What is The Prague Sonata about?
Without giving away the plot, The Prague Sonata is a quest epic. During the Nazi invasion of Prague in 1939, a woman named Otylie Bartošová is forced to break up a treasured eighteenth-century musical manuscript, a handwritten piano sonata she inherited from her father, giving one movement of it to her husband, Jakub, who disappears into the resistance, and another to her best friend, Irena, who flees to America. Otylie’s action, done under duress, was meant to make the anonymous manuscript—variously attributed to Mozart, Haydn, even Beethoven—worthless to the German occupiers who were confiscating art and other valuables from the Czechs. Fast-forward to the year 2000 when Irena, living out her final days in Queens, gives what turns out to be the second movement of the sonata to a young New York musicologist, Meta, with the caveat that she try to locate the rest of the manuscript. Meta’s journey takes her to Prague, to Vienna, to London, and eventually back to America in search of the other movements.
But at its heart, the novel revolves around sacrifices a handful of everyday people make to preserve our cultural heritage—in this case, an unknown, magnificent work of music—in the face of tyranny and greed. It’s also a story about the trials and triumphs of love over the course of generations.
Is there a real “Prague Sonata”?
I hate to say no, because the sonata is very real to me. But if you Google it, you won’t find it in the catalogue of any classical composers.
The piece of music at the center of the novel does, however, share a number of crucial elements with historical works from the period. The third movement, a lovely and traditional rondo, is something that any late eighteenth-century music lover would have nodded in time to while maybe tapping a foot in rhythm while it was being performed. Same with the first movement. The middle movement, however, which Irena gives to Meta near the beginning of the book, that’s the more gnarly, complicated bit that signals something singular, radical, even revolutionary was at work in the cauldron of composition. So, since my Prague Sonata is, to varying degrees, based on certain classical sonatas of its day, there is a “realness” that informs it. I’d like to think that readers will be able to hear their own version of the sonata in their heads based on descriptions of these passages in the book.
At the center of the story is a thirty-year-old musicologist, Meta Taverner, who leaves behind her life in New York to go on a search to reunite the three parts of the manuscript. Could you talk about Meta, her aspirations and motivations?
Everything in Meta’s life had been directed toward becoming a concert pianist, her promised land being Carnegie Hall. She was well on her way when a car accident after a recital in Los Angeles left one of her hands severely injured, ending her dream. With the help of her mentor, Paul Mandelbaum, who plays a crucial role in the novel, she reinvents herself as a musicologist. But as settled as her life is in New York—she has a boyfriend, teaches piano, is working on her doctorate—an emptiness haunts her, a craving for personal meaning that is, as if by a miracle, answered when the sonata manuscript comes into her life. An idealist at heart, nothing prepares Meta for the challenges, even threats she faces when in Prague. Yes, she encounters wonderful, supportive peers, like the expat pianist Sam Kettle, another Mandelbaum devotee, and the Czech-American journalist, Gerrit Mills, who is intimately drawn into her life as he becomes committed to helping her find the missing movements. But also she runs up against the renowned music expert, Petr Wittmann, who has his own designs on the manuscript, believing it to be a find of immeasurable historic, not to mention monetary, value. Through it all, following gossamer leads many (but not all) of which wind up at dead ends, Meta suffers crippling self-doubts. She also brings a tenacious resolve to her efforts even as the life she knew back home is irrevocably changed.
Writing about Meta and her counterpart from an earlier generation, Otylie Bartošová, was one of the most difficult and satisfying experiences of my writing life. Like all of us, Meta can be inspiring, exacerbating, courageous, self-doubting, quixotic. Her experiences in Prague and elsewhere are ones I was fortunate to share with her.
The Prague Sonata is rich with all kinds of music from classical to rock to even heavy metal. Could you talk about your own personal relationship with music?
Music has always been at the heart of my life. My mother was choir director and organist at our church. My sister was a gifted opera singer who once performed in Avery Fisher Hall. I myself trained as a classical pianist, then switched to rock and jazz guitar, playing with, among others, the Steve Getz Quintet, which featured Stan Getz’s son on drums. Though I don’t perform anymore, I often find myself involved with musical projects—currently a words-and-music collaboration with the lead guitarist of Testament, Alex Skolnick, who is a master jazz and metal player.
Writing a novel centered on music has always been a dream of mine. But I wanted it to be about something unique, never before explored. It was during my first visit to Prague, Czech Republic, in the mid-nineties that the idea for The Prague Sonata was born. While marveling at this magical, beautiful city which had survived so many wars, hearing street musicians on the Charles Bridge, going to the Estates Theater, where Mozart himself had conducted the first performance of Don Giovanni in 1787, I was riveted, inspired. I became obsessed with the idea of writing about a pivotal piece of lost music by a major composer, a piano sonata discovered in Prague that would prove important to our understanding of the classical canon. So, yes, among many other things, the novel—a sonata of sorts itself—is a celebration of music.
In your last novel, The Forgers, you drew on your expertise as a former rare book and manuscripts dealer. Did that knowledge come into play when writing The Prague Sonata?
