Guest Post by Roland Colton, author of “Forever Gentleman”
Writing Music into Fiction
By Roland Colton
As an amateur pianist with a passion for classical music who also loves to read great fiction, I have often lamented the dearth of novels in this genre. Several years ago, a story began to form in my mind that centered upon a gifted young pianist in Victorian England. It took me a while to put pen to paper as the task of writing a novel seemed utterly daunting. But once I had written several key scenes, I found myself carried away in an unexpected creative surge that ultimately culminated in the completion of a manuscript entitled Forever Gentleman. After sending out queries, I was delighted to receive a book contract from an east coast publisher last fall and the book was released to the public just three weeks ago.
My intention was to write a story that would appeal to those who love classical music, and particularly to pianists. However, the book is much more than a novel about music; it is also a mystery, a romance, teeming with suspense, intrigue, mistaken identities and unexpected twists and turns. My novel takes readers back in time to nineteenth-century London, a city of beauty and brilliance, and a city steeped in filth and despair. The protagonist, Nathan Sinclair, a struggling architect and gift pianist, lives in both worlds, mingling in high society while dwelling in suffocating debt and poverty.
One of the challenges I faced in writing the book, was to depict with words, the music that accompanies the story. To better accomplish this task, I attempted to learn and play compositions that taxed my ability as an amateur pianist. In the opening chapter of the book, Nathan performs Chopin’s Quatrième Ballade, a work I had never seriously considered learning, but nevertheless was one of my favorites. Working from the back forward (as I was taught to do in my youth), I gained increased respect and awe for pianists able to master that brilliant composition. Delving deeply into this and many other works helped me to better put into words the music that appears in the book.
Another challenge was to dramatize the age of musical and artistic enlightenment and the deluge of creativity that existed during the nineteenth century. In my opinion, there is no better way to travel back in time than to hear music from a bygone era. I wanted readers to relive this age of creativity and experience the music in a contemporary context, not as a distant voice from centuries past. Writing this novel also gave me an opportunity to create scenes that I, as a classical music enthusiast, would dearly love to see take place in a book or movie. One of those scenes is every amateur pianist’s dream, but one, unfortunately, which I dare not share, for fear of spoiling the surprise.
The setting of my story also coincides with the development of the modern-day piano, revolutionary in its day, when craftsmen had developed a rim-bending process that was said to give pianos a remarkable sound and character. We experience the moment through Nathan’s eyes when he first encounters the extraordinary Steinway concert grand–winner of the Grand Gold Medal of Honor at the Paris Exhibition. We observe Nathan as he caresses the stunning rosewood finish and imagine the musical vibrations the instrument will create, before he finally raises his hands above the keyboard to play Liszt’s Concert Etude in D-flat major.
Finally, I endeavored to document, in my story, the dexterity, dynamics and beauty of compositions well known today and others that have disappeared from today’s repertoire. In doing so, I attempted to select words and phrases that would re-create, in some small way, the challenges of performing the music as well as how the music stirs the listener’s ear. Writing music into fiction has helped me gain an even greater appreciation for the brilliance, imagination and creativity of the prodigious composers from the past.