The best classical music book releases of 2019

A round-up of the classical music novels, biographies and guides that have received five-star reviews this year in BBC Music Magazine

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Biographies

Michael Tippett: The Biography
Oliver Soden
W&N 978-1-474-60602-8 

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To anyone coming of musical age in 1970s Britain allegiances assumed a binary starkness. Britten or Tippett? The past, (so it seemed), or the future? Paradoxically whereas Britten’s stock subsequently soared, that of the composer Private Eye magazine dubbed ‘Sir Michael Withit’ bombed – a long-overdue revival only relatively recently gaining ground.

So, timely as well as dashing is Oliver Soden’s page-turner of a biography whose irresistible brio drills deep into a psychologically complex man, painting a portrait studded with fraught emotional entanglements and passionately held political affiliations. On both counts Soden’s formidable research is able to contradict previous erroneous claims and only occasionally does it threaten to overload the peripheries.

His verve and flair for lassoing a vivid simile are illuminating, and he’s happy to spice up the narrative with dissenting views. This, Soden readily admits, is ‘a life not a lifen- works’, (for the latter, Ian Kemp’s 1984 study remains the go-to); but, unashamedly approachable, buttressed by pertinent asides and telling insight, and un-putdownable, it crackles with a life force worthy of Tippett himself. 

Words by Paul Riley

 
 
 

Valentin Berlinsky: A Quartet for Life
Ed. Maria Matalaev 
Kahn & Averill 978-0-995-75740-0 
On so many levels, this is one of the most fascinating books I have ever read: a history of the legendary Borodin Quartet, not coincidentally packed with musical wisdom enlightening, or at least food for thought, to any musician. Furthermore, it’s a memoir of the extraordinary talent among both teachers and students of the Moscow Conservatory in the 1940s (Shostakovich, David Oistrakh and Rostropovich just some of the most famous); and – perhaps most intriguing of all – a candid portrait of the Borodin’s longstanding cellist, Valentin Berlinsky.

Readers may recall the memoir of another one-time key member of the Borodin, Rostislav Dubinsky’s Stormy Applause, in which Berlinsky is cast in a sinister light as a Stalinist stooge. Do put all prejudice aside and try this extraordinary memoircum- history from the man himself.

Conjured from a rich mix of sources – Berlinsky’s diary, reviews, interviews published for the first time – what emerges from the book is a profound musician fanatically dedicated to the quartet and the repertoire it excelled in. Anyone disappointed by their Christmas haul should not hesitate but treat themselves.

Words by Daniel Jaffé

 

 

Sir Henry Wood: Champion of JS Bach
Hannah French
Boydell Press 978-1-783-27385-0

Footnotes are often overlooked, yet in this meticulously researched exposé on Sir Henry Wood’s devotion to Bach’s music, they become a vital part of the reading experience. Out of countless examples, a mention on p58 of Hungarian violinist Adila Fachiri’s 1937 appearance in Brandenburg five, inspires a fascinating 300-word footnote that explores Fachiri’s appearances at the Proms, including performances of the Double Violin Concerto with her sister Jelly d’Arányi, and an insightful critique of a rare recording held in the British Library Sound Archive. 

The extensive appendix includes all manner of absorbing information, including a transcription of an affectionately colourful biographical lecture on Bach given by Wood in Nottingham in 1901. Wood is often portrayed as an instinctive musician first and foremost, rather than a scholarly thinker. 

Yet through her painstaking sifting of the available sources and engaging prose style, French reveals a fascinating dichotomy of meticulous preparation and ‘on-the-night’ spontaneous delight. Most importantly, Wood’s vital role in the English Bach revival is revealed for the first time in all its considerable glory. 

Words by Julian Haylock 

The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture
Orlando Figes
Allen Lane 978-0-241-00489-0

Years in the writing, Orlando Figes’s majestic, passionately engaged The Europeans could hardly be more timely. Huge in scope yet packed with detail, it’s a riveting account of the emergence of 19th-century pan-European culture, told through the lives of the three, deeply entwined figures at its heart: the Spanish singer and composer Pauline Viardot; her writer and art critic husband, Frenchman Louis Viardot; and her longstanding lover, Russian author Ivan Turgenev. 

In various ways, all three were instrumental in forging a new, cosmopolitan sensibility predicated on the unifying power of music, literature and art, seen against a backdrop of Europe-wide struggles for national identity and sociopolitical liberty – and facilitated by technological advances in rail travel, printing and lithography. 

