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Social Concerns / Themes

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Antonietta was written "for the fun of it," as Hersey says in his brief note at the beginning of the book. He begged forgiveness in advance from musicians and musicologists for his intrusion into their territory. However, most of the reviewers of the book were music critics, and they did not indulge him.

These readers found one of their unusual targets in the last section of the book. "Act Five" presents Spenser Ham, a tone deaf entrepreneur and insider trader who buys Antonietta at a Sotheby auction. Money, not music, is the chief passion of his life.

Some critics accused Hersey of preaching against the entrepreneurs of the era because making money was their only interest. Actually, Spenser Ham was very much like the other billionaires of the period who had created a new Gilded Age in American history. Ham used Antonietta to add elegance to his home as the nouveau riche of the 1870s and 1880s used artistic masterpieces. Ham collected modern art too with as little real appreciation of it as he had for music.

The contrast between the composition of beautiful music and the usually less than ideal characters of its creators is a constant theme. Some critics charge Hersey with reducing men of genius to the lowest common denominator, but the music itself was what really mattered, and music is the dominant theme of the book. Hersey was also tying to make his final novel a comedy. It is not surprising that over a long career of studying humans he might have decided that their comic traits were as least significant as their more serious ones.