Sonata II: A Czech Musical Quest

 The Prague Sonata     Bradford Morrow     (2017)


“Sonata” is the theme for this Bradford Morrow novel as well as for the novel I reviewed in a recent post, Rose Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata. Yet these two books are totally different in style and plot. 

The Prague Sonata centers on a fictional manuscript of a musical work from the late eighteenth century. Meta Taverner, a musicologist in New York City in the year 2000, is given one of the three movements of this unknown piano sonata by an elderly Czech woman who then promptly dies. Meta sets out on a mission, starting in the Czech Republic, to locate the remaining two movements of the sonata and to determine its composer.

The Prague Sonata is an amalgam of quest and mystery novel. There’s also a good chunk of historical fiction, as we travel back to Prague in the days before and during World War II to meet the woman who separated the three movements of the sonata in the face of the arrival of Nazi troops. Morrow explores the connections between the twentieth-century Czech owner of the manuscript and the twenty-first-century sonata seeker: “Had Meta herself been bequeathed a handwritten sonata from a fond, eccentric father, would she have had the guts and the wisdom to split it into three orphaned movements in hopes of protecting it from the enemy?” (70)

Classical musicians and lovers of classical music (among whom I count myself) will find much to enjoy in The Prague Sonata, which includes details of musical notation and rhapsodic descriptions of performances of the mysterious sonata. Trooping through the streets of Prague with Meta, I became genuinely interested in how the movements of the sonata might be reunited and how the composer might be ascertained. Occasionally, however, Morrow’s musical metaphors become strained:  “Despite her doubts about love at first sight . . . they’d been improvising a duet on either side of the river. A duet that wanted to evolve into a fugue. One whose harmonic and rhythmic structures moved toward the same resolution.” (231)

Morrow also wants to tell us a lot about Czech history, not only from the World War II era but also from the time of the Velvet Revolution against the Soviets in 1989. If these and other background paragraphs had been edited down, the pace of the novel would have picked up. A romance component does add spark to the narrative. Meta’s lawyer boyfriend, who remains behind in New York, is unsympathetic to her quest in the Czech Republic, leaving her open to forming a new relationship. I won’t reveal spoilers!

Late in The Prague Sonata a character brings up Willa Cather’s 1918 novel My Ántonia, arguably the best fictional depiction of Czech immigrants (called “Bohemians”) in the United States: “’This was written years ago, but the heartland of Nebraska and the Bohemians who settled there haven’t changed all that much. Time kind of stands still on the prairie.’” (385-6) I read My Ántonia recently and found this American classic to be surprisingly nuanced. Between My Ántonia and The Prague Sonata you can get a sense of the richness of Czech culture.