A musical masterpiece

Jennifer Atkins' brilliant but neglected novel reminds us why classical music matters – and why it is under threat like never before

Jacqueline du Pré
Jacqueline du Pré. Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The Cellist, Jennifer Atkins, Peninsula Press, 303pp, £10.99

Jennifer Atkins is a gifted writer. The Cellist  does not read like a first novel; rather, it has the assured voice of an old hand, confident in her ability and originality. It is a masterpiece, but it is more than that. To my knowledge, it is the only modern work of fiction devoted to music that deserves a place in the pantheon next to Thomas Mann’s Doctor Faustus  and Vikram Seth’s An Equal Music.

Within the first few pages, Atkins plunges us into a musicological reflection on the problems of Schumann’s Cello Concerto, by no means a popular classic. The author demonstrates a deep knowledge of the music scene and the complex relationship between her soloist and her cello, a rare eighteenth century instrument, first loaned and then given to her by an unnamed patron.

Yet this superb novel has been almost entirely ignored by the critics. Although it was published last year, admittedly by a small publisher, I cannot find a single review in a national newspaper or even in the literary press online. For the millions of music lovers worldwide who (for example) enjoyed Tár, Todd Field’s film about the downfall of a great conductor played by Cate Blanchett, and who would almost certainly also enjoy The Cellist, the book might as well not exist. (Though perhaps awareness of its merits have spread by word of mouth to the better bookshops.)

This wilful neglect of a new young talent is a great pity. No, it is scandalous. And yet it is unsurprising, at least to me.

Why? Because the subject matter of The Cellist  is almost guaranteed to evoke an allergic reaction. We are witnessing the marginalisation of serious music within British culture on a scale never seen before. The arts establishment seems indifferent, or worse. The Left is actively hostile, seeing the grand tradition of Western music as part of an elitist culture, fatally compromised by slavery and patriarchy. The Right is now too philistine to care.

In the past year alone, Arts Council England has in effect made English National Opera (ENO) homeless, cutting off its subsidy and forcing it to move out of London, disregarding the fact that cutting off an opera company from its audience almost certainly spells ruin. Meanwhile the BBC has made crippling cuts to some of its core ensembles, not least threatening to close down the BBC Singers. Only threats to boycott the Proms by the entire classical music community have bought a reprieve, if only because of the Last Night. These blows at the apex follow decades of attrition at the base, with music teaching and performance at many state schools now following ancient and modern languages into oblivion.

In the UK we recently witnessed the juxtaposition of two large-scale events within a week: the Coronation and the Eurovision Song Contest. The ceremony in Westminster Abbey included superlative music of various epochs and genres, much of it specially composed for the occasion, all performed to near-perfection. The Coronation was a wholly British affair, a seamless tapestry of medieval and modern ceremony, culminating in the sacramental anointing of Charles III to the accompaniment of Handel’s Zadok the Priest — perhaps the first and last time that many of us will ever listen to that matchless anthem for the purpose that was intended by the composer. No less worthy of the sacred heart of the ritual, though, were the works by Handel’s heirs. Paul Mealor set the Kyrie for Bryn Terfel and the choir to sing in Welsh, to great effect, while Roxanna Panufnik’s Sanctus was sublime.

The only flop was Andrew Lloyd-Webber. His Make A Joyful Noise  merely trumpeted its banal melody, repeating it at ever greater volume, but with no real development. The King, Sir Andrew claims ‘in all honesty’, had assured him that his anthem had given him ‘goosebumps and tears’. Maybe; but it simply didn’t stand comparison with the other musical offerings.

Yet the aural glory of this crowning wasn’t unexpected: the new music for the late Queen’s funeral was equally memorable, particularly Sir James MacMillan’s great anthem Who Shall Separate Us? Church music is not to everyone’s taste, but the respect and esteem in which British musicianship, both in composition and performance, is held throughout the world extends right across the repertoire, from opera to orchestral and chamber music.

Indeed, genres of popular music are all dependent on the existence of the core tradition that goes straight back to Handel, Boyce, Purcell, Byrd and other early modern composers whose works figured in the Coronation. There’s no reason to suppose that if the classical trunk dies, the branches labelled ‘rock’ or ‘heavy metal’ or ‘film music’ will even survive, let alone flourish.

Let me return to The Cellist. One of the many things I love about this novel is the way in which the condition of music today is embodied in the intense devotion to her instrument of the narrator, Luc, and her profound, ultimately tragic isolation.

Before we are introduced to her lover, Billy, Luc spends a train journey with a flautist en route to a performance. This woman, though a colleague, irritates Luc by her impertinent scrutiny and provokes her to exclaim to herself: ‘I believe in my instrument in the same way I believe in my life.’ This is her credo, but she keeps it to herself, for her absolute commitment to her music is what prevents her from sharing her life. Her ability is also her vulnerability.

