Equal Music

Equal Music

by Vikram Seth
The author of the international bestseller A Suitable Boy returns with a passionate and deeply romantic tale of two gifted musicians.

When an English quartet, the Maggiore, undertakes a challenging work of Beethoven's, violinist Michael Holme is overwhelmed by memories of mastering the piece as a student in Vienna. That's where he also met Julia


The author of the international bestseller A Suitable Boy returns with a passionate and deeply romantic tale of two gifted musicians.

When an English quartet, the Maggiore, undertakes a challenging work of Beethoven's, violinist Michael Holme is overwhelmed by memories of mastering the piece as a student in Vienna. That's where he also met Julia McNicholl, a pianist whose beauty was as mesmerizing as her musical genius, and whom Michael loved with an intensity he never found again. Years later, Michael is living a life devoted to music, until one day he is riding a London bus, and there, on another bus, separated only by glass, sits Julia McNicholl.

Though the mutual passion flares anew, the love they shared in their younger days is now complicated by the secrets and silences that have been generated by the passing of years. Unable to resist the power of their shared history, however, Julia agrees to tour Vienna and Venice with Michael and the Maggiore Quartet. Against the magical backdrop of concert halls and canals, Michael and Julia must confront the truth about their love for one another, their love for the music that brought them together, and the true consequences for their tangled hearts.

An Equal Music shows Seth to be at the top of his form: It is a tour de force of poetic, impassioned writing, conjuring brilliantly the worlds of Beethoven and Bach, of Vienna, Venice, and London, of individual heartache and the familial bonds that tie a quartet. Interweaving themes of loss, longing, and the power of music, An Equal Music is a deeply affecting story about the strands of passion that run through all our lives, masterfullyconfirming Vikram Seth as one of the world's finest and most daring novelists.

Editorial Reviews

The Barnes & Noble Review
Beginning with Ian McEwan's Booker Prize-winning Amsterdam and continuing through Richard Mason's highly touted debut, The Drowning People, and Salman Rushdie's heavily hyped The Ground Beneath Her Feet, several recent high-profile novels have extensively explored — with varying success — the rarefied world of music and musicians. The most recent of these books to be published in America — and to my mind, the finest of the lot — is Vikram Seth's deeply felt and keenly observed An Equal Music.

In his famous Norton Lectures, delivered at Harvard in 1973 (and transcribed in The Unanswered Question), composer/conductor Leonard Bernstein sought to establish parallels between the language of music and the syntax of spoken language. In An Equal Music, Vikram Seth — the author of four volumes of poetry, as well as the verse novel The Golden Gate and the massive international bestseller A Suitable Boy — attempts the only slightly more modest goal of making accessible and compelling to the lay reader the lifelong immersion in and maintenance of craft that is the foundation of all serious music making. It's a considerable challenge, as one character only half-jokingly admits: "This morning...I suddenly realised how boring musicians are. All our friends are musicians and we aren't interested in anything except music." But in Seth's capable hands this blinkered one-track-mindedness becomes the novel's unifying thread.

Narrator Michael Holme is a London-based musician who supplements his incomeassecond violinist for the up-and-coming Maggiore Quartet by teaching a singularly unpromising group of private students and by playing in a number of struggling chamber ensembles. Years before, as a protégé of the demanding Swedish maestro Carl Käll at the Musikhochschule in Vienna, Michael suffered a panic attack that sent him reeling from Vienna, his mentor, and most importantly, the woman he loved — pianist Julia McNicholl. By the time he recovered his equilibrium, Julia, too, had disappeared — leaving his letters unanswered, his phone calls unreturned. Ten years later, the memory of this lost love continues to haunt every romantic relationship he attempts — including his current passionless affair with Virginie, a French music student whose princess-pink apartment decor and discombobulated English are recorded by Seth in hilarious detail. Virginie unwittingly hastens her own obsolescence when she casually mentions the existence of a little-known Beethoven quintet, Op. 104, a late-career reworking of the Trio in C minor, Op. 1, No. 3. It was this very trio that first brought Michael and Julia together in Vienna, this very trio that led to Michael's painful confrontation with Käll and subsequent breakdown. And it is Michael's quest for a score and a recording of this obscure quintet that will grant him a brief, tantalizing glimpse of Julia — reading a book on an adjacent bus, separated by two panes of glass and an unbridgeable gulf of less than five feet — before she disappears in the flow of London traffic.