While antiquarian literary and musical manuscripts are obviously quite different, there’s no doubt that my experience with rare literary artifacts was very useful in the research and writing of The Prague Sonata. Details like watermarks on the paper, the kind of paper itself, the binding structure, the handwriting—all these are crucial to Meta’s solving the mysteries of the sonata manuscript. Through my rare books business in Santa Barbara, California, in the 1970s, I handled books from the eighteenth century, and even own some to this day, so I felt at home writing about the physical particularities of the Prague Sonata score.
Making the kind of discovery that Meta does in the novel is an experience everyone in the field of antiquarian rarities dreams of. Nor is it far-fetched that a manuscript like the Prague Sonata could surface. Previously unrecorded works by major composers turn up in unexpected places more often than you might imagine. Bach, Chopin, Mozart. An important orchestral manuscript by Igor Stravinsky—“The Funeral Song” written in memory of his much-loved teacher, Rimsky-Koraskov—which was believed irretrievably lost for a hundred years, surfaced in late 2015. Thought to have been destroyed during the 1917 Russian Revolution, it turned up in St. Petersburg in a pile of neglected, uncatalogued works.
When I was a little younger than Meta, I myself had the experience of discovering a lost William Burroughs manuscript—a variant, unrecorded passage from his Naked Lunch that I found in a collection of his books and papers I was handling as a dealer. Stunned, I contacted Burroughs to let him know I’d found it, offered to publish it in a small edition, and he even provided an introduction for the book. After that, William and I became quite good friends. One of the great joys of working with rare books and manuscripts is to make a consequential discovery, one that changes how we think about this writer or that composer. The passion that drives bibliophiles and musicologists are very much a part of Meta’s (and my) experience.
You cover many dramatic moments in history and weave in a wealth of classical music knowledge. Can you talk about the research you did for this novel?
Over the years, I traveled many thousands of miles, filling notebooks with more information than would end up in the novel. I traveled to Prague several times and walked its streets with a Czech friend who lived through the Velvet Revolution. I also trekked west to very rural towns in the middle of the United States where immigrants from Czechoslovakia had settled in the nineteenth century. I revisited London’s British Library; spent time discussing the many aspects of pianism with a professional classical pianist in New York; consulted with the musicologists Christopher Gibbs (co-author of The Oxford Book of Western Music and Franz Schubert’s biographer) and Jonathan Del Mar (British conductor and Beethoven expert); held in my hands original eighteenth-century manuscripts by Mozart and his contemporaries at the Lobkowicz Palace in Nelahozeves, wearing white curator’s gloves under the watchful eye of the collection’s head archivist. It’s been quite an odyssey since the first time I visited Prague in 1996 and fell in love with the city and its history.
Are there particular places in Prague that gave you inspiration while writing your novel?
What about the entirety of Prague? Every street, every square, every bridge has magic to it. And the Vlatva river with its swans and boats? Majestic magic. My favorite neighborhood is Malá Strana, where key characters like Irena and Tomáš from the World War Two era lived, and where sixty years later important players like the journalist Gerrit Mills live among buildings largely unchanged for hundreds of years. The short, dead-end street Jánská, where Gerrit rents a flat, captured my imagination as I wrote the book, as did Šporkova and other nearby cobbled streets that lead up to the castle or down to the river. From one of the puppet theatres where I took in Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice, to the Rudolfinum, where I met András Schiff after his performance of Haydn’s stunning Sonata in E-flat major, there are so many sacred spaces for me in Prague. Like everyone, I adore the Charles Bridge, with its classical statuary, and the astronomical clock, with its hourly parade of demons and saints. Vyšehrad, where Dvořák and Smetana are buried, is a place of rich serenity. Even the bend in the road where Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague, was assassinated in Holešovice, and the St. James Church, where the mummified hand of a thief has been hanging for centuries, are weirdly interesting to me. And pubs like Konvikt and U Kocoura (At the Cat)—indeed, any pub in Prague frequented by locals—are places where I made as many notes as I did sitting on the grass on Petřín Hill overlooking Prague. In the end, The Prague Sonata is a love letter both to music and to this compelling city.
What do you hope readers will take away when they finish The Prague Sonata?
The novel is about many things, but one I hope readers will ponder is that music, literature, all the arts are indispensable yet also fragile. War, immigration, threats to culture—themes depicted in The Prague Sonata—are intensely real dangers in our own lives now. “Eternity depends,” as Werner Herzog has said, “on whether people are willing to take care of something.” Otylie, Meta, Jakub, Gerrit, and others in the book challenged by those who would thwart them are idealist warriors, vigorous and unafraid in their parallel quests to take care of something—a work of unknown music scribed on paper. I hope readers who take this journey with them will come away inspired to agree that history is, as Gerrit proposes in the novel, “not a series of events left behind but an organic, swirling storm” that’s fully part of our lives, something we can help shape for the better. That, and to spend more time listening to every kind of music imaginable!