Peter Claire is an English lutenist summoned to Denmark to join King Christian IV's royal orchestra. Designated the king's "Angel" because of the purity of his physical beauty, Peter falls helplessly in love with the lovely companion of Queen Kirsten, the king's adulterous wife. The young musician finds himself dangerously torn between loyalties, ensnared in the deep-seated unrest of a royal court where the forces of good and evil, of harmony and dissonance, are ensconced in a battle to the death.
The year is 1629, and King Christian IV of Denmark is living in a limbo of fear for his life and rage over his country's ruin, not to mention his wife's not-so-secret adultery. He consoles himself with impossible dreams and with music, the latter performed by his royal orchestra in a freezing cellar while he listens in his cozy chamber directly above. Music, he hopes, will create the sublime order he craves. The queen, meanwhile, detests nothing more. The duty of assuaging the king's miseries falls to his absurdly handsome English lutenist, Peter Claire, who resigns himself to his (so to speak) underground success:
They begin. It seems to Peter Claire as if they are playing only for themselves, as if this is a rehearsal for some future performance in a grand, lighted room. He has to keep reminding himself that the music is being carried, as breath is carried through the body of a wind instrument, through the twisted pipes, and emerging clear and sharp in the Vinterstue, where King Christian is eating his breakfast.... He strives, as always, for perfection and, because he is playing and listening with such fierce concentration, doesn't notice the cold in the cellar as he thought he would, and his fingers feel nimble and supple.