Book Review: 'The Nightingale's Sonata' is tale of family, music

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"The Nightingale's Sonata: The Musical Odyssey of Lea Luboshutz" by Thomas Wolf is a sweepingly epic, beautiful tale that, while larger than life, is, in fact, an entirely true story. This biography/memoir is an attempt to find resolution, through the author's extensive family research, into the life and mysteries of his maternal grandmother, Lea Luboshutz, and her patron, Onissim Goldovsky. Luboshutz was an internationally renowned concert violinist, who performed C sar Francks's sonata for violin and piano to worldwide acclaim. The piece was the author's family "talisman, the touchstone of who we were and could be," embodied in the folklore and virtuoso musical presence of Luboshutz.

The story commences following the death of Wolf's mother, Irina "Irene" Goldovsky Wolf, when the author examines a gift she gave him late in life, a family heirloom, a silver podstakannik, or Russian tea-glass holder. The author had looked upon this object on the dinner table his entire life and admired its enameled portrait of two boys, but did not think much more about it until, at the time of his mother's death, he had it appraised. Not only did he learn that it was quite valuable, but upon discovering that the two boys were in fact his uncles, Yuri and Boris, the author embarks upon an unwavering search into its origins.

Ultimately, the revelations lead one to another, shedding greater light on the remarkable life of Luboshutz, and what her music meant to the world and his family. Wolf's research and riveting storytelling skill conjures just how his relatives participated and survived through some of the most tumultuous times in Russian history. The biography leads the reader, for the first time, through a celebratory telling of extraordinary lives, from engaging in dangerous politics to performing music in great concert halls and the drawing rooms of the wealthy. Every moment is balanced on musical excellence and how music transforms hearts. The completion of this book was important for the author. It solves more than one mystery about his family history in which music at its highest levels of accomplishment plays such a role.

"Le Rossignol," or The Nightingale, a 1717 Stradivarius violin, plays an enchanting part in the story when Luboshutz comes into possession of this extremely expensive and famously beautiful instrument, just when she must have it. The series of astounding circumstances that make this possible are represented in the biography as one of many fortuitous events that characterize his grandmother's remarkable destiny. The story spans the world of music, stretching from Russia to America, where the family finally settled. Luboshutz became a founding faculty of the Curtis Institute of Music.

At the core of this family history is the elusive C sar Franck's sonata for violin and piano. The piece has been a major part of the author's family history because Luboshutz was perhaps its most accomplished and expressive performer. It is an unusual piece because, "unlike almost every sonata that preceded it," the Franck sonata is composed of a single, central thematic idea that appears in all four movements. "Over the course of the work, the shape of this central idea is reinvented." The essential character of this music seems to somehow resonate in harmonic convergence with the dramatic and full lives of the author's family.

Colin Harrington is the events manager at The Bookstore & Get Lit Wine Bar in Lenox. He welcomes reader comments at charrington686@gmail.com.

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