The best books about pianists

2 authors have picked their favorite books about pianists and why they recommend each book.

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The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist

By Deirdre O'Connell,

Book cover of The Ballad of Blind Tom, Slave Pianist: America's Lost Musical Genius

This book illustrates why this list had to be called the best Australian books about music. Because it’s an Australian author writing about an American musician. This is an exchange that works both ways: just this year, British musician/author Tracy Thorn published a book about Go-Betweens drummer Lindy Morrison, called My Rock’n’Roll Friend. Blind Tom is a biography of slave pianist Tom Wiggins, one of the first African-American musicians to crossover to success with white audiences, and remarkably he had not been so accounted for until Deidre O’Connell took up the cudgels. O’Connell is an academic, but thankfully doesn’t write like one, and this her first and thus far only book is totally engrossing. I hope she writes some more.


Who am I?

I am an art school dropout and recovering rock critic who, since 1981, has published a dozen books on Australian music and popular culture, plus worked extensively in television and as a freelance journalist. I'm too old to be called an enfant terrible, but with the way I still seem to be able to court controversy, I must remain some sort of loose cannon! Sydney’s Sun-Herald has called me "our best chronicler of Australian grass-roots culture," and that’s a tag I’m flattered by but which does get at what I’ve always been interested in. I consider myself a historian who finds resonances where most don’t even bother to look, in our own backyard, yesterday, and the fact that so much of my backlist including Inner City Sound, Highway to Hell, Buried Country, Golden Miles, History is Made at Night, and Stranded are still in print, I take as vindication I’m on the right track…


I wrote...

Stranded

By Clinton Walker,

Book cover of Stranded

What is my book about?

Stranded is a cultural history of the Australian independent music scene that was spawned by the DIY punk movement in the late 70s and grew even despite resistance in the 1980s, up to a belated breakthrough in the early 90s thanks to the grunge realignment of the aesthetics of rock. It’s a blend of reportage, oral history, memoir, and criticism. When it was first published in 1996, it was considered somewhat contentious for its non-populist vision. What it was was prescient, putting its money on acts like Nick Cave, the Go-Betweens, and the Triffids who were so spurned in Australia in the 80s that they were forced into exile in Europe – and are now considered, worldwide, among the most enduring products of the period. After two decades out of print during which time the book’s legend only grew, it has just been re-released in 2021 in a new, expanded edition by the Visible Spectrum. 

The Lost Melody

By Joanna Davidson Politano,

Book cover of The Lost Melody

Sometimes you need a good read to curl up with on a rainy day, one that’s a bit melancholic yet romantic at the same time. I know I do, and The Lost Melody checked both those boxes. My heart ached for heroine Vivienne Mourdant, for have we not all struggled with reality now and then? And who wouldn’t if trapped within an insane asylum? This one kept me guessing until the very end as to how poor Vivienne would ever escape in one piece. 

Definitely more Jane Eyre than Jane Austen.


Who am I?

Though I live in the foothills of the Ozarks, I’m an Anglophile at heart, loving all things Jane Eyre and Jane Austen. I spent much of my angsty adolescence tucked away in Regency and Victorian England with my nose stuck in a book. As a result, I now jump at every chance I get to skip across the pond and roam the English countryside, listening hard to hear all the voices from the past—which is why my stories are always tied to British history. So whether you love ballrooms or shadowy tales set in gothic manors, here’s a great list for you.


I wrote...

Lost in Darkness

By Michelle Griep,

Book cover of Lost in Darkness

What is my book about?

Even if there be monsters, there is none so fierce as that which resides in man’s own heart. Travel writer Amelia Balfour’s dream of touring Egypt is halted when she receives news of a revolutionary new surgery for her grotesquely disfigured brother. She must remain in England—which changes everything...in the worst possible way.

Surgeon Graham Lambert has suspicions about the doctor he’s gone into practice with, but he can’t stop him from operating on Amelia’s brother. Will he be too late to prevent the man’s death? Or to reveal his true feelings for Amelia before she finally sails to Cairo?

The Unconsoled

By Kazuo Ishiguro,

Book cover of The Unconsoled

I’ve always been fascinated by surrealism and expressionism—and The Unconsoled takes those dreamlike images and expresses them in a fascinating and disorienting story. Reading this novel makes you feel like you’re trapped in a terrifying and anxious nightmare—and I mean that in the best possible way. The novel uses dream logic: characters appear out of thin air and morph into other characters. The setting is a strange labyrinth in some nameless European city. If you like David Lynch movies, you’ll dig this. If you’re looking for a linear narrative, stay away!


