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The best books about classical music released in 2021 so far

The greatest books on the subject of classical and film music published in 2021, as selected by the BBC Music Magazine critics

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Carmen Abroad by Richard Langham Smith

Cambridge University Press 978-1-108-48161-8 350pp (hb)

  • £75

Having met Carmen in the 1950s, I’ve long assumed I had a fairly good idea of what the opera was ‘about’. This wonderfully illuminating and widely researched volume proves we all have our fantasies. One of the key subjects is ‘alienation’. I had never taken in that all the main actors are ‘playing away’: soldiers go to where they’re posted, gypsies, smugglers and bullfighters to where the money is.

Alongside this goes the alienation between the Basque Don José and the Andalusian Carmen (she claims to be Basque, but this seems to be one of her lies), a contrast which naturally played into the Basques’ long desire for independence. Finally, on the largest scale, it informs the field addressed in the book’s title, there being no continent except Antarctica that remains Carmen immune. A witch, or a proto-feminist paying men back in their own kind? Or both? The general reader can easily pass over the more erudite paragraphs (names and dates) to reach the many fascinating insights this book provides. No question, my Book of 2020.

Review by Roger Nichols

George Frideric Handel – Collected Documents, Vol. 4: 1742-1750

(Ed. Donald Burrows, Helen Coffey, John Greenacombe, et al)
Cambridge University Press 978-1-107-08021-8 986pp (hb)

  • £140

The fourth volume of the Handel Collected Documents encompasses the years between 1742 and 1750. As well as revivals of major works, these years witnessed the premieres of many of his greatest oratorios, notably Samson, Semele, Hercules, Belshazzar, Judas Maccabaeus, Solomon, Theodora and the first London performance of Messiah. The surviving documents concerning these and many other events make for compelling reading. Many will be familiar to seasoned Handelians but there is much that sheds fresh light on the preparation and performance of Handel’s music.

Among material meticulously assembled by Donald Burrows and his team is that which furthers our knowledge of Handel’s prestigious reputation abroad. Translations are provided where necessary, as for commentaries by Lorenz Mizler and Johann Adolf Scheibe, as well as for a splendid Ode for Handel’s 65th birthday. Comparably valuable is the light which these documents shed upon musical contemporaries, such as William Boyce, who were not connected with Handel’s own productions. Boyce’s fine set of trio sonatas was issued in 1747. The final volume of this impressive undertaking is well on the way and is eagerly anticipated.

Review by Nicholas Anderson

Mozart: The Reign of Love by Jan Swafford

Faber & Faber 978-0-571-32324-1 832pp (hb) 

  • £30

‘Who wants to read about a happy man?’ asks Jan Swafford in the introduction to his terrifically engaging new biography of Mozart. Certainly the Mozart conjured by those ‘mythmakers’ of the 19th century was an enthrallingly tragic figure, steeped in penury and neglect. Swafford, however, refuses to take the bait and having written acclaimed biographies of Beethoven, Brahms and Ives, declares Mozart to be the ‘sanest’ of the lot. This new biography is thus crucially low on drama: Mozart is presented as neither a revolutionary nor victim, but rather a ‘jolly and informal man’ who was ‘supremely fastidious’ in his music-making.

Swafford’s gifts as a biographer mean that this warm-spirited account of an essentially ‘happy man’ could not be more engrossing. Packed with musical analysis and meticulous historical research, the book is written with a wit, grace and compassion that well befits its subject. For Swafford, the enduring power of Mozart’s music lies in the composer’s profound understanding of the human condition and in his tremendous capacity for love: of music, of his wife and of ‘humanity in all its gnarled splendour’.

Review by Kate Wakeling


The New Beethoven ed. Jeremy Yudkin

Boydell Press 978-1-580-46993-7 572pp (hb)

  • £95

One of the problems with iconic status is that critical acumen can easily transmute into intellectualised reverence. The stoic features of Thomas Crawford’s 1856 statue, which adorn this mighty tome, captures the Beethovenian myth at its apex: the square-jawed features, the lion’s mane of hair, the impregnable stare of heroism. One could even argue that the publication of a formidable collection of essays as part of the 250th-birthday year celebrations perpetuates (unintentionally) the Romantic archetype.

Yet far from offering a platitudinous overview, fresh insights abound, ranging from the previously under-acknowledged impact of Pierre-Alexandre Monsigny’s opéras-comiques on Beethoven’s burgeoning style and the musical instruments he owned, to a set of parts of the Op. 135 String Quartet, copied in the composer’s own hand, that reveal several fundamental rethinks when compared with the original autograph. One might easily have imagined that there was little left to say about Beethoven that had not been said a hundred times before – this bracingly wide-ranging compendium proves otherwise.

Review by Julian Haylock


Finding the Raga – An Improvisation on Indian Music by Amit Chaudhuri

Faber & Faber 978-0-571-21910-0 272pp (hb)

  • £12.99
The subtitle, ‘An improvisation on Indian music’, is exact. The book has the feel of a raga, with its delicate calibration of pace and structure and its extraordinary climax towards the end: 14 pages left blank apart from little scatters of digits indicating what readers should hear in their heads.

A novelist and professor of creative writing, Chaudhuri’s bicultural background means he is equally at home in Mumbai and London, and his slow-burning passion for Indian classical music was complemented by his initial ambition to be a rock singer. He draws parallels between raga and European classical music, and brings in cinema, abstract painting, English poetry and Western pop; he offers at once a personal memoir and a brilliantly illuminating cross- cultural commentary.

And he penetrates the mysteries of raga, including its history and development. In a book studded with apercus, let one stand for many: Indian classical music’s revolutionary engagement with antiquity may be why Western classical music never achieved centrality in India.

Review by Michael Church

Puccini’s La bohème by Alexandra Wilson

Oxford University Press 978-0-190-63789-7 168pp (pb)

  • £11.99

Love, death, nostalgia; youth, poverty, art – and Paris. As Alexandra Wilson notes, these striking themes do not in themselves explain the rise of Puccini’s La bohème to operatic super-fame – nor the ‘problematic’ nature of its success for some, as a work that ‘appeared to be attempting to straddle the art- entertainment divide.’

In her astute and engaging monograph, they form the basis of a discussion about the ways in which Bohème both shaped and reflected a particular fin-de-siècle sensibility; one that’s proved remarkably enduring in its combination of romantic fervour with a mythologising realism that speaks to social truths while carefully stopping short of actual brutality or squalor.

From the politics of national identity to the rise of the gramophone, commercial recording and modern-day pop culture, Wilson is at once wholly invested in and clear-eyed about her subject. Social context is all – and an alertness to snobbery direct and inverted: not just about Puccini, Italian opera and false dichotomies of emotion versus intellect, but how differing responses to Bohème offer important clues to broader tastes and attitudes.

Review by Steph Power