Declan Byrnie, child prodigy and world-class concert pianist, has enjoyed a glittering career from a young age, touring the world’s best concert halls and producing acclaimed recordings. Ten years into his career his wife dies in a terrible accident and he stops performing; alone with his grief, he falls into obscurity, his concert career abandoned.

As the novel opens, we meet Declan at the end of one of his practice sessions and this immediate signals a major theme of the book – the obsessive nature of being a professional musician. In the dark backstreets of New York City, away from the glamour of Carnegie Hall and the like, Declan seeks out pianos on which to practice (despite having a decent grand piano at his apartment). He’s not fussy about the instruments, only that his practising keeps him away from his apartment until returning is “the only possible course of action”. He plays in nightclubs and cramped, smoky bars. He accompanies a singer called Sandrine, and uses his piano playing as a way to pick up women (although it embarasses him to admit this). He’s filling a great big hole in his life with music and unsatisfying casual relationships. His dead wife haunts him and he talks to her, consciously and unconsciously. We learn a little more of his relationship with her through letters which are interspersed in the narrative.

With his decision to return to performing comes a host of attendent situations and characters, from his suave agent, Peter Barlow, to wealthy friends and patrons, journalists, an independent piano blogger (!), audience members and strange, sticky fans, and a rich Russian patron of the arts, in whose beautiful concert hall Declan plays later in the novel. Entertainingly and acutely depicted, many of these characters are recognisable from the international world of classical music and are a reminder that beyond the learning and refining of the notes is the necessary “business” of the industry.

The book takes Declan and reader on a road trip of sorts, both physical and emotional. There are the concerts, the settings successively more significant until we reach a beautiful concert hall in Boston where he plays to an audience of 700 people. Along the way, there is a crazy music festival, the polar opposite of the refined surroundings where Declan is used to playing. There are people too, including Elise, a young woman whom he meets at a swish modern concert venue, who accompanies him some of the way on his journey to Boston, and who acts as a contrasting foil for Declan’s introspection. We journey through music with him, exploring the miniatuae of Bach, Chopin, Mozart, and especially Beethoven – the Hammerklavier Sonata in particular – where myriad details of the score and the musician’s personal relationship with it are revealed. Declan’s relationship with the Hammerklavier is a strange one – you sense that he doesn’t like this music very much yet is drawn to its complexities and its greatness. Purists may baulk at his irreverence, but it brings a greater humanity to both music and performer.

There is also a wealth of detail about the practice of practising, including the wisdom of Declan’s piano teacher Tal, and performing – the emotional and physical aspects of the pianist’s craft, and the sheer grunt work of being a musician, which are often overlooked in the midst of beautiful, arresting performances.

The book ends in Italy in a small town in which Declan and his late wife dreamed of one day settling, and it is here that the circumstances of his wife’s death, and its preamble, are fully revealed. It’s shocking, unexpected and sad, and one feels that Declan’s behaviour throughout the book as he deals with his grief is justified.

The prose is immediate and engaging, often entertaining, with many episodes which remind us that musicians do not exist in a gilded cage but are ordinary people who happen to do extraordinary things. The protagonist could have a different career and the narrative would still be effective – this is, primarily, a story about love and the exigencies of human relationships, and how betrayal and grief shape and change us. But the fact that Declan is a musician and, more specifically, a pianist – the loneliest of musical professions – and an obsessive one at that, lends a greater depth to the narrative; his obsessive nature causes him to analyse and over-analyse his emotional responses, much as he analyses the Hammerklavier, but also provides an outlet for his grief. Practicing is a protection against his emotions and the music offers a special kind of solace.

Few writers can truly capture the physical and emotional experience of playing and engaging with music, especially complex repertoire like the Hammerklavier sonata. Not since An Equal Music by Vikram Seth have I encountered such sensitive, intelligent and vivid writing about music as Damian Lanigan achieves here. Added to that, a well-paced, entertaining storyline makes this book a thoroughly good read.

