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  • An Equal Music
  • Written by Vikram Seth
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780375709241
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An Equal Music

A Novel

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The author of the international bestseller A Suitable Boy returns with a powerful and deeply romantic tale of two gifted musicians.  Michael Holme is a violinist, a member of the successful Maggiore Quartet.  He has long been haunted, though, by memories of the pianist he loved and left ten years earlier, Julia McNicholl.  Now Julia, married and the mother of a small child, unexpectedly reenters his life and the romance flares up once more.

Against the magical backdrop of Venice and Vienna, the two lovers confront the truth about themselves and their love, about the music that both unites and divides them, and about a devastating secret that Julia must finally reveal.  With poetic, evocative writing and a brilliant portrait of the international music scene, An Equal Music confirms Vikram Seth as one of the world's finest and most enticing writers.


The branches are bare, the sky tonight a milky violet. It is not quiet here, but it is peaceful. The wind ruffles the black water towards me.

There is no one about. The birds are still. The traffic slashes through Hyde Park. It comes to my ears as white noise.

I test the bench but do not sit down. As yesterday, as the day before, I stand until I have lost my thoughts. I look at the water of the Serpentine.

Yesterday as I walked back across the park I paused at a fork in the footpath. I had the sense that someone had paused behind me. I walked on. The sound of footsteps followed along the gravel. They were unhurried; they appeared to keep pace with me. Then they suddenly made up their mind, speeded up, and overtook me. They belonged to a man in a thick black overcoat, quite tall - about my height - a young man from his gait and attitude, though I did not see his face. His sense of hurry was now evident. After a while, unwilling so soon to cross the blinding Bayswater Road, I paused again, this time by the bridle path.

Now I heard the faint sound of hooves. This time, however, they were not embodied. I looked to left, to right. There was nothing.

As I approach Archangel Court I am conscious of being watched. I enter the hallway. There are flowers here, a concoction of gerberas and general foliage. A camera surveys the hall. A watched building is a secure building, a secure building a happy one.

A few days ago I was told I was happy by the young woman behind the counter at Etienne's. I ordered seven croissants. As she gave me my change she said: "You are a happy man."

I stared at her with such incredulity that she looked down.

"You're always humming," she said in a much quieter voice, feeling perhaps that she had to explain.

"It's my work," I said, ashamed of my bitterness. Another customer entered the shop, and I left.

As I put my week's croissants - all except one - in the freezer, I noticed I was humming the same half-tuneless tune of one of Schubert's last songs:

I see a man who stares upwards
And wrings his hands from the force of his pain.
I shudder when I see his face.
The moon reveals myself to me.

I put the water on for coffee, and look out of the window. From the eighth floor I can see as far as St Paul's, Croydon, Highgate. I can look across the brown-branched park to spires and towers and chimneys beyond. London unsettles me - even from such a height there is no clear countryside to view.

But it is not Vienna. It is not Venice. It is not, for that matter, my hometown in the North, in clear reach of the moors.

It wasn't my work, though, that made me hum that song. I have not played Schubert for more than a month. My violin misses him more than I do. I tune it, and we enter my soundproof cell. No light, no sound comes in from the world. Electrons along copper, horsehair across acrylic create my impressions of sense.

I will play nothing of what we have played in our quartet, nothing that reminds me of my recent music-making with any human being. I will play his songs.

The Tononi seems to purr at the suggestion. Something happy, something happy, surely:

In a clear brook
With joyful haste
The whimsical trout
Shot past me like an arrow.

I play the line of the song, I play the leaps and plunges of the right hand of the piano, I am the trout, the angler, the brook, the observer. I sing the words, bobbing my constricted chin. The Tononi does not object; it resounds. I play it in B, in A, in E flat. Schubert does not object. I am not transposing his string quartets.

Where a piano note is too low for the violin, it leaps into a higher octave. As it is, it is playing the songline an octave above its script. Now, if it were a viola . . . but it has been years since I played the viola.

The last time was when I was a student in Vienna ten years ago. I return there again and again and think: was I in error? Was I unseeing? Where was the balance of pain between the two of us? What I lost there I have never come near to retrieving.

