(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In Rose Tremain’s hypnotic portrayal of seventeenth century Denmark, the royal orchestra is obliged to perform in a freezing wine cellar. In 1629, as his political and personal life move inextricably toward disaster, the corpulent King Christian IV, with “a face like a loaf” and “who compulsively weighs the same pieces of silver over and over,” employs music to bring order to his tumultuous court, financially in ruin after the Thirty Years’ War. In his attempt to gain financial footing, King Christian, contemporaneous with Elizabeth I and James I and a relative of Charles I of England, jumps from one flawed scheme to another: a silver mine, a whale fleet, and even a bargain to pawn Iceland. Music soothes his soul and musical perfection becomes his obsession. In this effort, his multinational musicians play in a cold dark cellar directly underneath his cozy vinterstue, where he takes his meals, for the inimitable effect with which the sound rises into the music room through specially designed ducts. The king’s mad obsession with his much younger wife, Kirsten, continues unabated despite her flagrant adulterous affairs. Indeed, he will overlook her behavior even after she becomes pregnant with her lover’s child, if only she will once again give herself to him. The king also finds himself at odds with his own mother, Queen Sofie, who hoards gold in her wine casks in Elsinore behind her son’s back instead of bailing him out financially. In addition, King Christian finds himself obsessively tormented by memories of boyhood and his sudden ascension to the throne and, in particular, the memory of his Frederiksborg boyhood friend Bror Brorson. Full of rage, and in fear for his life, the king finds himself in dire need of a friendly companion.

Meanwhile, the defiant, self-indulgent royal consort, Kirsten, who detests music, experiences strikingly similar manic emotions. In her “private papers,” she records her sexual exploits with Count Otto Ludwig of Satin in deviant detail. Sadomasochistic sexual behavior colors this lustful, all-consuming relationship, and Kirsten weaves “Beautiful Plans” to rid herself of her husband and dominate her lover. In addition, she plots to seduce a pair of teenage African slave boys presented to her as a gift. A cold, self-centered woman, she completely disregards her children. A strong believer in “absence of luxury” for anyone but herself, she keeps her ladies-in-waiting in icy, dark rooms. At odds with her husband, and not sure of Count Otto’s intentions, she, like the King, requires a confidant.

Within a short time of each other, two personages arrive at this wildly dysfunctional Danish court: Peter Claire, the sublimely handsome blue-eyed British lutenist in the king’s underground orchestra, and the unassuming, gentle Emilia Tilsen, the newest lady-in-waiting to Kirsten.

As the newest member of the royal orchestra, Peter finds his way to the Danish court after a disappointing love affair with the Countess Francesca O’Fingal of Cloyne, Ireland. Employed by the countess to aid her deeply distressed husband in his obsession to recover an imagined heavenly piece of music, Peter finds himself deeply in love. At first, the lovers remain chaste, but eventually come to express their love physically. In light of the circumstances, Peter and the countess part. Peter also leaves behind his British family. His father, the Reverend James Wittaker Claire, dreadfully misses his son and wants once more to look upon his face to gladden his heart before he dies. He writes to his son with a job offer as choirmaster. Also, Peter’s sister Charlotte, who seems almost preternaturally attached to her brother, yearns for his return for her wedding to Sir George Middleton, an English squire.

Although initially appalled by his “imprisonment” in the dark, icy wine cellar, Peter adjusts in the company of his fellow musicians who fight against numb fingers by imagining their musical efforts as rehearsals for an ultimate grand performance in magnificent surroundings. Before long, the king senses something special in Peter’s musical ability to play the lute and summons him to play privately for his entertainment and comfort during the long, dark, Scandinavian winter evenings. After Peter manages to intelligently answer the king’s inquiries, the king comes to trust his English lutenist, and persuades him to never leave and to watch over him while he sleeps. Peter continues in his guardian angel role but finds life very lonely. His mind wanders at times to his Irish countess but only until the time he sees the royal consort’s newest lady-in-waiting picking flowers in the Rosenberg Castle’s...

(The entire section is 1905 words.)