Philip Morahan is a great pianist who can no longer play the piano. For suddenly it seems as if the sacrifices he has made in the name of his art have cost too much. At fifty two he is single, childless, and wretchedly alone. When a bad review calls his achievement as a pianist into question, he is in free fall.
In the turmoil that follows, Phillip’s quest to reconcile the needs of the man and the compulsions of the musician leads to a headlong unravelling. He is thoroughly deconstructed by ex-girlfriends, challenged by his protégé, all but tortured by his agent – mere preparation for the real task. To recover the power of his talent and the capacity to love, Philip must face his own nature dead on and the tragedy that haunts him.
The Concert Pianist is a profound and gripping novel about the emotional life of a great pianist, and the ‘seam between the soul and the art’.
The Concert Pianist Q&A
People don't tend to write novels about music and musicians very often – why do you think this is and what motivated you to write this one?
I think it is very hard to write the consciousness of someone whose life is dominated by the piano literature and its adventures without being a pianist. For the pianist music is an omnipresent landscape. Works like Liszt's B minor Sonata or Beethoven's Hammerklavier loom like hazardous, beautiful mountains. These structures are a kind of habitat in which the performer's highly trained, channelled energies become emotion. To write the life of a pianist without somehow recreating this topography, or at any rate, finding some verbal analogue for it, is to miss the point. Certainly, I was drawn by the challenge of all that. But, of course, a novel takes on a purpose of its own and the conditions of a pianist's life became a foreground for more universal themes: love, loss, success, sexual regeneration, mortality. What fundamentally intrigued me was the way individuals regulate their emotional friability in order to cope, and how, in the life of an artist, striking a balance between creative emotionality and personal happiness is so difficult.
Were you brought up in a musical household?
Yes. We had Dad crouched around the semi-acoustic guitar, twanging out Sweet Georgia Brown as an anti-dote to office life. My mother and sister were decent pianists. My hatchet-jawed, bull-torsoed brother played the harp, of all things. I was a sullen recorder player and grudging pianist to the age of eleven, when lightning struck. I saw 'A Song to Remember' (a film about Chopin, starring Cornel Wilde) and was transfixed by the sound and spectacle of pianistic virtuosity. I started to practice, collect records, and buy sheet music. Soon my younger brother joined the fray, and at our house in those days you might have heard renditions of my opus 1 Study followed by Roddy's amphetamised account of the Pathetique Sonata, followed by a salivally generated hiss of applause as we swung bows across the drawing room towards imagined ovations from Brandy of Napoleon-type females with plunging necklines.
You write brilliantly about the performing of music – to what extent is it based on your own experiences? Have you performed under pressure?
I am very much an amateur pianist without the technical security and finish of a Conservatoire graduate, but I have performed to small audiences over the years and find it pretty scary. Last year I entered the Yamaha/The Pianist Amateur Piano Competition and made it to the semis – along with my brother. I was determined not to be too nervous on the day. But no amount of Zen-like posing could stop my hands freezing over and covering with sweat ten minutes before going on stage. The only thing you can hold on to in that state is your love for the music; and the struggle to project that love through the heat of nerves and the searing self-consciousness of performance is emotionally overwhelming. Not to have to do this for a living is a huge relief: and so, yes, I know what pianists put themselves through and I'm immensely grateful, not just for their artistry and talent, but for their courage, too.
Philip's existential crisis is overwhelming. Do you think artistic performers find mid-life more of a problem than us normal folk?
I don't think artists have a monopoly on mid-life crises. The phrase 'nervous breakdown' has rather gone out of fashion, but when I was a teenager in a commuterish part of Surrey, everybody was having one. In those days a nervous breakdown seemed like a socially acceptable release from keeping up appearances. It was a kind of emotional correction, and the phrase enabled people to contain the idea without needing or wanting to know more. Philip's crisis, which is not really a break-down, is generated by the need to feel more again after the cauterizing effects of grief. He needs in some odd way to come in contact with pain. So his existential funk is really the rhetoric of an agonising regeneration. I admit that it's not a particularly ingratiating spectacle. The reader might appreciate, nonetheless, that to play the great composers at their own level takes a fantastic amount of emotional vitality, and one of the themes of the book is the cost of living life at that level.
Is Philip modelled on anyone particular? Is there any of you in him? And to what degree do you think that writers tend to write autobiographically?
There was a model for Philip, but Philip became his own man. He was a wonderful pianist and an impressive intellectual, but pretty inaccessible at the social level, a bit shy and dry, and therefore rather frustrating. But I loved his playing and sensed an affinity, and in a way the book is an exploration of that affinity through a fictional version of the type. What I have in common with Philip is really only my solicitude for the human being trapped inside the artist, if I can put it like that. Music communicates the most sensitive, noble part of a performer. If playing becomes impossible for some reason, a certain kind of performer can be marooned. In 'The Concert Pianist' Philip shuts down his career almost as a way of forcing himself into the open and into a different connection with life.