Only to her lover does she expose this vulnerability. Billy is a sculptor, in the same way, she hopes, as she is a musician. He alone, she supposes, is capable of understanding her predicament. Their physical attraction is instant, mutual and strong. They have respect and admiration for each other as artists. But it is not enough.

For Billy’s appreciation of Luc’s musicality is limited by his ignorance about her music. It isn’t just that he knows nothing about it — he isn’t even genuinely curious to learn. When she has to perform as the soloist in Elgar’s Cello Concerto, she shows him a video of Jacqueline du Pré playing it with her husband Daniel Barenboim. He likes it well enough, but has no idea why it is one of the most famous recordings in the history of classical music. Later, the subject comes up over dinner with two older female friends of Luc’s, both musicians. It becomes clear that Billy has no idea that du Pré died young, and that the brevity of her life is the context of her fame. He is embarrassed by the older women’s surprise, even dismay — as well he might be: ‘The base of his cheeks turned brilliantly red, and I squeezed his thigh, gently, beneath the table.’

The Elgar concerto acquires great importance for them both, because as Luc recalls, ‘the night I played it privately for him must have been the first night we were in love together’. Yet Billy hasn’t bothered to look it up, to inform himself, to make an effort.

This is a problem for Luc, who is used to making huge, almost inhuman demands on herself for the sake of her music. She hides as much of this from him as she can, but in the end the strain is too much. She is caught between her cello and her man. There is no room for self-indulgence in her art — unlike his. She poses for him, is grateful for one of his sketches of herself, and tries hard to understand the abstract sculptural forms that result. But she cannot come to terms with the larger-than-life figure into which he has transformed her body. In fact, she hates it, as a prophet hates an idol. In him, her success inspires, not a desire to understand, but envy.

The novel revolves around a crisis: Luc suffers a panic attack in mid-performance and drops her cello, damaging it slightly. Her life falls apart, dividing itself involuntarily into before and after this traumatic event. Billy does what he can to help her through her crisis, but shows no insight into his own role in precipitating it. His form of empathy, unconscious or not, is to demand that she now subordinate her needs, her work and her artistic persona to his.

For a while she goes along with this, but as she regains her confidence his expectations prove to be unsustainable for her. There is no space for her music in the role that he has assigned her. His career takes off at the moment when she realises that they are unable either to live together or apart. They cannot even agree on whose decision it was to separate, nor on whether the relationship has ended or not. He is dominated by the ghost of his absent father. She gradually realises that he may never escape this haunting presence and is even doomed to repeat the sins of the father.

Yet the novel celebrates the redeeming moments of their ill-starred love. For Luc, it is clear, Billy is irreplaceable. There is a melancholy feeling of contingency about their affair. If this intelligent but insensitive young man, from a less educated background she, had only possessed an inkling of the significance of music to a gifted musician such as Luc, he might have embraced the concessions necessary for them to have made a life together.

In retrospect, Luc reflects on this possibility: ‘I wanted to perform. I could’ve done so with Billy, but I wanted to perform more completely.’ She laments ‘the life he brought into touching distance: an existence that moved beyond the boundaries I’d set for myself, when it seemed so much was possible.’ Yet in the end she chose a solitary life, dedicated to her cello and the ‘intimacy’, the ‘communion’ with which she has been blessed. ‘It seems I wanted myself totally even if that totality has led to misery, and it has, sometimes, led to misery. But, it hasn’t always. It hasn’t often. I don’t know if that proves anything.’

I think it proves that Luc made the right, indeed only possible choice. In his arrogance, insouciance and above all his ignorance, Billy speaks for a generation that is too self-satisfied to bother with the arduous task of getting to grips with serious music. To play or compose music at a high level requires unimaginable self-discipline. The visual arts, by contrast, have largely lost their rigour and despise the craftsmanship that was once their pride and joy. Patrons, bureaucrats and dealers reign over these art forms. Music of the kind that Luc practices is much less of a commercial activity and more of a vocation. Nicholas Serota, the chairman of Arts Council England, knows all about the vagaries of the art market, but seemingly nothing at all about the precarious existence of professional classical singers and musicians. The grand panjandrum of the arts in England is, in effect, tone deaf.

The same applies to the BBC executives who at a stroke wrote off the Corporation’s century-old reputation as the guardian of Britain’s musical culture. It subsequently emerged that the only senior BBC figure who was knowledgeable about classical music was the former Chairman, Richard Sharp. He was promptly forced out after an unrelated media campaign concerning his appointment by Boris Johnson. It is disturbing that neither musical expertise nor even good taste is a given among the senior management of our national broadcaster. Sharp may have left much to be desired in business ethics, but the suits who threw him overboard were even more lacking in any grasp of aesthetics. If the BBC bails out of classical music, there will be nothing to replace it. Britain could actually become what it was notoriously accused of being more than a century ago by the German critic Oscar A.H. Schmitz: das Land ohne Musik, the land without music.


Daniel Johnson