The Music of The Children Act

Music features prominently in Ian McEwan’s new book The Children Act. The book’s protagonist Fiona Mayes, a family court judge, is also an accomplished pianist, and both she and her husband Jack are lovers of jazz.  Almost every important moment in the book, aside from the first scene and Fiona’s time in the courtroom, occurs while music is being played or listened to.

I love how McEwan weaves the musical themes seamlessly throughout the story, informing character, time and place. I listened to the Audible book (a fabulous performance by Linsday Duncan), and found myself wishing that someone had thought to add a score to the recording.

For those of you reading the Children Act and also wondering what it might sound like, here are some recordings and a little context from the novel.

Bach’s Second Partita in C Minor for Keyboard

I loved this passage, as Fiona walks to work, trying to distract her thoughts from her failing marriage by recalling the Bach Partita, a distraction that of course, fails.


The inevitable thought recurred as she moved on to the demanding fugue she had mastered, for love of her husband, and played at full tilt, without fumbling, without failing to separate the voices. Yes, her childlessness was a fugue it itself. A flight. This was the habitual theme she was trying now to resist. A flight from her proper destiny. A failure to become a woman, as her mother understood the term.

How she arrived at her state was a slow patterned counterpoint, played out with Jack over two decades, dissonances appearing then retreating, always reintroduced by her in moments of alarm, even horror, as the fertile years slipped by, until they were gone, and she was almost too busy to notice.

Down by the Sally Gardens

Fiona visits a young man with leukemia in the hospital as she tries to decide if the court will force him, a Jehovah Witness, to take blood products that will save his life.  In a very non-judicial moment, as he plays Down by the Sully Gardens on his violin, she sings along. That moment and that song decide the case for her, sealing his fate and binding them together in a way she had never anticipated.

Keith Jarret – Facing You – (First track) In Front

Jarrett ‘s Facing You was “one of three or four albums that formed the soundtrack” of Fiona and Jack’s early relationship. Jack now uses the album to begin to bring them back together.

..the technical facility, the effortless outpouring of lyrical invention as copious as Mozart’s, and here it was again after so many years, still holding her to the spot, reminding her of who she and Jack once playfully were.

Hector Berlioz: Les Nuitsd’ete – Villanelle  / Gustav Mahler Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen (I Am Lost to the World)

The book culminates in a live performance by Fiona and a tenor colleague, a performance that coincides with her learning of the fate of the young boy. The combination of such beauty and such sadness in the two pieces they perform mirror the young man perfectly.

I have become lost to the world, where I used to waste so much time;
It has been so long since it heard from me, that it may well think that I have died!
I don’t care if it thinks me dead, for I really have died to the world.
I have died to all the world’s turmoil, and I rest in a silent realm.
I live in solitude in my heaven, In my love, in my song.

7 Responses to The Music of The Children Act

  1. I just finished this beautiful book Xmas Eve and decided to try to find the music on YouTube today to enhance my enjoyment. But that wasn’t even necessary! Thanks so much for posting this. The Salley Gardens song was particularly poignant.

  2. Thanks–this is perfect! I am just coming to the end, the last 10 or so pages, and wondered if anyone had brought the music together in an accessible way. Well, you sure did! This is just excellent–thank again!

  3. Thank you, I have just read the book and gave it on to some friends, and forgott to wright down the music, thanks too you I found it.Perfect

  4. From an anonymous commenter –
    hank you for the list. It saved me the trouble of having to compile one myself.

    However you forget to include Schubert’s “An die Musik.” I wanted to post this to your blog but it appears you don’t accept anonymous comments.

    “Again, the applause, the faint bows, and now, the calls for an encore. There was even some foot-stamping, which began to grow louder. […] From their selection of pieces committed to memory, they had already agreed on Schubert’s ‘An die Musik.’ An old favorite. It never failed. She placed her hands in preparation on the keys but still she did not look up. The silence in the hall was complete, and finally she began. The ghost of Schubert may have blessed the introduction she played, but the rising three notes, a broken chord tenderly echoed lower, and again lower still, then resolving, belonged to another hand. In the quiet reiterated notes that pulsed in the background there may have been a gesture toward Berlioz. Who knew? Even Mahler’s song, in its melancholy acceptance, may have subliminally helped Britten in this setting. […] He had just seconds to rearrange his thoughts, but as he drew breath he was smiling and his tone was sweet, and sweeter
    still in the second verse.

    In a field by the river my love and I did stand,
    And on my leaning shoulder she laid her snow-white hand.
    She bid me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs;
    But I was young and foolish, and now am full of tears.”

    To refresh your memory, at this moment it seems that Fiona suddenly senses that Adam is dead. She flees the concert, walks home in a rainstorm, phones the social worker Marina Greene and learns the truth.

  5. This is just to say that I too am so grateful to you for doing the work I was about to do. I had determined to write a paper analyzing McEwan’s use of music in his fiction, and was about to research the various pieces mentioned in The Children Act, when on impulse I decided first to Google whether anything had already been written about music in that novel, and much to my surprise, there it was, your comments with the musical accompaniments. Thanks again.

  6. Also listened to the audible book and agree completely that they should include a music track, being that the music is so fundamental to the story.

    Thank you for the compilation, brings this amazing book to life!

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