What happened to me so many years ago? Love or no love, I could not continue in that city. I stumbled, my mind jammed, I felt the pressure of every breath. I told her I was going, and went. For two months I could do nothing, not even write to her. I came to London. The smog dispersed but too late. Where are you now, Julia, and am I not forgiven?
Vikram Seth

About Vikram Seth

Vikram Seth - An Equal Music

Photo © Erwin Schenkelbach

Vikram Seth's previous books include three poetry collections, a libretto, the travel memoir From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet, and two novels, The Golden Gate (a novel in verse) and A Suitable Boy. Born in Calcutta, Seth has lived in China, California, England, and India.


"A beautifully written novel of music, romance, and the endless search for transcendent passion....A joy to read."  -The Baltimore Sun

"Seth depicts, with Canaletto-like skill, the shimmering air and light of Venice at dawn, even as he neatly reproduces the loving tensions of the Maggiore [Quartet]."  -The Washington Post

"A gift for any reader and a must-read for music lovers and musicians."  -The Christian Science Monitor
Reader's Guide|About the Book|Author Biography|Discussion Questions

About the Book

The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Vikram Seth's An Equal Music.

About the Guide

While a music student in Vienna, violinist Michael Holme falls in love with pianist Julia McNicholl. They play together in a string trio, but when Michael has a nervous breakdown because of tensions with his stern and demanding violin teacher he abruptly leaves Vienna--and Julia--without warning. When, after some months pass, he tries to contact Julia again, he gets no reply. Ten years later, still in love with her, he meets her again in London when she attends a concert he is giving with his string quartet, the Maggiore. Still a performing pianist, she is now married to an American banker, has a child, and because of an auto-immune disease, is gradually going deaf. Unable to resist the power of their past, they begin to see each other again, this time under the shadow of Julia's marriage and her tragic hearing loss. Julia agrees to tour Vienna and Venice with Michael and the Maggiore Quartet and for a brief, magical time everything seems possible.

A tour de force of poetic, impassioned writing, An Equal Music is an unforgettable tale of love lost and nearly regained, its events unfolding in the dramatic settings of contemporary London, Vienna, and Venice. Brilliantly interweaving themes of loss, longing, and the power of music, Vikram Seth has created a deeply moving story about the strands of passion that run through all our lives.

About the Author

Born in Calcutta, Vikram Seth studied philosophy, politics, and economics at Oxford University and at the Stanford University. In 1986, while working toward a Ph.D. in economics, he produced a novel in verse called The Golden Gate, a story about California yuppies composed in sonnets. His second novel was A Suitable Boy, which, despite its enormous length (the longest single-volume novel in English,) was widely acclaimed and became an international bestseller. He has also written three books of poetry, a libretto, and a travel memoir, From Heaven Lake: Travels Through Sinkiang and Tibet. Seth has lived in China, California, England, and India.

Discussion Guides

1. The epigraph Seth has chosen--also the source of the book's title--is taken from one of John Donne's sermons and is a description of life after death. How does it relate to the story as a whole? How does it relate particularly to the love between Michael and Julia?

2. At the beginning of the novel, Michael says of his time in Vienna, "What I lost there I have never come near to retrieving" [p. 5]. What does the rest of his story tell us about the desire, or belief, that the past can be reclaimed or lived again, with different choices made, mistakes corrected, happiness attained? Is it possible to remap the path of one's life?

3. Beethoven's String Trio in C Minor, op. 1, no. 3, a piece that Michael had performed with Julia and Maria in Vienna, plays an important role in the novel. When Michael discovers that the piece exists in a version for quintet, he wants to play it with the Maggiore, and it's important to him that he play the part of the first violin [p. 54]. Why? What is he hoping to experience? When the group plays the piece for the first time [pp. 78-80], does it matter that he must play second violin instead?