Who am I?

When I completed one of my early novels, a really demented one called Factory Town, a fellow author emailed me with great concern for my mental health. He was convinced I was heading down a dark cave that I couldn’t be rescued from. But it wasn’t true. Writing and reading these dark novels doesn’t make me depressed. It makes me feel creatively revitalized. Dark literature reminds us that being alive is painful—but it’s also wonderful. I hope to never spend any real time with people as terrifying as the ones I’ve found on these pages. But I’m incredibly thankful they were a part of my imagined world for a time. 


I wrote...

Beneath Cruel Waters

By Jon Bassoff,

Book cover of Beneath Cruel Waters

What is my book about?

When Holt Davidson learns that his estranged mother has taken her own life, he returns to his hometown for the funeral, hoping to make peace with the past. He spends the night at his childhood home, but instead of nostalgic souvenirs, he discovers a gun, a love letter, and a Polaroid photograph of a man lying in his own blood.

Who is the dead man? Was his mother the one who killed him, and, if so, why? Who sent the love letter? And what role did his sister, institutionalized since she was a teenager, play in this act of violence? As his own traumatic memories begin to resurface, Holt begins an investigation into his mother’s and sister’s pasts—as well as his own.

The Secret Piano

By Zhu Xiao-Mei, Ellen Hinsey (translator),

Book cover of The Secret Piano: From Mao's Labor Camps to Bach's Goldberg Variations

Zhu Xiao-Mei was born to middle-class parents in post-war China. Taught to play the piano by her mother at age 10, she developed into a prodigy.

But in 1966, when Xiao-Mei was seventeen, the Cultural Revolution began, and life as she knew it changed forever. One by one, her family members were scattered, sentenced to prison or labor camps. By 1969, the art schools had closed, and Xiao-Mei spent the next five years at a work camp. Life in the camp was nearly unbearable, thanks to horrific living conditions and intensive brainwashing. Yet through it all, Xiao-Mei clung to her passion for music.

Heartbreaking and heartwarming, The Secret Piano is the true story of one woman’s survival in the face of unbelievable odds—and in pursuit of a powerful dream.


Who am I?

My father retired from the Marines before he married my mother. Sadly, he was more drill instructor to me than father. He never shared with me his experience on Okinawa, yet he was proud of his service. He kept in touch with several marines and attended many reunions. It was only after Dad’s death that I discovered With the Old Breed. Eugene Sledge told me everything my father withheld from me, and why he was the way he was. Today, Dad would be diagnosed with PTSD. Thus began a quest to read other accounts of wartime experiences, as soldiers and civilians, which led me to write A World Without Music.


I wrote...

A World Without Music

By J. Conrad Guest,

Book cover of A World Without Music

What is my book about?

Can a Gulf War veteran suffering PTSD find the music to make his life worth living?

Reagan returns from the Gulf War haunted by horrific images of a dead marine he brought back from the desert. Seeking refuge from his nightmares in a jazz quartet in which he plays bass guitar, fifteen years elapse and he has a one-night fling with Rosary, a young woman he meets at a gig. When his ex-wife comes back into his life, Rosary’s obsession turns into a fatal attraction. With help from Tom Wallach’s ghost, the daughter Wallach never met, and a friend who is much more than he appears to be, Reagan discovers he must let go of his tortured past if he is to embrace the future.

The Loser

By Thomas Bernhard,

Book cover of The Loser

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.


Who am I?

I learned to read music at about the same time I learned to read words. I grew up taking piano lessons, studying almost entirely classical pieces that came weighted with history: everything I ever played had been played better by someone else. I still enjoyed my attempts, but realized that the relationship I had with those notes was not the one I wanted to have with words, which I felt drawn to assemble into my own arrangements, my own stories. So, as a weirdo who’s been thinking about interpretation and creation since childhood, I love books that delve into the challenges and emotional complexities of making music.


I wrote...

The Vexations

By Caitlin Horrocks,

Book cover of The Vexations

What is my book about?

Erik Satie begins life with every possible advantage. But after the dual blows of his mother's early death and his father's breakdown upend his childhood, Erik and his younger siblings -- Louise and Conrad -- are scattered. Later, as an ambitious young composer, Erik flings himself into the Parisian art scene, aiming for greatness but achieving only notoriety.

As the decades pass, he alienates his circle as often as he inspires them. Only Louise and Conrad are steadfast allies. Together they strive to maintain faith in their brother's talent. But on a journey that will take her from Normandy to Paris to Argentina, Louise is rocked by a severe loss that ultimately forces her into a reckoning with how Erik will never be the brother she's wished for.

