Music and Silence by Rose Tremain

THE TIMES                                        September 1999

(Chatto and Windus £16.99)

In Rose Tremain’s story, The Over-ride, the son of a Parisian concierge sits secretly listening to two musicians playing in their apartment. Music gives shape to all that is unexpressed and inexpressible in his life. When, as an adult, he is touched by tragedy, he returns to his listening-post, only to be hit by the pain of silence.   In Tremain’s new novel, Music and Silence, the Danish king, Christian IV, seeks similar solace in music; but, here, it is the musicians who have to remain hidden. They are confined to an icy cellar, and their disembodied sounds rise by means of an ingenious system of pipes.

Music is the novel’s subject but it also informs its structure, which abandons linear progression in favour of variations on the central theme.   In a series of short sections, Tremain tells the stories of, among others, Peter Claire, an English lutenist with the face of an angel, and his love, Emilia Tilsen, daughter of a Jutland fruit-grower and maid of honour to the King’s consort, Kirsten.  Away from the court, Francesca, Countess O’Finegal, Peter’s erstwhile mistress, relates her life in Ireland; Charlotte, Peter’s sister, prepares for her marriage in Norfolk; and Emilia’s five brothers adjust to the arrival of  Magdalena, their father’s new wife.

All these stories connect on a basic narrative level, but it is on the metaphorical level that Tremain excels. Music and silence become the expression of her characters’ attitudes to the world. So, Christian loves music because it is the essence of the order he yearns to impose on Denmark, while the Earl O’Finegal pines desperately for a melody once heard in a dream. Marcus, Emilia’s youngest brother, uses silence as a weapon, while Martin Moller, a Lutheran pastor, requires it for prayer. Peter attempts to decipher Emilia’s silence, and the workers in the King’s silver-mine encounter the greatest silence of all: Death.

There is a third factor in this aural equation: noise. This is personified by two women: Magdalena, who has been ‘noisy all her life’; and Kirsten, who declares that ‘I am not merely indifferent to music; I detest it.’ Renounced by the King, she returns to her mother’s house, filling it with noise. It is no accident that they both reject the power of music, which is incorporeal, and resort to the most perverse forms of sex.

Music and Silence is a magnificent novel, shot through with Tremain’s unique blend of psychological acuity and charm. It wears its profundity lightly, conveying its deeper themes through felicities of phrase rather than philosophical investigation. Its period setting is vividly conveyed, although its primary concern is not to explore ‘history’, but rather to examine primal emotions, such as familial love, sexual passion, and the quest for the numinous.

The writing is not without flaws: its historical consciousness sometimes falters, as when Peter reflects on the burden ‘of not being Shakespeare’ being one that ‘all Englishmen are forced to bear’ – which even a bardolater would consider excessive a mere thirteen years after his death, or when the Countess O’Finegal is greeted by ‘international adulation’ – a phrase more suited to Madonna in 1999. Tremain also over-indulges her structural freedom, inserting an extended passage aboard ship simply to explain how Kirsten’s letters are lost, and introducing a (silent) Charles I at Whitehall, who, however well portrayed, is a monarch too far.

Nevertheless, Music and Silence is a brilliant book, which will repay many readings. When Tremain is on form, as she is here, there is no English writer today to touch her.