From Rossini to Tchaikovsky, composers rub shoulders not just with their creative fellows, but with the publishers, critics, impresarios and patrons that helped make – or break – their careers. Most thought-provoking is how alive this history still feels today; not least through the emergent work canons and ways of thinking about art that remain central to contemporary European culture.

Words by Steph Power 

  

Mozart in Context
Ed. Simon P Keefe
Cambridge University Press 978-1-107-18105-2 

The eminent scholar Simon Keefe is joined here by 22 others to take us on a tour of the latest insights into Mozart’s interactions with the wider world. Revised evaluations abound. Mozart did ‘not fall from favour’ in his last years, his death aged 35 was ‘not unusual’ for that era (Schubert died at 31), Salieri’s supposed hatred of Mozart (as portrayed in the film and play Amadeus) was actually directed at his librettist Da Ponte, not the composer, and female singers did not match modern voice production ideals because ‘corset wear’ constricted their diaphragms.

Importantly we learn that Mozart’s concept of the work was ‘more closely tied …to the act of performance’ than to a single text (see the various versions of the Piano Concerto K491). Sometimes the contributors disagree: for example, the Vienna chapter reports that his piano pupils were ‘invariably women’ whereas the ‘Instrumentalists’ section names two male students. This book is not simply a set of snapshots of Mozart from different angles, but a glorious grandstand view of 21st-century insights about him in his cultural settings.

Words by Anthony Pryer 

 

The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood and a Fragile Mind
Mark Abley
University of Regina Press 978-0-889-77518-7

The Organist is a fascinating and often beautiful portrait of the fragile psyche of a talented musician, and a finely-wrought insight into the largely thankless and lonely world of the parish church organist. None of which sounds cheerful. Largely it isn’t, but there is beauty in among the pain. Mark Abley is the only child of Harry Abley, a man whose restless quest for professional and personal contentment flings him between Canada and the UK, minor church posts neither providing him with the environment to stretch musically, the amount of money needed to keep his family afloat or the mental space to cherish them. 

But Mark Abley’s descriptions of his father are nevertheless full of love, from the clear admiration of his musical skills to their eventual and emotional reconciliation that brilliantly unites the personal and the musical. Most impressively, Abley gets to grips with organ jargon (a rare success among non-organists), and his account of a player’s lot, the vagaries and complexities of his instrument and the eccentric nature of its world is spot on. Beautifully written. 

Words by Oliver Condy 

Critical Lives: Dmitry Shostakovich 
Pauline Fairclough 
Reaktion Books 978-1-789-14127-6

Few composers have been subjected to such long-standing distortions regarding their music and political outlook as Shostakovich. Pauline Fairclough acknowledges these minefields, and in this vivid and lucidly expounded study manages to steer a pragmatic course through the many controversial issues that blighted his career. 

Her fair-minded approach and scrupulous attention to detail, supported by references to newly discovered or previously unpublished archival material, combines cutting-edge scholarship with tremendous insight into Shostakovich’s complex personality.

The picture that emerges is far more rounded and I dare say more human than has been the case with previous biographies of the composer. In this respect, Fairclough is particularly sensitive in dealing with Shostakovich’s often problematic relationships with women. There’s a real artfulness, too, in the way that she manages to weave Shostakovich’s life and works into a gripping entity. In particular, Fairclough makes a convincing case for re-evaluating some of the much criticised music he composed to fulfil political obligations made by the Soviet state.

Words by Erik Levi

The Karl Muck Scandal
Melissa D Burrage
University of Rochester Press 978-1-580-46950-0 

When German conductor Karl Muck arrived on American shores in 1906 he was feted as ‘the uncrowned king of Boston and the idol of the whole nation.’ Some 12 years later, during his celebrated tenure as the musical director of the Boston Symphony, Muck was escorted from the podium to be interrogated, arrested as a ‘dangerous enemy alien’ and, in due course, deported. This incisive, powerful book is not so much a biography as a broader cultural history. 

Certainly, the work fleshes out the rather one-dimensional narrative that history has afforded Muck (as a once high-profile musician who, in 1917, refused to conduct ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at a concert and therefore became a victim of ‘anti-foreign sentiment’) but more crucially, Burrage situates Muck as a ‘prism’ through which to examine the shadow of prejudice, paranoia and reckless journalism that engulfed cultural relations in America during World War I. The resulting work is an exemplary piece of scholarship. It is painstakingly written, offering a compelling (and terrifyingly relevant) discussion of the power-play between culture, politics and the darker forces of humanity. 

