By Lynne Sharon Schwartz
“Only the music matters”—“it’s the music that matters”—“getting the music right was what we cared about”—“only the music mattered”—“it was the music that was important”: the primacy of “the music” is a leitmotif in Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s bleakly intelligent new novel Two-Part Inventions. It sounds like an ennobling refrain, an ideal against which other pettier priorities could be measured. We haven’t heard it more than a couple of times, though, before we realize that the main characters’ insistence on it is at best ironic and at worst deceitful. For them the music is, if you’ll forgive the pun, mostly instrumental. Far from being an end in itself, music in this novel is a means—not for aesthetic pleasure or creative revelation, but for controlling neuroses, pursuing ambitions, and exploiting opportunities. There’s no love, no joy, no beauty—and, in the end, nothing to clap for, which to any music lover is the biggest disappointment of all.
The plot of Two-Part Inventions originates in the true story of pianist Joyce Hatto, who became, as Schwartz explains in her Author’s Note, “the greatest living pianist no one has heard of.” Hatto was all but unknown on the concert circuit; she became famous only through her recordings, which were acclaimed by critics until, soon after her death in 2006, the news broke that her recording-engineer husband had faked them using recordings by other artists. Schwartz was intrigued by the unsolved mystery of how much Hatto herself knew of the fraud being perpetrated in her name. Rather than recreating Hatto’s case, however, Schwartz took only its premise, inventing her own characters to follow their own downward path from aspiration to degradation.
We meet Schwartz’s pianist, Suzanne Stellman, as an uneasily self-conscious child haunted by a strange metaphysical uncertainty about her own existence. Playing the piano reassures her because “the music conferred its own reality on her”:
touching the notes in a certain way made something in the world happen—sound, music—and that in turn made something happen in people’s minds. . . . It was she who made it happen, and it was their knowledge of that fact that confirmed her existence.
Her parents encourage her talent, and she craves the attention and praise her playing brings her. But her father’s frequent demand that she play for visitors, along with his bullying insistence that she make the most of her gift, makes her resentful and, eventually, inhibited, as she internalizes the message that her personal worth depends on her public performance: “If the music is bad, then I’m bad.” It’s not an inspirational beginning to a music career—there’s no epiphanic moment, for instance, of falling in love with the sound of the piano, no rhapsodic discovery or emotional transcendence. That kind of thing belongs to a different, more sentimental, book about music. Suzanne’s development is compromised from the start by her investment in the piano as a vehicle for psychological validation rather than artistic expression.
Still, Suzanne is talented, persistent, and for some time very successful. She works with good teachers, attends the High School of Music and Art, is accepted at Juilliard, and begins her professional career. But always, “after a few moments,”
the loathsome panic would grip her . . . by the end she was trembling and struggling to stay in control. Even so, she played remarkably well, but never as splendidly as the first few minutes had promised.
She eventually manages to win a prize, which in turn gets her “a number of small gigs,” and even a concert at a “good hall downtown.” But her stage fright becomes crippling, and it limits and then ends her concert career.
Suzanne meets her husband Philip Markon in high school and then again at Juilliard. Philip has a tragic past—when he was just nine, his parents and younger brother were killed in a car accident—but he is not, on the surface, a tragic figure. Where Suzanne is neurotic, Philip is controlling, unconsciously seeking, perhaps, to restore the sense of order so horrifyingly undone in his own life. The lesson he has learned from the aunt and uncle who dutifully raised him is not Suzanne’s lesson of winning approval by perfection, but “to achieve your goal by whatever means.” Philip lacks Suzanne’s musical talent; without apparent bitterness he dedicates himself to building a life in the music industry, rather than as a musician himself, eventually establishing a small record label.
It’s the convergence of Suzanne’s psychological weakness and Philip’s technical skill that sets up the moral crisis of the story. Philip has not taken well to Suzanne’s withdrawal from the stage: “Do you want to waste your God-given talent?” he demands. Pregnancy followed by a miscarriage gives her cover, and then a mysterious fatiguing illness, eventually diagnosed as fibromyalgia: she’s clearly not up to the rigors of the concert circuit, and in the circumstances Philip can hardly pressure her to get back to it. But Philip is a fixer. He knows that her “need for glory . . . was immense, torturing”; he believes that “if he’d been blessed with her talent, he would never have given up.” He proposes that she “come into the studio and make the recording, and he would edit it, package it, and get it distributed.” For her, “no public appearances, no crowds”—only the recognition she yearns for and, he believes, deserves. For him, the satisfaction of power, of making things turn out according to his plan.
Suzanne agrees, and the sessions go well until Philip realizes she lacks the physical stamina to complete the multiple takes required to bring the recordings up to the level of perfection the market demands:
In live performances human error was tolerated, wrong notes no big deal. An occasional slip here and there was more than compensated for by the living, breathing artist right in front of you, the spontaneity of performance. But with CDs the public had become used to an aseptic perfection. . . . Now everyone had to submit to those rigid standards.