Recommended

The Ghost Variations by Damian Lanigan is published in the UK by Weatherglass Books on 15th September


Postcript: the title of the novel, The Ghost Variations, is taken from Schumann’s last piano work, composed in 1854 before he was committed to a mental hospital. While he was writing these variations, he flung himself into the freezing Rhine. The work is intimate, poignant and highly personal.

Guest article by Karine Hetherington

Vladimir Horowitz is probably the most famous concert pianist of all time. Wherever he performed, he drew legions of fans right up to his death in 1989. Audiences flocked to see the supernatural energy he brought to Chopin, Liszt, Brahms and other favourites from the romantic repertoire. There is no doubt, he was both virtuoso artist and a fascinating, idiosyncratic performer. Much has been said about his unusual flat-fingered technique which purists found vulgar.

Viewing some old footage of Horowitz, I was struck by how Jekyl and Hyde he appears on camera. Charming and charismatic, he nevertheless appears haunted by sadness.

Lea Singer, author of  ‘The Piano Student’, based on Horowitz’s secret life, had the novelist’s nose for the hidden story.

She was lucky enough to gain access to to Horowitz’s correspondence with a certain Nico Kaufmann. Kaufmann was Horowitz’s piano student, soon to become his lover in 1937. The secret letters have never been published and are to be found at Zurich’s Zentralbibliotek. Up until his death, Horowitz remained married to Wanda Toscanini (daughter to the famous and very influential conductor, Arturo Toscanini).

This is an unusual book which at first reads like a dark detective novel of the sort Swiss writer Friedrich Dürrenmatt might have written. A man walks away from his planned suicide. The agents, who were supposed to assist him, turn up to an empty house. The man has already fled and the reader sees him turning up at a bar where a remarkable pianist is playing.

Slowly, maddeningly slowly at first, in a bizarre, convoluted dialogue, the pianist, Nico Kaufmann, reveals his life to the stranger. The first few chapters were a tad far-fetched. We want suspense but frankly I was a little lost. An absence of speech marks, standard practice in European novels (this book was originally written in German) may have slowed me down a little.

Thankfully I grew accustomed to the style and notation. It was a good thing, as Lea Singer’s research translates into a riveting tale. 

Kaufmann takes the stranger (thereafter known as Doneti) on a journey into his past. The pair visit grand faded hotels, bars, lakeside houses around Zurich and Lucerne. In this twilight world Kaufmann’s memories of Horowitz surface in Proustian fashion. Of his piano lessons as a young man. His first kiss with his teacher. A powerful image remains with me of pale-bodied Horowitz, in his early thirties, lying next to the young Kaufmann in the hotel room. Their naked bodies are outstretched on the bed and are barely touching.

Not over sentimentalised, this is a moving book, filled with tension and tragedy. We see Horowitz, warts and all. We see his rages, his professional perfectionism and his bouts of depression. The younger Kaufmann is loved, hated and controlled by the older lover. With the urgency of war approaching adding to the suspense, this makes this a fascinating read.

Recommended if you, like me, relish knowing more about the legendary Horowitz, all be it through the imagination of an author who has researched the subject well.

In the confessional nature of the dialogue, this might make a good play. 

The Piano Student’ by Lea Singer is published by newvesselpress.com on October 6 2020.


Karine Hetherington is a teacher, writer and reviewer who lives in London. A dual-British and French national, with a Russian ancestry thrown in, her short stories and novels reflect her passion for both the detail and grand sweep of European history. After studying creative writing at Birkbeck College in London, Karine has been telling stories that have brought history to life, with tales of love and adventure that draw on the detail of real events and real lives. Her two published novels, The Poet and the Hypotenuse, and Fort Girard, are set in France in the 1930s and 1940s. Karine is also a reviewer for The Cross-Eyed Pianist’s sister site, ArtMuseLondon.


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