4. How does the novel make you aware of the particular difficulties and rewards of playing chamber music? What do you find most effective about the ways that Seth describes the life of a professional musician? Michael refers to his string quartet as "an odd quadripartite marriage with six relationships, any of which, at any given time, could be cordial or neutral or strained" [p. 14]. Would you say that, despite the fact that Carl Käll assumed that he'd want a solo career, being an ensemble player is better suited to Michael's temperament? Why?

5. Vikram Seth has quoted someone as saying, "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," Christian Science Monitor, 10 June 1999, p. 16]. How does Seth manage to communicate through language the experience of music? Try listening to any of the pieces of music that plays a part in the story--Ralph Vaughan Williams' The Lark Ascending [see page 70], or the Beethoven trio mentioned above, for instance. How does the act of listening to the music change or deepen your experience of the novel?

6. How relevant to the story is the fact that Michael comes from a working class background? Why is he so bitter about what has become of Rochdale, his home town? What do the Rochdale scenes, and particularly his relationship with Mrs. Formby, tell us about Michael's character?

7. Julia is the daughter of an Oxford professor of history and, unlike Michael, she grew up surrounded by music, literature, and art. Michael says, "she had in many ways been the making of me" [p. 82]. What does he mean by this, and to what degree would you consider this the reason for his undying love for her?

8. At their second meeting, Julia tells Michael she is married. When he asks why she doesn't wear a wedding ring, she answers, "I don't know. It distracts me. It distracts me when I play the piano. I look at it and I can't concentrate on the music" [p. 107]. How do you interpret this remark?

9. Just before Michael and Julia go to bed together for the first time in ten years, she says, "Making music and making love--it's a bit too easy an equation" [p. 136]. What does she mean by this? What is different about the love between musicians who play music together? Why has Julia chosen a husband who is not a musician? Does music provide a channel for intimacy between musicians that isn't available to other people?

10. Why doesn't Julia tell Michael about her hearing loss when she first meets him? Later, she and Michael keep her problem a secret even when she is rehearsing with the Maggiore for the concert in Vienna. Is it wrong of her not to reveal her secret to the other members of the quartet, since she is going to be performing with them? Is Michael right to feel that he's betrayed Julia in telling Piers about it? Are the other members of the quartet cruel in doubting Julia's ability to pull it off, or are they justified in wanting to protect their careers and the reputation of the quartet?

11. Why does Julia invite Michael to lunch to meet her husband? Is Michael correct in assuming that she wants to punish him for revealing her secret?

12. Should Julia leave her husband to be with Michael? Are the loves she has for Michael and for her husband equally real, equally deep, equally compelling? Which should take precedence over the other? Does the fact that she has a child make a difference?

13. What is the reason for the breakdown Michael has during the interval of the performance in Vienna? Is his mind coming unhinged? How much sympathy do you have for him after Julia decides not to see him any more, and after he loses his violin to Mrs. Formby's nephew? Why does his leave the quartet for a life which seems so much less fulfilling?

14. Near the end of the novel, Michael finds that Mrs. Formby has returned his violin to him in a codicil to her will. Is this resolution a happy ending of sorts? Is Michael's relationship with his violin ultimately the most satisfying and intimate one left him? What is the significance of his music teacher's bequest to him?

15. The novel ends with Julia's solo performance of Bach's "Art of Fugue." In the audience, Michael thinks, "It is a beauty beyond imagining--clear, lovely, inexorable, phrase across phrase...it is an equal music" [p. 380]. After the concert, he reflects, "Music, such music, is a sufficient gift. Why ask for happiness; why hope not to grieve? It is enough, it is to be blessed enough, to live from day to day and to hear such music--not too much, or the soul could not sustain it--from time to time" [p. 381]. How do you respond to this final reflection upon the novel's conflicts, and upon the difficulties and rewards of life?

16. If An Equal Music is a story of unending love, it is also a story of wrenching loss. What do you find most painful about the novel? If you have read other novels in which the lovers find it impossible to be together--Michael Ondaatje's The English Patient or Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, for instance--would you say that there is something ultimately satisfying in reading about such intense emotion, even if the story ends tragically?

  • An Equal Music by Vikram Seth
  • May 02, 2000
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Vintage
  • $16.00
  • 9780375709241

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