Classical music is at the heart of “The Prague Sonata” by Bradford Morrow. “The Prague Sonata” is a carefully researched historical novel about a handwritten eighteenth-century manuscript of a piano sonata with no indication of who the composer might be. Prague is the primary setting, both in the near past and present.
The novel takes the reader from the narrow academic world of musicology to the deprivation of war and the occupation of Prague in 1939, to 1989 and the Velvet Revolution, and into the 21st century.
It is a mystery which involves a hunt on two continents for the manuscript of a piano sonata torn into three sections and hidden at the beginning of World War ll. This is the story of two women, born 60 years apart and their pursuit to preserve and recover a sonata manuscript whose authorship is unknown.
In 1939, the Nazis invade Prague and begin looting Czechoslovakia’s cultural treasures. The first woman is 30- year-old Otylie Laska (Bartosova) who is forced to relinquish an 18th-century manuscript given to her when she was nine-years-old. Her father gives the manuscript to her the night he leaves to fight in World War l. A professor of piano at the Conservatory, he tells her “music is war and war is music.” Her father never returns.
Otylie’s husband, Jakub Bartos, a Jewish antiquarian, disappears to join the underground resistance. Before he leaves, Otylie splits up the manuscript into three parts to keep it out of the hands of the Nazis. She keeps one, sends the second to her husband via a messenger, and the third goes to her very best friend, Irena Svobodova, whom she has not heard from since the war forced them apart. Otylie manages to escape to England where she works for the Czech government in exile. She later moves to the United States to a Czech immigrant community.
This is how her fate eventually ties in with the activities of Meta Taverner.
The second woman is Meta Taverner, the protagonist who is a former concert pianist whose career was ended when one of her hands was injured in an automobile accident. Meta is now a credentialed musicologist, and, as it happens, performs volunteer piano recitals at an outpatient cancer facility in New York City. The year is now 2000 and Irena Svobodova (Dorfman) is dying. Irena was almost frantic to meet Meta after hearing her perform. Meta then visits this elderly Czech immigrant in Queens. Upon meeting her, Irena says to Meta “But for you to understand what I am to show you, for part of my past to have some future, I must tell you things hard for me to discuss.” This woman who had carried the manuscript so far needed now to pass it to someone else and the movement in her possession is entrusted to Meta. This gift comes with a request that Meta attempt to find the manuscript’s true owner. Meta is a persistent, intelligent determined woman with a real commitment to the truth of this manuscript.
Meta leaves on an unforgettable search from New York City, Queens to Nebraska and eventually Prague. Dr. Paul Mandelbaum, music scholar and professor emeritus of music at Columbia University, was Meta’s professor. He is her mentor and friend and, after examining the manuscript, gives her a list of musicologists in Prague who might assist her in locating the remaining movements of the manuscript. On this journey Meta discovers how the sonata impacted and influenced the course of many lives.
This novel about the sacrifice of a few, ordinary people working to preserve cultural heritage is an absorbing read. The musical, historical and cultural details create an absorbing story. The places, the names and the musical concepts lend an authentic tone to this mystery .The author’s knowledge and meticulous research of history, geography and music, art is outstanding.