Sir Christopher Ondaatje is an adventurer, bestselling author and philanthropist. He was in the Canadian bobsled team at the 1964 Winter Olympics, founded the hugely successful publisher, Pagurian Press, has written 10 books, including biographies of Ernest Hemingway and explorer Richard Burton, and is a Honorary Vice President of the Royal Geographical Society. He is also an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, where he has given his name to the annual Ondaatje Prize, awarded for a ‘work of fiction, non-fiction or poetry, evoking the spirit of a place’.

But his latest book is about music – and how it enchants and beguiles us. Bringing together some of the best writings on music by authors from Somerset Maugham and Chekhov to Roald Dahl and EM Forster, the book also features Sir Christopher’s new short story, Love Duet, a surprising and exotic tale of love and music, which will be published exclusively in The Lady over two parts. It begins here… 

Part 1

Not long ago I accompanied a friend who is a professional music critic to a concert at London’s Wigmore Hall. He had mentioned that the Dorino Duo were going to perform there, and I had immediately agreed to go, because I have long admired them. In fact I wouldn’t have missed the concert for the world, because to me no chamber duo can match the Dorino Duo for beauty of expression and depth of musicianship. Not only is their stage presence captivating and their ability to communicate the joy of music-making to their audience unrivalled, they also have an astonishing personal story, which I eventually got to hear from their very own lips. Of course, my critic friend knew only about their performances, nothing about their remarkable private life.

The first time I heard the Dorino Duo was about 10 years ago in the Utzon Room of the Sydney Opera House, one of the world’s most beautiful small performance spaces, overlooking the waters of Sydney Harbour, while I was in Sydney to give some lectures about my travels in the East. I still remember their unusual musical programme. They played a brief sonata by the Spanish composer Joaquín Turina that combined classical restraint with an intoxicating dash of Andalusia, then a short sonata by Mozart, then Bartók’s Rumanian folk dances for viola and piano, and fi nally two arrangements by Alessandro Lucchetti based on Puccini’s Tosca and La Bohème.

Everything was performed with a delightful exuberance and panache, but the interpretations were never superfi cial or exaggerated, always meticulous and expressive. The performance seemed to appeal to all of the audience’s senses at once. Almost from the beginning, we were enchanted by the spontaneous freshness of the music and the eclectic choice of pieces. It was no wonder, I remember thinking, that the Duo had already enjoyed resounding acclaim in many parts of the world.

As an encore, they gave us two emotional pieces by the American composer William Perry, Berliner Lied for viola and piano, and Broadway Ballet, which form part of more than 200 scores written by Perry for the New York Museum of Modern Art’s silent film collection. Perry is a supreme melodist and the Duo had the gift of making just the right harmonic gestures at critical moments, lifting what was a wonderful tune from being something merely sentimental to the level of the intensely romantic. They seemed to have an uncanny ability to evoke bygone places and periods – Berlin and New York in the 1920s – with the most simple and direct of musical gestures. By the end of the concert, I freely admit that that I had fallen under their spell.

The Dorino Duo, Fiametta and Fiorenza, are twin sisters from Venice. Even if you didn’t know this fact about them, it would be easy to guess it, not only from their similar looks but also from their evident intimacy: the special connection that is often seen in twins, like two peas in a pod. To me the sisters seemed to operate in perfect synchrony.

Their musical training reflects this relationship. Fiametta Dorino started to play the piano when she was seven. At the age of 12, she attended the Swiss Italian Music Academy in Lugano, then the Musikhochschule in Zurich, and fi nally the well-known International Piano Academy in Imola, Italy, where she graduated with a Master’s degree, playing as a duo with Fiorenza. Her favourite composers at this time were Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, Mozart and Bach.

Fiorenza also started playing – violin and viola – when she was seven. She too graduated at the Swiss Italian Music Academy before going to the Musikhochschule in Zurich and winning a Concert Diploma with top marks and a distinction. Then she graduated from the International Music Academy in Imola alongside Fiametta. Her chief inspirations were earlier violinists: Jascha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin and Ginette Neveu, the Frenchwoman who died so tragically young in an air crash in 1949.

However, the twin sisters didn’t start playing together seriously until their 21st year. Soon after their debut in Italy as the Dorino Duo, they embarked on a youthful concert tour with grace, bravura and originality, which quickly led to an increasing demand for their performances around the world. It was at this time that I heard them play in Sydney.