Words by Kate Wakeling 

Essays & Collections

George Frideric Handel: Collected Documents, Vol 3
Ed. Donald Burrows, Helen Coffey, John Greencombe and Anthony Hicks
Cambridge 978-1-107-01955-3

Since the 1950s much new information concerning Handel’s activities has come to light. Here is the third in a multi-volume publication, in which Donald Burrows and his team have freshly examined all the known surviving documents, presenting them with authoritative, up-to-date commentaries. Volume three embraces the years 1734 to 1742, a period that witnessed many of Handel’s greatest achievements, among which are the operas Ariodante, Alcina and Serse, the oratorios Saul and Messiah, the odes Alexander’s Feast and L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato and his 12 Grand Concertos, Op. 6.

As with the previous volumes the material is presented chronologically, often gripping the reader in the manner of a literary biography. The widely differing source material concerning preparation, performance and reception not only brings colour to the London life of Handel’s time but also an immediacy to the artistic milieu in which, though fulsomely celebrated, he often had to fight his corner.

The documents are, of course, foremost concerned with Handel’s music, but in the course of studying them they illuminate many other aspects of the social climate of 18th-century London. An impressive undertaking and an irresistible read.

Words by Nicholas Anderson

 Music Lessons – The College de France Lectures
Pierre Boulez
Faber & Faber 978-0-571-33427-8

Pierre Boulez was never shy about expressing his views. Initially this was as an angry young man, but as he mellowed, his natural charm, wit and generosity were more apparent, though always underpinned by a razor-sharp intellect. Such qualities are manifest in abundance in the 16 substantial chapters here. Each essay formed the basis for a season of public lectures Boulez was obliged to deliver as chair of Invention, Technique and Language in Music at the Collège de France.

Rich in ideas, critiques and provocations, Boulez’s commendably clear use of language emerges in this excellent English edition. These are searching pieces of musical philosophy spanning 20 years, from 1976 to 1995, and informed by Boulez’s experience with the challenges faced by composers, performers and listeners. Even in areas where his arguments do not entirely convince, such as with historically-informed performance (where debate has moved on), Boulez’s reasoning makes compelling reading. Like his music, much of what he says is necessarily provisional, ensuring this book will provide essential food for thought for many years.

Words by Christopher Dingle 

The Notebooks of Alexander Skryabin
Trans. Simon Nicholls & Michael Pushkin
Oxford University Press 978-0-190-86366-1 

This slim yet scholarly volume is truly an essential addition to Scriabin literature. The composer’s notebooks – covering virtually all his major works – are lucidly translated and richly annotated by pianist and scholar Simon Nicholls, who also includes a pithily informative biography, plenty of photographs, and a detailed account of the intellectual ferment from which Scriabin drew his ideas: a heady mix of Symbolism, philosophy, new theories on psychology, and the then influential teachings of Theosophy. All these ideas led to this talented and intelligent young man to believe he would transform mankind through a musical happening of his own creation. 

Was Scriabin mad? Nicholls shows how Scriabin’s onetime acolyte and first biographer, Leonid Sabaneyev, did much to destroy the composer’s posthumous credibility by presenting him through the distorting lens of Cesare Lombroso’s now discredited theory that genius was akin to mental disease. Scriabin, it seems, was no less sane than most intellectuals of his time who believed art would transform the soul of mankind – an idea discredited forever when Stalin coined the phrase ‘engineers of the human soul’. 

Words by Daniel Jaffé

 

Criticism

The Trouble with Wagner
Michael P Steinberg
Chicago 978-0-226-59419-4

This is a serious book that takes stock of Wagner’s Ring as it secures its place in the 21st century. Michael P Steinberg is an American cultural historian who worked as dramaturg on Guy Cassier’s Ring with Daniel Barenboim conducting, first at La Scala in 2013 and three years later in Berlin. The blend of theory and practice explored in the chapters devoted to the Ring is both rare and insightful.

Steinberg views Wagner’s tetralogy through the prism of psychoanalysis, but is mindful of other readings of the work. He seems to have a soft spot for Bernard Shaw’s quasi-Marxist reading of the work and well understands how German politics play out in the drama. Indeed, the murder of Siegmund is read as the death of the liberal cause after 1848/9.

However, it is Steinberg’s thoughts on the relationship between words and music in the Ring together with the developing structures of Wagnerian music drama that linger, notably a persuasive account of how Götterdämmerung should be understood as Grand Parisian Opera. A short final chapter on Tristan and Parsifal explores the current idea of the ‘post-secular’.

