Hey Folks,

You’ve read books and seen plays starring detectives, politicians, professors, journalists, and bankers.  But, goodness, where are the composers?  Being a composer is frought with conflict and rife with drama.  Yet fictional composers are rare beasts–far rarer than real ones it seems.

Let’s make a list of fictional composers.  I’ll start with the only two I know:

Edward Bast: J.R., William Gaddis
Richard Halley: Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand


84 Responses to “Fictional Composers”
  1. I don’t think Williams played a butcher, I think he was just a clerk some kind of store. He used to be a psychiatrist, but lost his license because he would hypnotize them and have sex with them. Oops. He definitely had one of the best lines in the movie: “Excuse me. It’s my karmic burden to load some cat food.”

    Also, I think during the scenes with Strauss’s opera the chorus sings “this is the opera,” although I suppose I might have misheard. I hope not :)

  2. Sparky P. says:

    Yes, Cosmo Brown was Don Lockwood’s pal in “Singin’ in the Rain”. Good hit.

    Then, of course, there are two favourite fictional composers from Monty Python’s Flying Circus: modern composer Arthur “Two-Sheds” Jackson, and the curiously forgotten German Baroque composer Johann Gambolputty de von
    gumberaber-shonedanker-kalbsfleisch-mittler-aucher von Hautkopft… (everybody, supply the last line…!)

  3. One more: Errol Flynn plays reprobate composer Sebastian Dubrok in the 1947 remake of Escape Me Never. He’s a rake who spends the film trying to get his ballet performed. Weak film, nice music.

  4. Jeffrey Tucker says:

    How about “Dmitri Shostakovich” in William T. Vollmann’s Europe Central?

  5. Seth Gordon says:

    Surprised, since the first one to come up was from Mann, that no one thought of Gustav (von) Aschenbach from Death in Venice.

    But for my money, the greatest fictional composer in history, the one who summed up all the drama, all the pathos all the lacrimae rerum inherent in the creative process:

  6. Jeffrey Tucker says:

    Aschenbach in Death in Venice is a writer, not a composer.

  7. David Salvage says:

    Jeff– can’t find the name of that organ composer from The Recognitions… He is a minor character, as I recall: but I couldn’t finish the book: way too overstuffed with… everything!

    There is also Mort Liddy in “Atlas Shrugged,” but he appears only long enough for us to be contemptuous of him and then Rand shoves him aside.

  8. Anonymous says:

    Aschenbach in Death in Venice is a writer, not a composer.

    My bad. Meant to mention it was in Visconti’s film. Oops.

  9. Danny Liss says:

    Would it be too pedantic to throw Orpheus in?

  10. Yeah, he’s a minor character, but he closes the book, when his organ composition destroys the cathedral he premieres it in! (It already had cracked ceilings and masonry.)

    Also, somebody mentioned the composer in Gravity’s Rainbow, Webern is mentioned several times in that book, and a conspiracy theory evinced, which claims that the Americans had Anton rubbed out because they’re seeking to decrease the amount of order in the music universe.

    And once again, not sure how I forgot it, since he’s one of my favorite creepy authors and we used to live in his Brooklyn apartment – H.P. Lovecraft’s The Music of Eric Zann, has a violinist composer who is haunted by an extra-somethingorother being in his apartment who produces insane alien music at night. It’s a must read for any composer who’s into the bizarre.


  11. An excerpt:

    Yet when I looked from that highest of all gable windows, looked while the candles sputtered and the insane viol howled with the night-wind, I saw no city spread below, and no friendly lights gleamed from remembered streets, but only the blackness of space illimitable; unimagined space alive with motion and music, and having no semblance of anything on earth. And as I stood there looking in terror, the wind blew out both the candles in that ancient peaked garret, leaving me in savage and impenetrable darkness with chaos and pandemonium before me, and the demon madness of that night-baying viol behind me.

    I staggered back in the dark, without the means of striking a light, crashing against the table, overturning a chair, and finally groping my way to the place where the blackness screamed with shocking music. To save myself and Erich Zann I could at least try, whatever the powers opposed to me. Once I thought some chill thing brushed me, and I screamed, but my scream could not be heard above that hideous viol. Suddenly out of the blackness the madly sawing bow struck me, and I knew I was close to the player. I felt ahead, touched the back of Zann’s chair, and then found and shook his shoulder in an effort to bring him to his senses.

  12. Lisa says:

    The male lead in the recent movie Juno.

  13. while we’re doing quotes:

    The orchestra board still had to find someone to fill in for the late conductor. In two days.

    “Well, who or what can we use as a substitute?” Mary fretted. “We spent so much on ads, on promotions — we can’t just fill it in with some kind of symposium. We have to have some kind of gimmick, or we might as well call the whole season a loss right now.”

    “Call Paul Mendnelson,” Mark suggested. Mendnelson was the orchestra’s Composer-In-Residence. “The Triple Concertino we commissioned from him isn’t due ’till the fall. Still, if he’s finished one of the movements, or two, maybe we can premiere it as –oh, I don’t know, a ‘sneak preview’ or something.”