Now, a decade later, there must have been at least 500 people sitting in the Wigmore Hall, watching the two musicians on the familiar small raised stage beneath the hall’s cupola and mural depicting the Soul of Music. The acoustics were superb, as always for chamber music at the Wigmore. Once again, I found myself enthralled.

The Duo’s programme was, as usual, exceptionally varied. First came Manuel de Falla’s Suite Populaire Espagnole for violin and piano, written in Paris by the Spanish composer in 1914, derived from his earlier Canciones Populares Españolas for voice and piano. Quite wonderfully, it preserved the melodies of the traditional Spanish songs, harmonising them with piano accompaniments using natural overtones to accompany the notes of the melodies. Then came some film-related music, Amarcord by Nino Rota, a fantasy from Federico Fellini movies arranged by Lucchetti. Then Isaac Albéniz’s Hojas De Album Opus 165 España, which was rather dry and quite brief but very typical of Albéniz’s modal harmonies and his idiomatic suggestions of popular folk themes. After this there was a complete change: the Duo played Frank Bridge’s rather sad Allegro Appassionato and Pensiero, which I thought combined an extraordinary treatment of rhythm by Fiametta and a highly emotional performance by Fiorenza on her viola. Then, Bedrvich Smetana’s symphonic symphonic poems, Má Vlast. Finally, there was a reprise, at least for me, of Lucchetti’s fantasy based on La Bohème. I have heard the versatile Lucchetti’s compositions many times, but this arrangement, which had been written specially for the Dorino Duo, never fails to exert its magic. When it was over, I felt emotionally drained, hardly able to move, definitely not in the mood to go and congratulate the Duo, as I normally do after a performance.

My critic friend must have felt the same, because he didn’t speak. We said nothing to each other for several minutes, as we watched the audience get up from their seats and gradually, in good order, file their way sideways to the corridors that led to the Wigmore Hall exits. And then, for some inexplicable reason, breaking the spell I remarked: ‘They have a secret, you know.’

‘What?’ my friend asked. I didn’t say anything.

‘What secret?’ he asked again.

‘You know the twins quite well. You’ve chatted to them many times at parties after concerts,’ I said. ‘Surely you must have wondered how two such incredibly attractive and talented women could manage their busy working lives, constantly on tour under the spotlight, without apparently ever arguing or fighting or even having a serious difference of opinion.’

‘The thought has crossed my mind occasionally,’ he admitted. ‘But they seem so perfectly content and in tune with each other that I really didn’t give it much thought.’

‘Well, you’re right. And that’s the way it was until about eight years ago when they were on a tour of Pakistan and India, and staying at the Taj Mahal Hotel overlooking Apollo Bunder in Mumbai, what used to be called Bombay. They had just finished their last concert in one of the halls at the National Centre for the Performing Arts and were at the small reception party that usually follows such affairs, when they were both introduced to a man. In international academic circles, Rustom Irani is quite well known as an archaeologist interested in the ancient Indus Valley civilization. But in Mumbai he is best known as the head of a wealthy Parsee family with a love of the arts, especially western classical music. Over the years, like many Parsee families, the Iranis have sponsored many local scholars and artists, including composers. Irani was also a widower, eminently eligible, an attractive man with a light complexion, lean and athletic with an aquiline nose and chiselled features – what you might call an aristocratic look. Perhaps in his late 40s. He and Fiametta hit it off immediately. But it was fairly obvious that Fiorenza, too, was equally taken with Rustom.

‘Now remember, this was the end of the Duo’s tour, their last concert in the subcontinent. So the three of them spent the greater part of the rest of the evening together. When the party finally broke up, they arranged to meet the following day for lunch at the Taj.

‘You can imagine the guarded conversation between them in the hotel that night. Until now, they had had differences of opinion over music and concert schedules and that sort of thing, but never a difference over a man. Of course, both of them had had relationships with men, but these had never amounted to much. Their lives had been far too busy.

‘Now, very suddenly, when they were both heading for musical fame, each had met a man to whom she was seriously attracted, and a competition was inevitable. Although nothing was said that evening, both knew that such a rivalry could erupt and disrupt their partnership, and even possibly threaten their musical careers for ever…’

To be continued next week…

Extracted from Love Duet And Other Curious Stories About Music, selected by Christopher Ondaatje, published by Rare Books And Berry, priced £19.95.