Then Philip remembers a little “fix” he made to another recording with “a few troublesome bars” and an artist annoyed about returning to the studio for yet another session. “Just to see how it sounded,” he’d spliced in the measures from a different recording. Even he couldn’t hear the substitution when he played it back, and when he forgot to undo it, the pianist didn’t notice it either. And so it begins.
Schwartz attributes all the conscious choice to Philip, with Suzanne his unsuspecting accomplice in the fraud. Still, she’s not guiltless: though it’s Philip’s idea for her to make the recordings, the CD project satisfies her cravings as much as his, and she readily cedes her judgment to his, after a while not even bothering to listen to the CDs. When he admits to doing a little editing to improve the raw takes, she accepts his reassurance that “this is how all CDs are made,” deciding it would be “ungrateful . . . to object to his methods, his ‘fixing.’” After all, the reviews are glowing—“the kind of reviews she used to make up in her head when she was still a teenager”—and she has Philip to thank for this realization of her fantasies. Then she goes along when he urges her to “stretch the truth” about her life for interviews: everybody does it, he assures her, and “after all, it did no harm in the end. The facts of her life didn’t matter; only the music mattered. She didn’t lie in the music—there was no way you could lie in music.”
But you can, and Philip’s musical lies become increasingly egregious—or, at any rate, increasingly blatant, as he progresses from tweaking Suzanne’s own tracks to producing completely fraudulent recordings of “Suzanne” playing chamber music, and even the Emperor Concerto—“with” the Vienna Philharmonic, no less. Finally even Suzanne finds out the truth. She’s horrified, but her longstanding passivity, her ready yielding to Philip’s judgment had become a kind of wilful ignorance. Her fame has made her happy: is there no truth to the accusation she faces that she “wants the reputation more than [she] wants the music”? It’s hard for her to claim, or for us to grant her, the moral high ground.
But where, exactly, is that moral high ground? Even when sincere, the principle “It’s the music that matters” proves less helpful than we might wish. At Juilliard, the students worry about “what became known jokingly as ‘the tree falling in the forest’”: “What reality did your playing have if no one ever heard it….could you still call yourself a musician?” Philip’s plan initially helps Suzanne’s music matter again—lets her be a musician again—because by recording it she can share it without having to endure the agony of the stage. It goes wrong only when he uses someone else’s recordings to complete, to “fix,” hers—and in a way, this isn’t wrong, as the critics affirm when they rave over the results of Philip’s ingenuity. If it’s really “the music that matters,” Philip has served the music faithfully by ensuring a final result that is “masterful,” “profoundly sensitive,” “faithful without being slavish.” Music is a composer’s dream, Suzanne reflects at one point, “a dream of the ear . . . passed on to living listeners.” Isn’t it right that this dream be realized as perfectly, as beautifully, as possible? Isn’t that what it means to “get the music right”?
Well, no, of course it isn’t, and if you were tempted to shrug and agree that it is, you are part of the problem, part of the audience Philip panders to with his pursuit of “aseptic perfection.” It’s not just that Philip’s editing feats are acts of thievery, though when Suzanne is confronted by an old friend and rival from whom Philip has stolen a few measures of Chopin, we’re reminded that the artist is actively involved in interpreting the composer’s dream: “there’s that fermata, and it was held just a little longer than it should be. . . . And the second time, a little later on, there was an ornament I added, a tiny trill . . . .” Philip hasn’t just, as he self-servingly argues, put a Band-Aid on Suzanne’s recording; he has taken a little piece of someone else and pretended it was Suzanne, thus both effacing and profiting from someone else’s talent, work, and creativity. In doing so, he injures the original artist but also the intended beneficiary. Suzanne has always identified herself with her playing: “It’s not just the music. It’s as if they’re listening to me—I mean me the person.” Always “troubled by the notion that she might not be real,” now her worst fears are realized. “How much satisfaction or fulfillment can you get,” demands a shocked friend, “if they’re not really yours? . . . It’s not something real. Yours.” “They are mine,” Suzanne initially insists; “they have my name on them.” Her friend rightly responds, “What does that signify?” Her name has truly become a floating signifier, a label—or, as Philip argues, a brand.