Clara

By Janice Galloway,

Book cover of Clara

One of the great things historical novels can do is bring previously sidelined figures into the centre, and Galloway’s book is perhaps my favourite example of this. The title character is the nineteenth-century German pianist and composer, Clara Schumann, nee Wieck. We first meet her as a child prodigy, controlled by her overbearing father, and then come to know her as Clara Schumann, hardworking musician, mother, and wife to the increasingly erratic Robert Schumann. Galloway makes you feel as if you know what it’s like to live as a nineteenth-century woman, and a famous and gifted one at that.


Who am I?

I’m an academic and non-fiction writer as well as a novelist. My favourite part of writing is the research phase, when you catch the scent of something fascinating, and hitherto unknown, and never know where it might lead you. As you’ve probably guessed from my recommendations, I have a soft spot for the quiet, unflashy, overlooked figures. Recently I’ve returned to the subject of overlooked women, although in non-fiction, in my book Letters to my Weird Sisters: On Autism and Feminism. For my next novel, I’m learning all about the bluestocking women of eighteenth-century Britain, and their attempt to create an ideal community. Perfect characters aren’t interesting to me – flawed ones are so much better.


I wrote...

A Want of Kindness

By Joanne Limburg,

Book cover of A Want of Kindness

What is my book about?

The wicked, bawdy Restoration court is no place for a child princess. Ten-year-old Anne cuts an odd figure: a sickly child, she is drawn towards improper pursuits. Cards, sweetmeats, scandal, and gossip with her Ladies of the Bedchamber figure large in her life. But as King Charles's niece, Anne is also a political pawn, who will be forced to play her part in the troubled Stuart dynasty.

As Anne grows to maturity, she is transformed from overlooked Princess to the heiress of England. Forced to overcome grief for her lost children, the political manoeuvrings of her sister and her closest friends, and her own betrayal of her father, she becomes one of the most complex and fascinating figures of English history.

An Equal Music

By Vikram Seth,

Book cover of An Equal Music

An Equal Music is the lyrical, unforgettable story of a violinist’s determination to reclaim not only his music, but the pianist he loved and lost years ago. Suspenseful, atmospheric, and deeply romantic, it sweeps the reader on a journey through Venice and Vienna, offering a unique view of how a musical quartet works together. There is a secret disease that threatens the very heart of the music—and a poignant, courageous depiction of how that is faced. Written in 2000, An Equal Music is a one-of-a-kind book that will be read for decades to come.


Who am I?

I’m often asked: “Are you a musician? You must be, in order to write so beautifully and convincingly, through the eyes of a musician!” Actually, I’m what’s known as a “serious amateur”—which means that I study the piano “seriously” but not professionally, purely for the love of it. In fact, my understanding of the piano deepened tremendously as I worked on this book, as if my protagonist required that of me, in order to bring her to life the way she needed.  The piano has become more and more vital to me, as a writer, because it allows me to explore and express in ways that don’t depend on words. 


I wrote...

The Sound Between the Notes

By Barbara Linn Probst,

Book cover of The Sound Between the Notes

What is my book about?

What if you had a second chance at the very thing you thought you’d renounced forever? How high a price would you be willing to pay?

Susannah put her career as a pianist on hold for sixteen years and didn’t look back. But now, suddenly, she has a chance to vault into that elite tier of “chosen” musicians. There’s just one problem: somewhere along the way, she lost the power and the magic that used to be hers at the keyboard. She needs to get them back—fast. As her now-or-never concert draws near, Susannah is catapulted back to memories she’s never been able to purge—and forward, to the country-and-western sister she’s never known, and choices she never thought she’d have to make. 

The Stolen Child

By Keith Donohue,

Book cover of The Stolen Child

The publishers describe this as “a bedtime story for adults.” Like the best bedtime stories, this novel straddles the lines between comforting, unsettling, and thought-provoking. Inspired by the poem of the same name, by William Butler Yeats, it tells the story of a child, stolen at the age of seven by a group of wild, childlike creatures. He is turned into one of them, and In his place, they leave one of their own. The two changelings grow up in parallel and the setting alternates between small town America in the mid-20th century and a strange community of creatures who may soon be nothing more than a story. 


Who am I?

Since I was a child, I’ve loved stories of people who live, unseen, among or close to us. I prefer the spelling “Faerie.” Fairies are pretty, butterfly-like creatures that fly around gardens. “Faeries” suggest, to my mind, the word “fear.” They can be both benevolent and malevolent, but are primarily other. In my novel, Beautiful, and the follow up that’s in progress, faeries feature as characters both in their own realm and ours. They can cause a lot of trouble for humans, but also be well-intentioned. These books feature faeries that play similarly ambiguous roles. 