If the knowledge that Julia is living maddeningly close sends Michael's hopes soaring like Vaughan Williams's The Lark Ascending, his agent — perhaps fearing an emotional relapse in the making — is more cautious. Michael's desperate optimism has an immediate effect on the intricate personal dynamics of his quartet as well.

Many musicians — whether players in orchestras or freelancers — consider quartet players to be an odd, obsessed, introspective, separatist breed, perpetually traveling to exotic destinations and garnering adulation as if by right. If they knew the costs of that too-uncertain adulation, they would not resent us quite so much...it is our proximity to each other and only to each other which, more often than we recognise, constricts our priorities and makes us stranger than we are. Perhaps even our states of exaltation are akin to the dizziness that comes from lacking air.

So it is with the various members of the Maggiore. Piers, who "at the best of times, is never an easy person to be with," is a classic first violinist — abrasive, demanding, dismissive, and "used to getting his way." His sister, Helen, embodies the viola's supporting role, but where Piers is aloof, she uses her resolve to demand more involvement — better parts in music and in life. Billy, the group's cellist, is brilliant, selfless, eager to please, and expansive in gestures as well as in waistline. The quartet begins each rehearsal with a simple but effective ritual: the unison playing of a scale in the key of the piece to be rehearsed. It is no surprise then, that a group so musically attuned will also be ultrasensitive to variations in any member's emotional pitch.

Hard on the heels of their recent near miss, a second chance meeting at last brings Michael and Julia together following a Maggiore Quartet concert at London's Wigmore Hall. But dramatic as it is, their reunion plays second fiddle to Seth's lucid descriptions of the quartet's performance — particularly of the arresting encore, the first contrapunctus of Bach's Art of Fugue.

We play in an energised trance. These four-and-a-half minutes could be as many hours or seconds. In my mind's eye I see the little-used clefs of the original score, and the sinking and rising, swift and slow, parallel and contrary, of all our several voices — and in my mind's ear I hear what has sounded and is sounding and is yet to sound. I only have to realise on the strings what is already real to me; and so have Billy, and Helen, and Piers. Our synchronous visions merge, and we are one: with each other, with the world, and with the long-dispersed being whose force we receive through the shape of his annotated vision and the single swift-flowing syllable of his name. Married, with a nearly seven-year-old son, Julia nevertheless agrees to meet Michael again. And in the weeks to come, their rekindled passions take center stage in a flurry of furtive assignations, late-night faxes, letters, and curiously one-sided telephone messages. But their moments of happiness are dearly purchased. "I don't feel proud of these trysts," Julia confesses. "If someone else were doing what I am, I wouldn't know what to think of them." For his part, Michael can only wonder, "What's wrong with my conscience, that I can feel worried for her but not guilty?"

Michael has almost reconciled himself to this continued deception when circumstances force Julia to reveal a devastating secret: As the result of autoimmune disease of the inner ear, she is nearly deaf. Lip reading, speech therapy, and a concealed hearing aid all help her to perform while disguising her condition, but her hearing gradually continues to fail. Worse, while Michael is out of town with his trio, Julia's agent proposes that she accompany the Maggiore in a performance of Schubert's "Trout" Quintet in Vienna, and Piers, unaware of her condition, accepts. Now Michael must chose whether to betray Julia's secret and her trust, or to honor his allegiance to the quartet.

Vikram Seth writes in his author's note, "Music to me is dearer even than speech" — a profession of utter devotion that resonates throughout An Equal Music . A musical amateur in the truest sense of the word, Seth has not only a thorough command of his subject; he incorporates his insights in such a way that they become integral to the novel — not some indigestible hash of horsehair, gut, and rosin served up in the name of verisimilitude. For Seth, music itself is its own truth. In the novel's final pages, Michael, emotionally battered by heartache and loss, ultimately finds comfort in the knowledge that music, "...such music, is a sufficient gift. Why ask for happiness; why hope not to grieve? It is enough, it is to be blessed enough, to live from day to day and to hear such music — not too much, or the soul could not sustain it — from time to time."


