many transformations American orphan Lilliet Berne’s life requires, both on and offstage, as she ascends to opera stardom in late 19th century Paris. In this immersive novel, the clothes are as richly described as the music, and the music is described with not only sincere emotion but attention to realities and absurdities: Bizet’s early death leads to greatly improved ticket sales, for example. In Chee’s haunting first novel Edinburgh, he made choral music shimmer with both beauty and horror. The Queen of the Night is very different in setting, time, and sweeping sense of adventure, but shares Chee’s ability to movingly explore acts of survival and reinvention.


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Bel Canto

By Ann Patchett

Book cover of Bel Canto

Why this book?

In an unnamed South American country, a Japanese businessman has been lured to a party by the promise of a private performance by an American opera star. As she finishes her last aria, the lights go out and the partygoers are taken hostage by armed guerillas. Working within the claustrophobic confines of a prolonged hostage situation, Patchett acts as a masterful conductor, taking turns highlighting and blending together the voices of characters divided by nation, language, class, power, and more. She brings individual voices into conversation (and sometimes romance) with others, while keeping the whole symphony moving with control and suspense towards the finale.


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Do Not Say We Have Nothing

By Madeleine Thien

Book cover of Do Not Say We Have Nothing

Why this book?

This multigenerational saga leaps across decades and continents, from the life of a Chinese-Canadian girl growing up in Vancouver in the 1990s, to the horrors of WWII and the Cultural Revolution in China, when Western classical music was banned. The role of music in the book is complex: it can be both passion and livelihood, private beauty, or blunt political instrument. When love for music can threaten someone's physical survival, a “pretty” piece of piano music is anything but: the notes “drip down to the parlour, seeping like rainwater over the persimmons on the table, the winter coats of her family, and the placid softness of Chairman Mao’s face in the grey portrait frame on the wall.” 


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