The plot of "An Equal Music," a book of fiction by Vikram Seth, is built around a core of musical repertoire integral to the storyline itself. References to the Beethoven Piano Trio in C Minor, Op.1 No.3 and the String Quintet Op. 104 operate within a network of symbols about a broken past.
Central character Michael Holme is a violinist “sick with memory,” focused ten years in the past. He frequently muses on a time prior to a breakdown that created chaos in his life. Back then he was a student in Vienna learning the C minor trio with Julia McNicholl as pianist. His musical breakdown interrupted his relationship with jarring suddenness; “Love or no love, I could not continue in that city. I stumbled, my mind jammed, I felt the pressure of every breath.” The trio is a symbol of his relationship with Julia and also of his futile fight not to succumb to the musical personality of Carl Käll, his teacher, “that stubborn musician, brutal and full of suffocating energy,” who believes that Michael spends too much time on chamber music and “could have a better career.”
As Michael observes Julia learning the music her personality stamps itself into details of the score. We make first contact with the music itself as Michael listens to a CD of the work and rethinks his past.
“What wonderful things are his first self-numbered works, a trio of trios that say to the world, yes, these I could bear to be known by. Of them, this is the gem: the Opus I number 3. Carl, of course, disagreed with me; he thought it the weakest of the three.
"It was Julia’s favourite among all Beethoven’s trios. She particularly loved the minor variation in the second movement, though it was almost as if the cello and violin were, in that calm melancholy, robbing her of her own prominence. Whenever she would hear it or play it or even read it in the score, she would move her head slowly from side to side. And she loved the unflamboyant close of the entire work.”
The opus one trios are well known to musicians, and it is entertaining to think of the set as a “trio of trios.” Each trio [Eb, G, C minor] has four movements instead of three, and in many other ways they also strive toward symphonic expression and expansion of materials and forms that later became a Beethoven trademark. Written in 1794 soon after his arrival in Vienna, there is a famous allegation that Haydn took issue with the C minor, feeling that it should not have been published. Seth refashions this historical debate to illustrate opposing preferences between Michael and his teacher Carl Käll.
The jewel of the passage is the reference to the fourth variation, the so-called minor variation. Subjective and descriptive, the passage does not attempt to explain in analytical terms, but deeply personal glimpses of Julia’s personality are revealed through her attachment to traceable references in the music.
This performance from 2009 is by the Daniel Piano Trio: Aleksandr Snytkin, violin, Francesco Mastromatteo, violoncello,and Elena Zyl, piano.
Beethoven patterned the variations by alternating the orchestration. The piano is prominent in variations one [1:20] and three [3:45], the strings in two [2:33] and four [4:51]. The final variation is tutti [6:06], and there is a coda at [7:13]. Julia’s part in variation four is a rhythmically vital syncopation marked differently in both hands. It is a complex way to interact with the primary melodic parts played by the strings.
“Calm melancholy” seeks the affect of the striking color of sound in this dark variation in E-flat minor. The variation is a rounded binary form, but the return at the close of the second section [5:39 and again at 5:56] is altered by inverting the primary melody and changing the piano and cello parts.
Moving her head slowly from side to side seems to reflect thinking in phrases; hearing deeply, and absorbing complex layers of pattern and invention. It shows her to be a sympathetic musician more interested in the total product than in her own role exclusively—a real chamber music player. From a symbolic viewpoint her favorite places involve an awareness of Michael, and parts that of the music in which the violin is significant.