Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer

English music admits no scandal. Nothing ever happened. Purcell and the prostitutes? A load of Westminster tittle-tattle. Elgar and the betting ring? Not a scintilla of proof. Britten and the little boys at bathtime?

You see what I mean? Nothing happened. Or, if it did, the matter was compressed behind lips stiffer than an Anglican dog collar and consigned to a biographical footnote on a university press. English music is made respectably of pomp and circumstance, unlike that salacious foreign pottage of unruly composers' lives.

Every now and then a choirmaster gets sent to jail, but that's the English vice. To find improper conduct among composers in our cabbage patch, you need to mingle with the lower ranks of creative life that clustered in jittery 1920s London, when anything went and shell shock had rendered an entire generation constitutionally unshockable.

The lubricious William Walton hung out with wacky Sitwells in Façade. Arnold Bax had a flamboyant mistress and E J Moeran was a drunk. Lord Berners painted his pigeons pink. Percy Grainger pierced his skin with ironware, while Cecil Gray and Philip Heseltine (who composed as Peter Warlock) dabbled in the occult. Heseltine was found dead with the gas on, a sliver of suspicion pointing at his composing pal, the forgettable Bernard van Dieren.

Heseltine has materialised in fiction several times - unmistakably as Halliday in D H Lawrence's Women in Love, and as Maclintick in Anthony Powell's Casanova's Chinese Restaurant. His seedy life is such a caricature of English bohemianism that when I saw his goateed doppelgänger sketched on the proof cover of Wesley Stace's novel, I feared yet another pastiche and prepared to make polite excuses when asked to review it. That would have been my considerable loss and, consequentially, yours.

Nothing in recent fiction prepared me for the power and the polish of this subtle tale of English music in the making, a chiller wrapped in an enigma. A young composer, Charles Jessold, is found shot dead in June 1923 in a cul-de-sac off Kensington High Street, lying beside a bed in which his soprano wife and her lover lie entwined, and expired.

The tragedy follows the dress rehearsal of Jessold's opera Little Musgrave, a work that is all hyped up to put English opera back on the map of Europe for the first time since Purcell's wife locked him out (supposedly) to catch his death in a cold night street. The new opera, based on
a folk song, recounts the tale of a mighty lord who slays his wife and her lover on returning from the hunt to find them in bed, before falling on his own sword.

The intertwining of these wretched ends fuels a ten-day tabloid scandal and hardly seems to be the stuff of a substantial novel, but Stace stakes his ironic distance on the book's cover in a title wickedly taken from Gray and Heseltine's 1926 essay "Carlo Gesualdo Considered as a Murderer", about a medieval Italian composer who slew his wife in like circumstances. This novel, Stace implies, explores the troilist relation of art, life and crime at seminal moments in the history of music.

His narrator is Leslie Shepherd, a wealthy dilettante of a music critic, son-in-law of a press magnate, who befriends young Jessold, takes him cottaging after folk songs in the manner of Vaughan Williams and Holst, and writes the libretto of Jessold's breakthrough opera. The composer spends the First World War in German captivity and returns home an alcoholic. Despite his obvious decline, the critic cannot contain his excitement that the talent he discovered might, in their opera, yield a work more substantive than A Soda-Syphon Symphony and the popular Shandyisms suite, Jessold's previous efforts.

The story unfolds twice, concurrent and reflective, and at no point does the language lose period traction. The sound is practically note-perfect, and the conversation fizzes like drawing-room soda in late-afternoon light.

“I thought it would be beautiful and unique. Or eunuch."

The reader is shepherded - yes, every name here is metaphorical - through the major trends in 20th-century music, each described with easy clarity yet never disrupting a gripping narrative that twists and turns to the end. If there is one flaw, it is Shepherd's failure to transmit the power of Jessold's music as trenchantly as he conveys Schoenberg's second string quartet, the first night of Peter Grimes or, most tellingly, the plangent laments of Gesualdo, whose ghost stalks Jessold like Banquo's. Yet no sooner does this cavil rise in the mind than you realise what a feeble
critic this Shepherd is, a writer who cannot abandon past comforts to inhabit the dangerous present. He is an untrustworthy and impotent witness.

This is Stace's third novel and by far the most confident musical fiction I have read in years. The author, a pop musician with 15 albums and a Springsteen credit on his CV, leaves his mark on your inner ear in a way that is, as J M Keynes said when introducing state funding for the arts, "very English, informal, unostentatious" - and as authentic as jam tarts.

Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer
Wesley Stace
Jonathan Cape, 352pp, £16.99

Norman Lebrecht's latest book is "Why Mahler?" (Faber and Faber, £17.99). He won the 2002 Whitbread First Novel Award for his "Song
of Names" (Headline, £8.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Behind the mask