What are the major literary influences in your writing?
I think there are very few really profound literary influences in any one writer's work, and these come early on. In my case the drivers were Henry James and Vladimir Nabokov, both of whom I read inside out. Recently I have found such books as The Corrections and Austerlitz and Disgrace, for example, utterly formidable and wonderful, but I don't feel 'influenced' by them. The DNA is already set.
'Conrad Williams's prose is spellbinding and his imagery transports the reader, abducting the senses, getting to the essence of music, love, even the overlooked beauty of our surroundings. One cannot help empathising with Philip as he feels increasingly abandoned by the only constant he has ever known. His helpless connection with music is his only hope as he at last faces his past. This is a wonderfully evocative novel of passion, loss and the search for the true meaning of one's life.' – The Irish Times
'An exceptionally good read...great tension in the plot is finally released in a rippling crescendo at the end...the writing is emotionally real. The kind of book you pick up and don't put down.' – Musical Opinion
'Devastatingly human...Williams's second novel is concerned with the conflict between life and art. These universal subjects are dealt with up close - Williams never over-philosophises, but lets the emotions and memories of a single man touch on bigger questions...Painful, awkward and at times bitterly funny.' – Abigail Wilkinson, Time Out
'An audacious, savagely acute novel...No critic, agent, entrepreneur or fawning amateur is safe from Williams's glittering, scabrous and rhetorical assault and there are enough disturbing psychological resonances to make even the most hardened careerist retreat from the field of battle...The ring of truth will stop the most blasé reader in his tracks. Brilliant and enlivening.' - Bryce Morrison, The Gramophone
'Conrad Williams's new novel examines in devastating detail the inner life of a concert pianist...This thoughtful novel hits few false notes in its presentation of the classical music business. Unlike many fictional treatments of this world, it manages to eschew melodrama, despite its dramatically heightened plot. Intellectually engaged with the aesthetics of music and humanly engaged in its protagonist's story, it transforms its material into a remarkably well-made narrative.' - Lucasta Miller, The Guardian
'A command performance by a graceful stylist...Flying colours. Williams writes with easy grace and an evocative turn of phrase...he is exceptionally perceptive. He follows his character's emotional trajectory like the best kind of psychoanalyst, and makes us care what happens to him...The book's gradually revealed truths come as a shock, which is testament to Williams's narrative skill. He achieves a series of stylistic tours de force, some involving Philip's re-encounters with the landscapes of his childhood, other moving into the world of dreams. The book ends with a starburst, in which the music of Chopin becomes the vehicle for Philip's salvation: purple prose, the phrase used for once in an unpejorative sense.' - Michael Church, The Independent
'I have only come across three novels that have a fictional concert pianist as the central character and which also deal convincingly with the subject: Frank Conroy's Body and Soul, Paul Micou's The Death of David Debrizzi and this one. Williams's main concern is what it means and takes to be a great concert pianist...his observations on the nature of classical music, its performance and dissemination will strike a chord with music lovers everywhere.' - Classic FM Review
'Philip engages our (sympathy) because his sufferings are so universal. Harrowing...affecting...perfectly attuned.' - Independent on Sunday
'Williams's prose is carefully constructed with a pleasing natural rhythm. An enjoyable novel with vivid characters and a lot to say about the alienation facing so many people in the modern world – musicians or not.' - Muso Magazine
'Williams takes us to the heart of the creative condition...He writes intelligently and sensitively about music and the musical world...His rich cast of characters – pushy but priceless patrons, charming but tricky agents, critics and mentors – explore the place of the high arts in contemporary culture...and the restless and often excruciating journey undertaken by all who attempt to create or interpret works of genius.' - Sunday Telegraph
'A wonderful study of an artist's passion and pain, and how music can change us all. Once read it will transform the way you view performers and their art.' - Yorkshire Gazette and Herald
'Conrad Williams makes a real page-turner out of the travails of the artist...as the hero tries to get to the emotional root of his difficulties you really care what happens to him.' - Sunday Telegraph
'The book's stylistic set-pieces are fine performances in themselves. Exhilarating and elegant.' - The Observer
'Phillip's angst, as he looks back on his life and wonders if he could have spent his emotions on people instead of the piano, is extremely moving. A brilliant and unusual read.' – Hope6, amazon.co.uk
'This novel is a masterpiece. It is the greatest English novel I've read since Jean Rhys' unparalleled 'The Wide Sargasso Sea'.' – David Sherwin, author of 'If...', amazon.co.uk
'Williams tackles the difficult subject of the creative process and the working of the artist's mind with wonderful skill. He expresses intricate ideas about music and art in an entertaining and accessible style of writing. He uses language and imagery to evoke atmosphere and emotion but leaves enough room for the reader to engage. I would recommend this book to anyone.' – M Roberts, amazon.co.uk