The audience, too, is injured, invited into a relationship with an artist who is not really present for them. Two-Part Inventions suggests that this relationship is always already compromised by recordings, which replace the immediacy of performance with an intensely mediated, highly artificial experience. It’s not the artist’s playing we respond to when we listen to a CD but a reproduction of it, and that reproduction, even when there is no fraud involved, is of a version of the music tweaked and edited to a superhuman standard (“it probably shouldn’t have gotten on to mine either,” says the friend whose extra trill has made its way onto Suzanne’s Chopin disc). Recordings offer us many pleasures, even thrills, but at a live performance, our applause is for “the achieve of, the mastery of the thing,” for the human accomplishment on display and the human spirit we share as we listen. That’s the vital personal connection that the best recordings simulate and Philip’s recordings betray. The recordings he puts out in Suzanne’s name have lost their soul. Even Philip finally realizes this, as he turns to her CDs after her death only to stand, bereft, as he listens:
He couldn’t be absolutely sure, but he didn’t think it was Suzanne. . . . he would never really know if he was hearing her or some stranger. It shouldn’t have mattered. That was what he had told himself all along. . . . But now, when he needed her and her alone, it mattered.
The weakness of Two-Part Inventions is that the novel seems similarly soulless. It’s hard to measure the loss of that musical connection if the book won’t give it to us first. After Suzanne’s death, Philip briefly speculates that she might have been motivated by “desire for renown,” but he quickly reminds himself of her “genuine and intense” passion for music. The novel needs to do more than assert this passion: it needs to tell us more about it as well as show it to us—to really bring its ideas home, to transform them from abstractions to commitments, it needs to arouse the same passion in us.
Schwartz knows how to do this. Her 1983 novel Disturbances in the Field (one of my personal “top ten” novels) not only makes the sophisticated interplay of piano and strings in Schubert’s Trout Quintet glint and sparkle on the page but is shaped around music’s emotional power. “The melody pierces the heart,” her pianist in that novel, Lydia, tells us of the Quintet’s fourth movement, “and the variations, like prisms, candid and relentless, flash the heart’s exposed facets.” Late in the novel Lydia revisits the Trout after a heartbreaking personal loss. It’s a performance that demands the utmost commitment to the music and Lydia’s painful self-exposure is rewarded with lacerating transcendence:
I walked onstage with the others and sat down and gave to our small and ephemeral utopia all that it required. I let go of the impediments and of the past so bitterly dear to me and gave the whole spectrum: the lyricism and the control; the exuberance and the briskness; the beauty that pierced; and the scent of a terrifying ambiguity throughout. . . . They were playing like souls exalted with the abundance of their own powers, showering gifts. So I too gave it everything that had happened to me, pure and simple. That was what the music, like a child, sweet but quite without mercy in its demands, seemed to be asking for.
Thanks to Disturbances in the Field, I can’t hear the Trout, or the Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers,” without weeping. Where is that visceral clutch in Two-Part Inventions? We get only a few brief gestures towards it. When Suzanne hears chamber music for the first time, she is “dazzled by what she had heard.” At a performance by Rudolf Serkin, she listens to the Waldstein Sonata and wonders,
How could these be the same notes she struggled with? They had motion and coherence and shape, motion above all. . . . She listened to the rest of the program, especially the gorgeous Schubert Impromptus, in rapture and despair: I could never play like that.
But such moments are rare, and even at Serkin’s concert Suzanne is more inspired by the way the applause “made him occupy more space in the world” (there was “no doubt that he was real”) then by the music: in a telling variation, she thinks, “it was the music that should matter.” Suzanne’s first major solo concert, which could be a revelatory moment for us as well as for her, is also her first major bout of stage fright: rather than being carried away by the music, both she and we are stifled by her anxiety, unable to feel deeply at all.
The emotional tone of the whole novel is similarly compressed into a narrow range. The novel’s contrapuntal structure, moving between Suzanne and Philip, and between past and present, is sophisticated, but the prose itself is mostly flat and bluntly expository. Philip’s “vast, gray-skied prairie of grief” after Suzanne’s sudden death is believable only as his own perception of his mourning period, as we have never seen or felt him to be a passionate lover, only a deliberate, intense, manager, one whose favorite sexual game is to arouse her until “he could do with her anything he liked”—until in bed, as in the music, “she was his creature.”
Two-Part Inventions is a consistently interesting novel, one that made me think hard about what I want from music, and from writing about music. Schwartz sees the thematic potential of the scenario she’s chosen, and she works through its implications meticulously. But ultimately this comes across more as a concept album than an artistic breakthrough. It’s too controlled, too perfect, and as the novel itself makes us only too aware, technical perfection comes at a cost. I felt as if the loss here is Schwartz herself—the artist, the performer. Having chosen her concept, she produced the album, but there’s something mechanical about the result. Perhaps this is deliberate, a strategy for shaping the form to the content: it’s a novel about art become mechanical that is itself, self-consciously, written to dramatize the consequences. But I ended the novel feeling—indeed, fearing—that Schwartz had not, after all, found in this particular story anything to inspire her own artistry. Too bad, because as a huge admirer of Schwartz’s other novels, I would have loved to finish this one on my feet, applauding.
Rohan Maitzen is a Senior Editor at Open Letters Monthly. She teaches in the English Department at Dalhousie University and blogs at Novel Readings.