The Musician's Daughter
Bloomsbury, 2009, 322 pp
Franz Josef Haydn(1732-1809) is one of my favorite composers of all time. I listen to a classical music station where his music is not infrequently played, and when it is, I often grow dreamy. Therefore it was with great pleasure that some weeks ago, I discovered this book in a local bookstore. I dipped into it, fully intending to read it at a later time. Then, as it turned out the author sometimes posts to an e-mail list I belong to, and I mentioned that her book had just come out, and as soon as I could, I was going to read it. I then put in a request for it at the local library, and very soon, I had the book in my hands and began reading.
The book was worth the rather short wait. Ms. Dunlap really seems to have a feel for eighteenth-century Vienna and its musical and social scene. And I think a lot of the young audience it's aimed at, would readily identify with some of the themes she weaves throughout her book as well as learning a good deal -- there were some things I didn't even know -- about life for many people in that place and time, about what she calls standing up for what's right, being brave, and pursuing whatever dreams you have.
These themes are wrapped around the mystery of Theresa Maria, named after the Austrian empress Maria Theresa, and who was intended to live a life as much like the life of that lady as a musician's daughter in that day and age, could -- pious, respectful, a good housekeeper, having lots of children. But that isn't what Theresa Maria really wants, and when her father turns up dead on Christmas Eve, when her mother is just about to have a baby, she wants to find out why her father turns up dead. This gradually leads Theresa Maria into a complicated whirlpool of events, involving Prince Nicholas Esterhazy, Haydn's noble employer, "Papa" Haydn himself, some people belonging to what I call "despised groups"(in this case the Romany people or Gypsies), and discovering that an uncle she thought would be helpful, is anything but. And she discovers that a nice young musician in Haydn's orchestra is much more than he seems, too, and that her father was the kind of person who stood up for what's right in the face of possible dire consequences. So, for that matter, at least in this story, does Franz Josef Haydn.
The writing is clear and simple, yet the story moves along swiftly enough so that neither adults who might read it, nor younger readers, will be left unsatisfied. Ms. Dunlap has a talent for weaving facts about life in 18th century Austria(and more particularly Vienna), with her fictional story. Historical "rivet counters" of the kind I blogged about earlier, may not like this book; Ms. Dunlap frankly admits that the situations she described, though dealing with real personages such as Haydn, are invented, though, from what I've read about Haydn's life, could plausibly have happened. Her portrayal of the future Emperor Joseph II, for example, was accurate in that he was a reformer of sorts, in his time. And other details of the period seem realistic enough to me, though I am hardly an expert, since my "historical" focus is early medieval England, not 18th century Vienna. And, as an added enticement -- for music lovers, anyway -- she has kindly added some recordings of Haydn's work, some of which I'm not very familiar with. And last but not least, the very end of the book wraps everything up nicely, yet hints at a sequel. If Ms. Dunlap does decide to write the sequel, I will gladly read it, as I look forward to more about Theresa Maria, determined, somehow, to pursue her muscianly dreams.