Words by Christopher Cook 

The Rite of Spring: The Music of Modernity
Gillian Moore
Head of Zeus 978-1-786-69682-3 

No piece of music ever cast a longer shadow than The Rite of Spring: Moore surveys the huge number of treatments it has received – and is still receiving – at the hands of choreographers, jazz musicians, pop musicians, and film-makers as well as conductors. She sets it in the context of the Russian intelligentsia’s drive to rediscover its roots; how to connect with ‘Russianness’ was the predominant theme of literature, painting and music throughout the 19th century, whether that Russianness was real or imagined. Indeed, the work’s ‘ancient’ rite never existed; Roerich and Stravinsky simply felt that its sanguinary conclusion would suit their need for lurid drama.

With its fascinating illustrations and welcoming tone, this is a non-specialist guide by a writer who tells a rattling good tale. Moore deals expertly with the myths surrounding the premiere; Diaghilev and his producer Gabriel Astruc were delighted with the first-night riot. Moore’s musical and choreographic commentaries are jargon-free and accessible, and her judgments adroit: the sacrificial victim’s climactic dance was ‘chilly, robotic, inexorable – a pagan ritual for the machine age’.

Words by Michael Church 

  

The Indispensable Composers
Anthony Tommasini
Penguin Press 978-1-594-20593-4

Anthony Tommasini, chief music critic of The New York Times for many a year, doesn’t set out with any great scholarly ambition in this book. It is none the worse for that. Instead, he simply takes 17 composers – in chronological order, from Monteverdi to Stravinsky – and sets out why they, above all others, are the fundamental pillars on which classical music history stands. In each case, we get a potted biography, the occasional diversion to explain relevant musical terminology and then, drawing on personal experience as both a performer and listener, Tommasini’s explanation of what makes them special.

Of course, half the fun of ‘definitive’ guides such as this lies in taking the author to task over who he has left out – I’d have begun with Palestrina and popped Mendelssohn somewhere in the middle. Tommasini is not someone you find yourself wanting to harrumph at for long, however. Every case he makes is convincingly argued, and his style is accessible without being patronising, enthusiastic but never gushily so. It’s a superb read. Indispensable, even.

Words by Jeremy Pound 

Musical history

A Life in Music from the Soviet Union to Canada
Alexander Tumanov
University of North Texas Press 978-1-574-41755-5

This revelatory memoir covers a chapter in Soviet musical life too little known in the West. The pioneering early music ensemble Madrigal enjoyed huge success before being curtailed by the Soviet authorities. Indeed, after the USSR crushed the Prague Spring in 1968, the defiant Prague officials allowed only Madrigal and David Oistrakh to represent the USSR at their city’s next festival. The baritone Alexander Tumanov, a founding member, vividly recalls his own eventful life prior to 1964 when he was recruited to Madrigal by the charismatic, highly gifted yet erratic André Volkonsky. 

By then silenced as a composer, Volkonsky saw early music as a refreshing alternative to the stultifying effects of Socialist Realism. Tumanov pays touching yet candid tribute to his colleagues in Madrigal, who under Volkonsky’s inspiring leadership enjoyed the most important chapter of their careers. Sadly, state-promoted anti-Semitism ultimately drove Tumanov and his family to Canada. Yet anyone interested in life and music under the Soviet regime will be intrigued and informed by this lucid yet remarkably good-humoured memoir

Words by Daniel Jaffé 

Children's books

The Academy of Barmy Composers: Baroque
Mark Llewellyn Evans
Graffeg 978-1-912-21386-3 

ABC of Opera is inspired by Mark Llewelyn Evans’s interactive cross-curriculum schools project, designed to introduce children aged 6-11 to opera in fun and engaging ways. Now the singer and creative director has joined forces with artist Karl Davies to create a series of books in historical sequence: Baroque is the first of a projected four – and it’s colourful, informative and riotously unstuffy. Evans cannily uses storytelling to tell the story of opera, casting children Megan and Jack as principals who – via a timetravelling, multilingual Trunk – tumble into the past while exploring an old music hall.

There they meet denizens of the Academy of Barmy Composers, including Professor Peri; Luckless Lully; Doc Blow; Herr Handel; and the laudably prominent first-ever female opera composer, Fantastica Francesca. Through 14 zany chapters, appendixes and internet-accessible songs, they discover instruments, voice-types, Orphic myth and much more while seeing off Cruel Cromwell (theatre-banning but opera-loving), circumventing salami fights and enjoying fart jokes. The message is that Any Body Can enjoy opera. Hear hear – as Maestro Monte might quip. 

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Words by Steph Power