The Universe in 3/4 Time by Leona Francombe

Is this not the most beautiful cover? Designed by Leona's son
Nicholas Maxson-Francombe

Some years ago I read Leona Francombe's first book The Sage of Waterloo. As the title hints it is a story about the Battle of Waterloo. Not the usual tale though, but from the views of a rabbit. A wonderful book that has so much to say, not only about rabbits, but also about the minds of people. When Leona asked if I wanted to read her new book, I did not hesitate. This time the story starts with an abandon piano in the street. 

"When a mysterious World War II piano appears on a Brussels street one winter’s night, no one could have imagined the events it would set in motion—least of all Audrey Nightingale, the pianist who comes across it. The instrument, of finest rosewood, bears the name of an obscure Czech manufacturer, and inside it, someone has carved a Pythagorean symbol.

Audrey convinces two musician friends to help her make sense of this portentous discovery. At the heart of their quest is an extraordinary man: Konstantine Zar, charismatic philosopher-musician from Prague who, during the darkest months of the Occupation in the 1940s, mesmerized his fellow students at the Brussels Conservatory with ideas of universal harmony and the redemptive power of music—antique concepts once revered that must, Zar urged, be revived, to counter the depravity and violence into which Europe was slipping.

From the cobbled backwaters of old Brussels to a Black Forest hideaway…from ghostly Prague to a remote cabin in the Pyrenees, Audrey and her companions set off to uncover the explosive truths behind the abandoned piano, a journey that illuminates not only Zar and his miraculous love story, but also forgotten secrets of music known to the ancients."

This story covers two time zones; present day and around 1940 during the German occupation of Belgium. We first meet three young musicians, The Kepler Players (Audrey, Florian and Jonas). Young, enthusiastic with an ambition to make a breakthrough in the world of music, they look for the nature and power of the music, seeking guidance with scientists Pythagoras and Kepler. 

"Florian was a Pythagorean. He believed, as Master Pythagoras had in the sixth century BC, that music and number ordered the universe; that the heavens echoed with a Great Theme as the planets swept along. Known as the Music of the Spheres, this starry concord resonated in every human soul." 

During the dark days of World War II and German occupation of Belgium, the young singer Olivia meets Konstantine Zar and they fall in love. Konstantine is a free soul, a philosopher of music. His believes, loud lectures and enthusiastic followers do not agree with the present regime. Konstantin is arrested and executed. Olivia goes on to become a world famous opera singer. 

In present time Brussels, the past is catching up when Audrey finds an abandon piano in the street. She hurries to her friend and colleague Florian to ask for help to collect the piano. When they return to the street it is gone. This is the beginning of a hunt for not only an exquisite piano, but also the truth of events happening long ago. Audrey suspects that the mysterious man she saw in the street might have taken the piano away. But who is he? And what is his interest in an old piano. Florian's aunt Olivia have a few answers and information about the Nahóda piano. 

The quest takes the trio (by this time the third member of the group Jonas has joined them) from Belgium to Germany, Prague and further to the Ardennes. They soon realise they are not the only ones interested in the piano. By the time they reach Prague and the piano maker, they know they are being watched. The piano maker gives them more clues to the former owner of the piano and this information takes them to the Ardennes. There they meet an old man, philosopher of music, who they hope will have answers to the mystery of the piano. Unfortunately, there are other interested partners turning up. A very unexpected and surprising ending gives this story an extra zest, as well as pulling the two stories together. 

"A piece of music is a journey. It begins with a single note or chord, like a first step. Music is also proof that the most profound journeys are those taken by the spirit."

Leona Francombe is not only an author but also a pianist and composer. Her novel is full of beautiful writing, love of music and science. As a pianist she knows what she is talking about. There are a lot of references to Pythagoras and Kepler, as regards their theories of music. The universe is nothing without music, but it is also part of a higher sphere.  

"Her heart ached for Kepler - for his endless struggle between the intellect and the soul...between science and the divine."

The backdrop of the love story is set in the old parts of Brussels, a German chateau and the old city of Prague. The settings are beautifully described, and in spite of it being an exciting story, the romantic surroundings add to the overall theme of the story. It is about love in dangerous times, of finding out what you want with your life, and the people you want to have in it. To find a higher meaning, and do the things that are closest to your heart. And what is life without music? 

"In the presence of Music, one is never alone."

I found it very difficult to review this book. It contains so much more that I am able to mention here. Leona's merging of music, science and nature and how they belong together. Inspiration from scientist such as Pythagoras and Kepler on how they thought music was connected to something bigger and not a separate entity. The novel is dedicated to music, and Leona, a musician herself, knows better than anyone how to tell its story.

There is a wonderful trailer for the book on Youtube - The Universe in 3/4 Time, where Leona Francombe plays her own composition 'Kepler's Waltz', a beautiful piece of music.

The Bulletin, an English speaking magazine in Brussels, has interviewed the author. Here she reveals her inspiration for the story.   

Leona Francombe offers zoom meetings for book clubs should you be interested in discussing the book. There are many interesting aspect of the story to discuss;  its multiple story lines, its themes of love, music, nature and science. If you are interested, please contact her via www.leonafrancombe.com



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