Of all the aspects of culture I have explored in my fiction – art, writing, archaeology, architecture – music is the most inherently romantic. When I dreamed up the story for my latest novel, Concerto, it was so wonderfully easy to see how I would set the stage for an opera singer and a pianist composer to fall in love.
Music is infused with emotion and it has such capacity to stir emotion. It can make the most memorable moments; it can forge the most magical bonds.
Here is a glimpse of a scene early on in Concerto, soon after Catriona and Umberto first meet, when he plays the piano for her.
He began to play in earnest as Catriona stood beside the piano, sipping her drink while she listened and watched Umberto’s long, slender fingers move gracefully up and down the keyboard. He was wonderful, his fingers were sure, strong and dextrous. The music filled the room as passionately as moonlight filled the darkness. There was something sensual about his hands touching the ivory keys, something exciting, something erotic. She tried to dismiss such thoughts but it was hard for her to separate his touch from the music that enveloped her, holding her captive.
Umberto watched her face with a dreamy quality in his eyes as the music swelled and grew under his touch, a wild wind moving about restlessly. He had shifted into another key and now his playing took off, moving them both into another world with his fingertips as surely as if he had transported them physically to a land of magic. It was a world they shared, one they both knew by heart. United by their love of music, wordlessly they spoke the same language.
Soon the music had changed from the lovely uplifting melody to a more urgent, harsh tempo, contemporary and new. Catriona felt her heart begin to soar. There was power in this and she found herself reacting time after time to the dramatic swings in mood. …
The notes began to pound harder and harder, an imperious, majestic sound with rolling chords that gathered momentum as the melody surged over the top like a passionate blaze of fire. Umberto was lost in his music, his dark head bent over the keyboard, his eyes following the difficult patterns his hands had mastered as the composition softened to a complicated and repetitive movement. When he finally looked up again, his eyes crinkled around the edges as the mood of the music changed to a capricious, whimsical note. The music rose to a crescendo, the lovely and uplifting main theme he had played at the beginning reaching its climax in a sudden burst of energy, the sound of the final chord melting into the quiet swish of the sea beyond.
Umberto calls this composition ‘Songe d’une Nuit d’Amour’ (Dream of a Night of Love). It is entirely inspired by this moment with Catriona and the emotions she unleashes in him. ‘It’s you that created it,’ he tells her. ‘You are an infinitely powerful muse.’
There is something deeply sensual about this music; it is their attraction and all its potential expressed through rhythm and notes.
Umberto is a romantic composer, certainly. He is following in the tradition of the early Romantic composers – part of the Romantic movement in the arts that began in the late eighteenth century. Composers like Tchaikovsky and Brahms focused on using music to provoke emotion and passion. Where would we be now without their influence? Imagine watching a romantic movie without a stirring, beautiful soundtrack – it would feel flat and so much less poignant.
As I wrote Concerto, I had a ‘booktrack’ in my mind. Its signature piece is Umberto’s ‘Songe d’une Nuit d’Amour’, but another important piece of music comes from Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe. ‘A Poet’s Love’ is a collection of songs by Schumann set to the poems of Heinrich Heine. Umberto asks Catriona to sing the Lieder. I write:
She took a shaky breath then started, her soprano voice clear and true. Her rich natural vibrato extracted every ounce of meaning from the poetry so that the air quivered with tides of emotion, as if she sought to pluck the heartstrings of every one of her listeners. She communicated every nuance of expression and meaning with such an instinctive understanding that she lost herself in the music:
Ich grolle nicht, und wenn das Herz auch bricht,
Ewig verlor’nes Lieb! Ich grolle nicht.
I blame thee not, although my heart is breaking,
Oh, love forever lost! I blame thee not.
The words told a truth of such poignancy that the song could almost have been written for her. ‘For I saw you in my dreams, and saw the night within your heart.’ Every phrase built in volume and intensity, Catriona’s voice soaring easily as it climbed the scale to a powerful crescendo. It wasn’t like an aria, where an entire opera house would be filled with sound, this song had a throbbing intensity that was quite different: inward-looking, almost brooding. None of her listeners moved, they didn’t seem even to breathe until the last note died into nothingness, the air still once more.
In the Lieder, Schumann poured out his love for a woman named Clara (see my article ‘Clara Schumann – a heroine for the modern woman’), and in singing the Lieder, Catriona conveys her own depth of emotion for a love once had and then lost – Umberto. This has a profound effect on Umberto; in fact, Catriona’s singing is a pivotal point in the book.
An author’s job is to tell a story through writing, but in Concerto I was able to also use music to tell that story. Even now, when I picture Umberto and Catriona in their Italian villa, I can hear the melody from the piano drifting over the lush gardens, down to Lake Como and over the waters. Now that is a happy ever after.