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The branches are bare, the sky tonight a milky violet. It is not quiet here, but it is peaceful. The wind ruffles the black water towards me.

There is no one about. The birds are still. The traffic slashes through Hyde Park. It comes to my ears as white noise.

I test the bench but do not sit down. As yesterday, as the day before, I stand until I have lost my thoughts. I look at the water of the Serpentine.

Yesterday as I walked back across the park I paused at a fork in the footpath. I had the sense that someone had paused behind me. I walked on. The sound of footsteps followed along the gravel. They were unhurried; they appeared to keep pace with me. Then they suddenly made up their mind, speeded up, and overtook me. They belonged to a man in a thick black overcoat, quite tall - about my height - a young man from his gait and attitude, though I did not see his face. His sense of hurry was now evident. After a while, unwilling so soon to cross the blinding Bayswater Road, I paused again, this time by the bridle path.

Now I heard the faint sound of hooves. This time, however, they were not embodied. I looked to left, to right. There was nothing.

As I approach Archangel Court I am conscious of being watched. I enter the hallway. There are flowers here, a concoction of gerberas and general foliage. A camera surveys the hall. A watched building is a secure building, a secure building a happy one.

A few days ago I was told I was happy by the young woman behind the counter at Etienne's. I ordered seven croissants. As she gave me my change she said: "You are a happy man."

I stared at her with suchincredulity that she looked down.

"You're always humming," she said in a much quieter voice, feeling perhaps that she had to explain.

"It's my work," I said, ashamed of my bitterness. Another customer entered the shop, and I left.

As I put my week's croissants - all except one - in the freezer, I noticed I was humming the same half-tuneless tune of one of Schubert's last songs:

I see a man who stares upwards
And wrings his hands from the force of his pain.
I shudder when I see his face.
The moon reveals myself to me.

I put the water on for coffee, and look out of the window. From the eighth floor I can see as far as St Paul's, Croydon, Highgate. I can look across the brown-branched park to spires and towers and chimneys beyond. London unsettles me - even from such a height there is no clear countryside to view.

But it is not Vienna. It is not Venice. It is not, for that matter, my hometown in the North, in clear reach of the moors.

It wasn't my work, though, that made me hum that song. I have not played Schubert for more than a month. My violin misses him more than I do. I tune it, and we enter my soundproof cell. No light, no sound comes in from the world. Electrons along copper, horsehair across acrylic create my impressions of sense.

I will play nothing of what we have played in our quartet, nothing that reminds me of my recent music-making with any human being. I will play his songs.

The Tononi seems to purr at the suggestion. Something happy, something happy, surely:

In a clear brook
With joyful haste
The whimsical trout
Shot past me like an arrow.

I play the line of the song, I play the leaps and plunges of the right hand of the piano, I am the trout, the angler, the brook, the observer. I sing the words, bobbing my constricted chin. The Tononi does not object; it resounds. I play it in B, in A, in E flat. Schubert does not object. I am not transposing his string quartets.

Where a piano note is too low for the violin, it leaps into a higher octave. As it is, it is playing the songline an octave above its script. Now, if it were a viola . . . but it has been years since I played the viola.

The last time was when I was a student in Vienna ten years ago. I return there again and again and think: was I in error? Was I unseeing? Where was the balance of pain between the two of us? What I lost there I have never come near to retrieving.

What happened to me so many years ago? Love or no love, I could not continue in that city. I stumbled, my mind jammed, I felt the pressure of every breath. I told her I was going, and went. For two months I could do nothing, not even write to her. I came to London. The smog dispersed but too late. Where are you now, Julia, and am I not forgiven?

From the Audio Cassette edition.

What People are saying about this

Arthur Golden
Vikram Seth's accomplishment in bringing not only these characters so fully to life, but the rich ambience of the music as well — so difficult to render in words — is something of a miracle.
— (Arthur Golden, Author of Memoirs of a Geisha)

Meet the Author

Vikram Seth divides his time between India and London.

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