Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
The Musical Novel

The Musical Novel: Imitation of Musical Structure, Performance, and Reception in Contemporary Fiction

Emily Petermann
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 252
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    The Musical Novel
    Book Description:

    What is a "musical novel"? This book defines the genre as musical not primarily in terms of its content, but in its form. The musical novel crosses medial boundaries, aspiring to techniques, structures, and impressions similar to those of music. It takes music as a model for its own construction, borrowing techniques and forms that range from immediately perceptible, essential aspects of music (rhythm, timbre, the simultaneity of multiple voices) to microstructural (jazz riffs, call and response, leitmotifs) and macrostructural elements (themes and variations, symphonies, albums). The musical novel also evokes the performance context by imitating elements of spontaneity that characterize improvised jazz or audience interaction. The Musical Novel builds upon theories of intermediality and semiotics to analyze the musical structures, forms, and techniques in two groups of musical novels, which serve as case studies. The first group imitates an entire musical genre and consists of jazz novels by Toni Morrison, Albert Murray, Xam Wilson Cartiér, Stanley Crouch, Jack Fuller, Michael Ondaatje, and Christian Gailly. The second group of novels, by Richard Powers, Gabriel Josipovici, Rachel Cusk, Nancy Huston, and Thomas Bernhard, imitates a single piece of music, J. S. Bach's Goldberg Variations. Emily Petermann is Assistant Professor of American Literature at the University of Konstanz.

    eISBN: 978-1-57113-891-0
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Music

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-15)

    This quotation concisely formulates one of the main assumptions of this book: the musical novel, a literary subgenre that engages with musical pretexts, is valuable in itself, as well as in its relationship to a musical model that contributes to its overall form. As in any intertextual work, this intermedial involvement with music does not yield a merely derivative product, but instead adds a layer to the “palimpsestuous” (Genette,Palimpsests) structure of the musical novel.¹ The ways in which specific musical elements have been adopted and imitated by novels will be the focus of this book.

    Literature’s changing relationship to...

  5. 1: Theorizing the Musical Novel
    (pp. 16-40)

    Though artists and critics alike have often explored the relationships between the arts, a shared critical vocabulary has yet to be developed. Scholars in diverse fields have approached the subject from various disciplinary positions, such as media and communication studies, comparative literature, individual philologies, musicology, and art history, offering many perspectives on the issue, but leading to widespread terminological ambiguity and the lack of a common discourse. In response, I propose a model of intermediality that aims at a more precise terminology and methodology for analysis. In the first part of the chapter, I offer definitions of key terms and...

  6. I: The Novel Based on a Musical Genre:: Jazz Novels

    • [I: Introduction]
      (pp. 41-48)

      In the realm of musico-literary studies, very little attention has been paid to the role of jazz in prose. In African American studies, on the other hand, there is a wealth of criticism on a “jazz style” or “jazz aesthetic,”¹ the “blues idiom,”² and the significance of black music for black writing. Most studies of jazz in fiction have concentrated on individual authors (especially Ralph Ellison, Langston Hughes, and Toni Morrison) or works, with varying degrees of precision in their application of musical terminology to literary texts. Alan Munton’s essay “Misreading Morrison, Mishearing Jazz” is an astute (if somewhat exaggerated)...

    • 2: Elements of Sound in Jazz Novels
      (pp. 49-69)

      Of the many features that can be used to distinguish jazz from other varieties of music, two of the most immediately apparent are those of rhythm and timbre, both elements of sound. In contrast, structural elements only develop in time, over the length of a piece, while elements of the live performance such as improvisation can only be recognized by listeners as such by comparing the performance with other versions. A distinctive rhythm and tone color, however, can be perceived nearly instantaneously, thus providing an appropriate starting point for this discussion of jazz elements in musical novels.

      In music the...

    • 3: Structural Patterns in Jazz Novels
      (pp. 70-105)

      Jazz’s association with “freedom” and its emphasis on elements of “improvisation, originality, [and] change”¹ may conspire to create the mistaken impression that it is formless. On the contrary, like any variety of music, jazz relies on several levels of structure.² Freedom must always be seen in relation to constraint, as the constraints of a form or structure are a prerequisite for experimentation. As a fellow musician says of Buddy Bolden in Michael Ondaatje’s novelComing Through Slaughter, “We thought he was formless, but I think now he was tormented by order, what was outside it” (37). Without expectations of a...

    • 4: The Performance Situation in Jazz Novels
      (pp. 106-142)

      A genre of music like jazz that relies so fundamentally on improvisation is by necessity different from one performance to the next. The transient nature of music in general is further emphasized by this practice in jazz. Jazz has been described as “defying notation” (Schuller, x), as much of the music is played without the aid of a score and its wide range of timbres, for example, is difficult to capture in conventional musical notation. Together with the central role of improvisation, this lack of notation helps to create “an aesthetic of sheer presentness” (Rice, “‘It Don’t Mean a Thing,’”...

  7. II: The Novel Based on a Particular Piece of Music:: J. S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations

    • [II: Introduction]
      (pp. 143-148)

      This second analysis section focuses on the structure of novels that take J. S. Bach’sGoldberg Variationsas a model, which bear the official titleAria mit verschiedenen Veränderungen für Cembalo mit 2 Manualen(Aria with various modifications for the 2-manual harpsichord) and were first published in 1741. These novels employ both the macrostructure of the theme-and-variations form for the novel as a whole and various microstructural elements, such as when individual chapters exhibit parallels to individual variations. I also consider the question of what it means for a novel to imitate a specific piece of music rather than a...

    • 5: Structural Patterns in Novels Based on the Goldberg Variations
      (pp. 149-186)

      In its broad sense, the termvariationapplies to both music and literature and refers to the modification of something given (Das Bach-Lexikon, entry for “Variation,” 531). As such, it is a fundamental principle of design. Literary definitions of variation tend to focus on this aspect, including reference to lexical, syntactical, and phonological variation as a means of maintaining interest amidst repetitive structures (i.e., in poetry) or of upsetting readers’ expectations (Leech, 256–57). In music, however, there is also a more specific definition ofvariationthat is exemplified by not only Bach’sGoldberg Variations, but also by Beethoven’sDiabelli...

    • 6: Composition, Performance, and Reception in Novels Based on the Goldberg Variations
      (pp. 187-210)

      In addition to the structural elements of Bach’sGoldberg Variationsdiscussed in chapter 5 as a model for literary texts, the piece can also be examined with respect to its composition and performance history. In particular, the story about the circumstances of the piece’s composition reported by Bach’s first biographer Johann Nikolaus Forkel in 1802—already nearly sixty years after the work’s publication—has seized the imagination of a number of writers.

      The first section focuses on the legend according to which Bach composed the piece for performance by the young harpsichordist Goldberg to give comfort to an insomniac in...

  8. Conclusion
    (pp. 211-218)

    The image of the palimpsest introduced at the end of the last chapter is a useful metaphor for the musical novel as a genre. Just as theGoldbergnovels with their reassessments of the interaction between composition, performance, and audience response envision a piece of music as a number of performances superimposed on an increasingly elusive and unstable “original,” the musical novel as a whole adds additional layers to the musical model that it employs. While every text builds on those texts that go before, the palimpsest that is the musical novel consists not only of textual layers, but also...

  9. Appendix: Diagrams of Intermediality in Selected Novels
    (pp. 219-222)
  10. Works Cited
    (pp. 223-234)
  11. Index
    (pp. 235-242)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 243-243)