I wrote...

Beautiful: A Tale of Beauties and Beasts

By Fran Laniado,

Book cover of Beautiful: A Tale of Beauties and Beasts

What is my book about?

Eimear is a Faerie. She finds herself in the World, a strange place, where she is the only magical being, and she begins to build a life for herself. But when she encounters Finn, supernaturally beautiful but thoughtless and selfish, she gets angry. In a fit of rage, she casts a spell on Finn. It’s a spell that she can’t undo, even when she discovers that she’s ruined Finn’s life.

In an isolated place, thrown together initially out of desperation and need, Eimear and Finn find a way to live together. That alliance eventually blossoms into more. But before they can have a future, Eimear must make a perilous journey that will force her to confront everything she ran away from when she left Faerie.

The Musical Life

By Helen Marquard,

Book cover of The Musical Life: Hedwig Stein: Emigree Pianist

Helen Marquard’s search for a piano teacher led her to Hedwig Stein who had fled Berlin in 1933 with her Russian Jewish husband, both concert pianists, to start again from nothing. A large, vivid woman, Hedwig freely shared her ideas on music, art, philosophy, literature. Later, Marquard discovered Hedwig had written a diary, and determined to bring us this story that would otherwise have been lost, enabling Hedwig and her husband to take their rightful place in the roll-call of émigrés who have contributed so much to UK cultural life. Hedwig put her husband’s career and her children first, yet she never gave up on her own career, which continued its own quiet flourishing after her husband’s sudden death. 


Who am I?

I’ve always adored stories of courageous, sometimes outrageous women who forge ahead into the unknown, survive in strange lands in troubled times, pursue their career dreams. Like my favourite picks, I’ve relished my own adventures in distant countries (Libya, Czechia, Kyrgystan, Mongolia…), while always earning my crust from writing. From motivational research in Dublin and London, I switched to financial journalism in Holland, where I met and was inspired by ground-breaking journalist Nel Slis whose story I’ve told in my book Hellcat of the Hague. Now I’m settled in London to concentrate on my novels and short stories and be near my family, I hope you love these books too.


I wrote...

Hellcat of The Hague: The Nel Slis Story

By Caroline Studdert,

Book cover of Hellcat of The Hague: The Nel Slis Story

What is my book about?

I unearth the riveting tale of pioneering Dutch woman journalist Nel Slis, the first Associated Press correspondent in The Hague after WWII. From remote island origins via European adventuring, nursing Finnish war-wounded and wartime monitoring for the BBC to reporting on Dutch Queens, royal scandals, emerging Europe. With no lack of lovers but losing the one she would have married, she fights on and wins many battles, becoming a legend in her own time: the magnetic and trustworthy woman journalist every other journalist wants to interview and emulate. I hope her story, which would otherwise have been lost, will inspire many more generations of adventurous women to crack glass ceilings and achieve their dreams.  

In the Key of Genius

By Adam Ockelford,

Book cover of In the Key of Genius: The Extraordinary Life of Derek Paravicini

This is a wonderfully inspiring and motivating book, for anyone involved in developing as a musician. It’s the story of Derek Paravicini who was born blind, with severe learning difficulties and autism. At a very young age, his parents found him picking out melodic fragments on an old keyboard; now Derek is a world-famous pianist specialising in Jazz but able to play anything you like. The story is told beautifully by his teacher, Adam Ockleford, who has been his mentor from the very beginning. Again, it highlights the power and importance of music as a means of maintaining humanity. 


Who am I?

Paul Harris is one of the UK’s most influential music educationalists. He studied the clarinet at the Royal Academy of Music, where he won the August Manns Prize for outstanding performance in clarinet playing and where he now teaches. He is in great demand as a teacher, composer, and writer (he has written over 600 books); and his inspirational masterclasses and workshops continue to influence thousands of young musicians and teachers all over the world in both the principles and practice of musical performance and education.


I wrote...

You Can Read Music: The Practical Guide

By Paul Harris,

Book cover of You Can Read Music: The Practical Guide

What is my book about?

This is a practical workbook for anyone who has ever wanted to read music notation. It explains the process in clear manageable steps and blows the myth that reading music is difficult right out of the water. It is ideal for anyone wishing to develop this ability whether they are entirely new to reading music or someone who wants to improve and perfect their skill. It works for both players of any instrument and singers. By the end of this book, you will be able to read and understand music notation - you don’t even need a musical instrument!

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