There are a lot of great YA books that feature characters who care deeply about music or are aspiring musicians, but not a lot of these characters care about classical music.*
It’s a rare book that has a teen waxing rhapsodic Puccini or Haydn. On the surface, it makes sense: classical music has a reputation of being boring, out of touch, and again, really boring. Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Brahms- CeleI can almost feel your eyes glazing over as we speak. But it’s actually not boring at all! Stravinsky’s ballet score The Rite of Spring caused riots when it premiered! Both the dance and the music were scandalous to theater-goers in 1913. John Cage’s piece 4’33” is played at the dynamic level of silence, so while there is music on the page, the pianist sits there silently, and Eric Satie wrote music for furniture!
Once you dig into it, you find a treasure trove of weird and interesting things, and a ton of great listening. It’s just like any genre– don’t knock it until you try it.
But how should you start? While a good place to start is something like Music: A Very Short Introduction by Nicholas Cook, you could also start at Get Into Classical, a website that helps you do just that. Or, you can let YA books be your guide!
A few recent books that I think provide a good primer and even a set list for getting into classical music are Virtuosity by Jessica Martinez, The Lucy Variations by Sara Zarr, and while it’s not explicitly about music at all, Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor.
Virtuosity follows teen violin prodigy Carmen Bianchi as she preps for the most important violin competition of her career. Suffering from near debilitating performance anxiety she turns to prescription anxiety medication to calm her. When her main rival Jeremy King, starts to take an interest in her, she has to figure out what’s really important: winning the competition or learning to love music again.
Carmen mentions Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata, as a flashy piece she could play to win favor from the judges. It was written after the composer had a dream he sold his soul to the devil, who happened to play a mean violin (10:30 is when it starts to get really exciting):
The Lucy Variations similarly focuses on a young musician almost overcome by the intense pressure of the classical music field. Lucy quit playing and performing piano until her brother’s new teacher encouraged her to try again. *Mild Spoiler Alert* Lucy plays Philip Glass’ deceptively simple piece at the Winter Showcase, re-establishing her musicality to the audience and that she only has to play what she loves.
While classical music may not be explicitly mentioned, I thought that Karou’s adventures in Daughter of Smoke and Bone had a very classical and mysterious feeling to them. There’s something about the old historic city of Prague that makes me think of Dvorak and his Slavonic Dances. Can’t you imagine this as background music to one of Karou and Zuzana’s art projects?
A few other books that deal with music, try Virginia Euwer Wolf’s The Mozart Season, a 2004 Popular Paperbacks for Young Adults selection, or some of the other books from that year’s group of lists, which includes a music category. Not all of them are about anguished musicians, but it is a passionate field so emotions and stakes run high.
Finally, be sure to give classical music a real chance. It takes time to appreciation and love. Keep searching until you find something you really love. It’s out there, I promise!
*A little footnote here. While there is a ‘Classical’ period of music usually referring to the time of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, classical music in everyday usage usually means ‘Western art music’ dating back to the first notated music and musical systems of ancient Greece, through the Middle Ages where there is a lot of chants and music from the Catholic church, to contemporary composers of today. Yes, it is Western-focused, so that can be a problem, but more music schools and orchestras are incorporating the music of other cultures into their programs.
-Anna Tschetter, currently reading Paper Valentine by Brenna Yovanoff