The lives of the great composer have always been used as raw materials for writers of fiction, be it novels, plays, or screenplays. Over the years, there have been fictionalized accounts of the lives of Chopin (A Song to Remember, Impromptu), Schumann (Song of Love), Liszt (Lisztomania, Song Without End), Grieg (Song of Norway), Mahler (Ken Russell’s Mahler, Bride of the Wind), and Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers), just to name a few. In 1979, Peter Shaffer’s play Amadeus was a great hit on London and Broadway stages, and was subsequently made into an even more popular film.
Creators of a very few of the films mentioned above did try to approximate the personality as well as facts about the composer’s life. Others, like Ken Russell, completely disregarded any semblance of truth in his insulting treatments of the lives of Mahler, Liszt and Tchaikovsky. When it comes to Hollywood and classical music, conductor and composer André Previn wrote, “When Walt Disney decided to film a life of Beethoven, he felt that deafness was too downbeat and not really germane to the story, so for once, and in glorious Technicolor, Beethoven retained perfect hearing to the end. Classical music has generally been a closed book to the movie executive mind…”
Even serious writers of fiction have taken over the lives of the composers in their creative efforts. Other than Shaffer’s Amadeus, writers as great as Alexander Pushkin fictionalized the death of Mozart in his 1830 verse drama Mozart and Salieri, subsequently made into a one-act opera by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. In Rose Tremain’s beautifully written novel Music and Silence, composer and lutenist John Dowland made a “cameo” appearance. In 2011, writer Sarah Quigley wrote The Conductor, a fictionalized account of conductor Karl Eliasberg’s heroic efforts in organizing a performance of Dimitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony during the siege of Leningrad. The only fact that one can establish about the story is that Eliasberg was indeed a conductor, not a great one, but who did indeed conducted Shostakovich’s wartime symphony, which very much raised the morale of citizens of Leningrad during the siege.
Without taking away any credits or merits from Quigley’s novel, her book does remind me of Soviet journalist and writer Vasily Grossman’s 1959 magnum opus Life and Fate, an epic story of the lives of Soviet citizens during the German invasion in World War II, focusing especially on the battle of Stalingrad. I did find Quigley’s The Conductor well written, and I was especially moved by her poignant description of the sights and sounds of everyday life - the challenges to find food, any food, the heartbreak of people dying, and the cruelty and kindness people show one another in times of trial - of people in Leningrad during the siege:
There had been a scuffle outside the bakery: a woman pushed against the wall by a teenager, the bread snatched from her hand. When Nikolai himself emerged from the bakery, the woman was still sitting empty-handed on the muddy curb. No one had helped her; the rest of the queue had said nothing, done nothing, simply stared as if they had no connection to thief or victim. The crime, the indifference – neither was out of the ordinary. By now everyone had learnt that survival meant looking after yourself.
At best, fictional works based on the events surrounding the lives of the great composers can do much to make aware and popularize great music. There is of course the danger that writers and filmmakers would distort the personality of these great musical figures and reduce their lives to the level of a soap opera. As much as Amadeus raised awareness of the music in the minds of non-music lovers, I am certain that many would remember Mozart as a buffoon who just happened to have been a genius, a charge that can easily be disproven by reading the composer’s many letters.
Every piece of musical fiction, like any creative work, must really be judged on its own merit. Sarah Quigley’s The Conductor is, for me, a serious and moving work of fiction that is worthy of our attention, and a stirring tale of human tragedy and heroism.