    “That’s not good planning, Mark. It stinks, actually,” Mary shot back. Mark nodded: she was right, as usual. He turned to Bea, “Call Paul anyway. Maybe he has something else to suggest, something we could use.”

    “Like what? You think composers have unperformed symphonies lying around in the kitchen closet, next to the tea and the sugar?” Bea huffed.

    “Most of them do, actually,” he answered. “Call him. He might have a suggestion of something –or someone– else we can use in a pinch.”

    Bea got on the phone. It was getting late but that hardly mattered with Paul. He was the sort of person that was just setting down to coffee at that hour. He insisted that he composed better after midnight. His neighbors rarely agreed.

    A somewhat lazy, low midwestern drawl answered the phone. “H’lo?”

    “Paul? I’m sorry to be calling you this late—”

    “Not at all. I was just making some salad for dinner.”

    She cast a disbelieving glance at the clock. It was nearly eleven. “Okay,” she said, shaking her head.

    It turned out that Paul had heard the news about Klipop’s death on the radio, and she filled him in on the rest. When she asked him about the Triple Concertino, he gave her the bad news.

    “I’ve started on all three movements,” he said, “but they’re none of them finished. It’d be a weird concert with the three instruments and the orchestra starting out at full tilt, and then tapering off into an embarrassed silence after a few minutes…. Three times.”

    She agreed. “You’re right. That wouldn’t be good.”

    “We could call the piece ‘Coitus Interruptus,’ I suppose, but I don’t imagine your board of directors would like something with that title being billed as ‘A Work In Progress, for Soloists and Orchestra’.”

    He chuckled away at the receiver; she waited patiently, straight-faced, for him to stop. She wasn’t in the mood. “Isn’t there a piece you’ve got somewhere that we could advertise as a world premiere?” she asked. “Think, Paul: we’re really up the creek here. We need to counteract some bad press we’re expecting to get…”

    There was a long pause at the other end, and then he asked suddenly, “Do you know Richard Strauss’s Enoch Arden?”

    “I don’t know. Maybe. What about it?”

    “I can give you a premiere.”

    “Of what?” she asked. “A Strauss Tone Poem? Oh, Paul, please, this is serious. You do not have a long-buried tone poem of Richard Strauss in your basement or attic to premiere –”

    “It’s not a tone poem. It was a piece he wrote when he was a young man, for narrator and piano. Mostly narrator.”

    “But we need a new orchestral piece–”

    He interrupted her. “Beatrice. Shush. Let me finish. Please.” She shushed, and he went on to explain.

    “Somewhere in the basement I’ve kept part of my thesis project. It was an orchestration of the piano part of Arden. The original work was always a bit oddly shaped; Enoch Arden’s got a half-hour of narrator, but only twenty minutes of music. That’s pretty unwieldy. And I can’t vouch for the quality of my contribution to it. After all, I wrote it forty years ago; perhaps that’s why I’ve never peddled the thing to anyone. But you’re free to use it if you want. You do need a good actor for the role, though, since there’s only twenty minutes of music.”

    “It’ll do for an emergency,” Bea breathed a sigh of relief. “Thanks, Paul. Please see if you can find it…”

    She slammed down the phone and turned to Mark and Mary. “I’m going over to see Karl.”

    Mary was busy rewriting the concert programme and looked up. “Karl Colliers? But we just used him in October for a Children’s Concert.”

    “Well, we’re using him again,” she said, and put on her raincoat. He was another one she knew was always up late, and she fled out the door and into her car.

    (from my novel, most of which is on my webpage. I’ll shut up now.)

  14. Kyle Gann says:

    There was a lousy movie in the ’70s called Lipstick, with a main-character composer who was a serial rapist named – are you ready for this? – Sean Gage. (Sound like John Cage, anyone?)

  15. Rodney Lister says:

    My favorite fictional composer is in Vainglory by Ronald Firbank. His name is Winsome Brooke. He’s a sort of society composer who is always playing excerpt from his operas a various people’s salons in London. The pieces mentioned are the Pas of the Barefooted Nuns and the Song of Paraletics. He doesn’t like his name, which he thinks is too ordinary, and he wants to change it to Rose de Tivoli, which he think is a name of genius. (To quote Anna Russell, I’m not making this up, you know.) (I once met someone who had just read The Swimming Pool Library by Alan Hollinghust–he had assumed that Firbank, who figures in the book prominently, was a fictional writer.)

    I don’t remember the name, but there’s the electronic composer played by John Hurt in a movie called, I think, The Shout. He’s always recording the sound of bees in coke bottles and the implication is that he presents those sounds, without any kind of manipulation, as his work. Alan Bates is also in it as a person who’s gone to Australia and learned from the aborigines how to do a fatal shout. It’s set in an insane assylum in England, and is based on a story by Robert Graves.

    One of the main characters in The Red Shoes is a composer–he’s in love with the woman who I suppose is the main character, who’s a dancer. The movie opens with a scene where he’s gone to hear his teachers new ballet, and when it starts he realizes that it’s his music which his teacher has plagiarized.

