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Fugitive Pieces - Role of Music in the Book

Updated on October 21, 2011

In Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels, music helps make the sadness bearable. It relieves, even if only temporarily, the horrible feeling of surviving while others had died. It brings back memories of a time before any of the horrible events of the Holocaust even happened. Music has a strong power to influence emotions and behavior. The influence of music is evident throughout Fugitive Pieces.

Music liberates feelings crippled or insensible by events that occurred in the past. Throughout the novel, Jakob is haunted by the dream of his musically talented sister Bella being taken by the Nazis as he lay hidden behind a wall. Because of this event, Jakob has a hard time remembering Bella. He uses music as a way to connect with his childhood memories, without having to think about the haunting ones. Many of Jakob’s memories of his sister Bella revolve around music: “During dinner she’d made her secret choice of music, usually slow, romantic, yearning with sorrow” (24). Jakob remembers his sister’s musical talent and how she would stun his family with her passion for the piano. The title of the novel even suggests remembered piano exercises, which stresses the importance of music in the book.

As Jakob grows, he realizes that music helps him to unlock feelings of his past: “To listen to music alone and in public, like dining alone in a restaurant, seemed a strange and embarrassing activity, yet after Bearing False Witness was published, it became my habit to walk there once or twice a week, after dinner” (127). Jakob visits the music library on a weekly basis and listens to all of the composers, hoping that a piece of music will help him with his memories of Bella. Music helps Jakob escape and fall into a more happy time when he was with his family. He uses music as a type of therapy for the purpose of getting past his own emotional disturbance surrounding their death. Using music to remember emotions, people, and places of the past, Jakob is able to fill his blocked memory.

Through his frequent visits to the music library, Jakob meets a woman named Alexandra, who he eventually marries. Alexandra had a passion for music: “She was a professional listener. She went to the symphony, the jazz clubs, she heard recordings and could identify who was playing cornet or the piano after a few bars” (130). With Jakob’s new found interest in music, Alex seemed to be the perfect match. Alex and Bella both have a passion for music, and that is why Jakob falls for Alex. She reminds him of his sister; his relationship with Alex furthers his memories of Bella: “Now we hear the river and move towards it, the swirls and eddies of Brahms’s Intermezzo No. 2 that descend, descend, andante non troppo, rising only in one final gust” (125). Alex brings back memories of Bella that Jakob had forgotten. “Like my childhood encounter with the tree, I stare a long time at Alex’s silk robe hanging from the bedroom door, as if it is my sister’s ghost” (125). After Bella was taken by the Nazis, Jakob could only remember this event. Now that Alex has come into his life, he remembers his past with Bella, and the wonderful musical memories that they shared together.

The Nazis negatively affected the memory of millions of people: “Their arms were into death up to the elbows, but not only into death—into music, into memory of the way a husband or son leaned over his dinner, a wife’s expression as she watched her child in the bath; into beliefs, mathematical formulas, dreams” (52). Many people like Jakob had to find a way to look past this negative time in their life. The Nazis ruined memory. Jakob finds a path to his memories through music. He relies on it to think, remember, and explain: “To be proved true, violence need only occur once. But good is proved true by repetition. I must keep the same tempo into the pianissimo” (162). Jakob analyzes the Holocaust and relates his inferences to something his sister said once about music.

Jakob’s relationship with Athos also advanced his memories of music and his family. While watching Athos at his reading desk in the evenings, Jakob saw “my mother sewing at the table, my father looking through the daily papers, Bella studying her music” (19). Any given moment is full of life. “No matter the age of the face, at the moment of death a lifetime of emotion still unused turns a face young again” (19). Jakob finds this emotion when he listens to different composers. Music is universal. Every composer is different. It can evoke lost emotions within.

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Jakob isn’t the only person influenced by music in Fugitive Pieces. Ben grew up listening to music with his father on Sunday evenings: “I listened to music with my father in the living room” (215). Ben learned about his father’s life through music, and his father taught him lessons through the music: “His attention dissolved each piece to its theoretical components like an X-ray, emotion the grey fog of flesh. He used orchestras—other people’s arms and hands and breath—to signal me; a wordless entreaty, all meaning pressed into chords” (215). Ben’s father listened to the music as if it was the story of his life and Ben was able to see the troubles of his father’s time in the death camps through the music. “Beethoven with the storm of the Sixth in his face, pacing in the forest and fields of Heiligenstadt, the real storm at his back, at my father’s back, mud weighing down his feet like overshoes, the shrill, desperate cry of a bird in the rainy trees” (216). Ben’s father listened to the music as if it were the theme song to his life. Listening to music with his father was the only time Ben felt as though he was receiving attention. Ben’s father would talk to him about the music “and the following week we’d go back to the version we knew and loved like a face, a place. A photograph” (217). The music, similar to a photograph, triggered the memories.

Along with Ben’s father’s love of music came piano lessons; however, Ben dreaded these lessons: “his demand for perfection had the force of a moral imperative, each correct note setting order against chaos, a goal as impossible as rebuilding a bombed city, atom by atom” (219). Ben tried his hardest to please his father with music, but to no avail. His father eventually gave up trying to teach him. On a Sunday at the lake after seeing the look in his father’s eyes at a small rock, Ben realized that he “had less power to please him than a stone” (219). Once shared music time was gone, there was nothing left to make Ben feel closer to his father. They had nothing in common anymore. Music was the only circumstance that brought them together.

Ben’s wife Naomi has a passion for music as well: “She loved music and listened to everything, Javanese gamelan, Georgian choirs, medieval hurdy—gurdy” (237). Ben shared a similar relationship involving music with Naomi as he did with his father. Naomi constantly talked of music and different lullabies. When Ben asked Naomi what songs she thought of when she thought of his parents, she replied “For both your parents, ‘Night.’ Yes, ‘Night.’…Well because they heard Liuba Levitska sing it in the ghetto” (240). Songs related to the Holocaust are better understood by those who went through the Holocaust. Music frees all memories, even the bad ones: “The only thing you can do for the dead is to sing to them…that little song is all that’s left to tell us of that child….”(241). Music is the only source of remembrance left.


“And you disappear into a piece of music, a chest of drawers, perhaps a hospital record or two, and you slip away, forsaken even by those who claimed to love you most” (243).

Works Cited

Michaels, Anne. Fugitive Pieces. Vintage, 1998. 19-243. Print.

Novel, Movie, Music


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