    There’s also a composer, who’s supposed to be based on Constant Lambert in A Dance to the Music of Time, but I can’t remember his name.

    There’s also a composer, who’s name I also can’t remember, in Pictures From An Institution by Randall Jarrell. He’s a german refugee, who’s a twelve-tone composer. There’s a description of a piece which an homage to Bach, whose first movement is for, for instance, Bassoon, Bagpipe, Bugle, etc., and whose second movement is for Accordion, Alp horn, etc. He is apparently always pointing to a Henry Moore sculpture on the grounds of the college the book is set in, and saying, “That is how we will all look when the state has vithered avay.”

  16. Did anyone mention PDQ Bach? He’s fictional (although his works are real, of course)..

  17. Good grief, I’d almost forgotten. The title character of Karel Capek’s last novel (which his widow finished), “The Cheat,” is about a composer without a single, original thought in his head, and steals everything from other (and poorer) composers. (I did illustrations for it around the time I illustrated the Slonimsky book, but no one’s republished “The Cheat” since it’s only English appearance in the late 30′s.) It’s a well-written, comical piece of work, and the bogus composer’s life is related entirely by those who knew him — each person has a chapter to themselves (including his ex-wife). Some are onto him immediately, some are still talking about him as if he had been a great man. It’s worth a search.

  18. Cary Boyce says:

    Red Skelton played composer Harry Ruby in “Three Little Words” with Fred Astaire and Vera Ellen.

  19. Jose Gonzalbez says:

    Vonnegut writes about the lost of confidence of a composer because a machine do it his job better than him. Maybe was Breakfast of Champions?

  20. Anthony Cheung says:

    Although Mann’s Aschenbach is a writer, he was initially inspired by Mahler, which is probably why Visconti chose to portray him as such in the film version of “Death in Venice.” There’s a scene where he’s laboring over some new piece in a burst of sudden inspiration, and we hear excerpts from Mahler 3. And there’s the ubiquitous use of the Adagietto from the 5th throughout.

    In Woody Allen’s “Melinda and Melinda,” one of the main characters is a composer named Ellis Moonsong, who’s written successful operas premiered at Yale and Santa Fe. At one point he drags his lady friends to a recording session of the Shanghai SQ playing Bartók 4.

  21. Michelle says:

    Autumn Rush

  22. Michelle says:

    Oops! it’s August Rush

  23. Rusty says:

    In Red and Blue of Kieslowski’s THREE COLORS and in the DOUBLE LIFE of VERONIQUE the fake baroque guy is Van Den Budenmayer.

  24. Rusty says:

    Oh, and there was a composer that moved to the colony of pouty-lipped land-barons in Ayn Rand’s ATLAS SHRUGGED. Can’t remember the name…

  25. Ethan says:

    Robert Frobisher
    Cloud Atlas
    David Mitchell

  26. Chris Hertzog says:

    Johannes Wright, the protagonist of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel, “The Memory Of Whiteness.” Set in the 4th millennium, Wright plays an instrument which is essentially a one-man orchestra. Robinson displays a remarkable sympathy to composers and performers, despite not being a musician himself. On a somewhat related note, his short novel “The Blind Geometer” accurately invokes more postwar 20th-century composers than any novelist I’ve ever read. I met Robinson once and asked him how he knew so much about 20th-century composers, and he told me that his author/composer friend Carter Scholz turned him on to modern music, and Scholz was able to answer musical questions Robinson had when writing about music. Robinson also told me that Tod Machover wanted to turn The Memory of Whitness into an opera (Machover tracked Robinson down when planning Valis because Robinson’s dissertation was on Philip K Dick’s novels).

    If we’re allowing movie characters, then what about the electronic music composer, Anthony Fielding, the unfortunate protagonist of The Shout?

  27. In Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Unconsoled,” there is a fantastic, if none-too-flattering, portrait of a tyrannical avant-garde composer who lords it over the musical establishment in the unnamed European city. Been years since I first read the book when it came out–anyone remember the name of the composer?

  28. Also, the main character in Cory Doctorow’s “Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom” is a basically immortal cyborg who talks about having written several symphonies. Also, one of the character’s in Vonnegut’s “Galapagos” tells his love interest that he has written three symphonies in order to bed her.

  29. “Characters”–when did I forget how to punctuate?

  30. What about Marta, Gerald Samper’s arch-nemesis and sometimes collaborator James Hamilton-Paterson’s Cooking with Fernet Branca, Amazing Disgrace, and Rancid Pansies. And Giambatta in Balzac’s The Unknown Masterpiece (I think). And what about Simon Silber in the book of the same name (retitled to something else that escapes me)? And Kit in The Sheltering Sky.

    And all concerned here, do be aware of a book coming hence by a British writer (himself a composer) all about a modern-day Gesualdo. I say no more.

  31. Cato the ELder says:

    The Phantom of the Opera is a composer: he composed a violin concerto, at least in the Claude Rains/Nelson Eddy version.

    In Visconti’s movie version of Death in Venice, Aschenbach is a composer: in the short story, he is a writer.