Saturday, March 27, 2004

Wonderful books old and new

Hooray for the internet!

Good books on music are ever rarer and go out of print ever faster. When I was researching my Faure book, I stumbled across a volume in the Barbican library called 'Saint-Saens and his Circle' by James Harding. Published in 1965, it brings the era and its personalities to life with a vividness and elegance that eludes most of the more musicological writers. Of course, it's long out of print. I'm currently working on a piece to trail Steven Isserlis's Saint-Saens Festival, which begins next month, so a couple of weeks ago I headed for the Barbican to refresh my memory. Got there to find the library was closed...when it should definitely have been open. Westminster Music Library has strange opening hours which don't suit me too well. Local authority libraries here in South West London don't seem to have heard of Saint-Saens.

But I now have my own beautiful, good-as-new copy of this elusive little book, thanks to the internet. Devoted buyers and sellers of second-hand books have spurred on the creation of a number of sites that pull together huge numbers of second-hand book dealers all over the world - among them (I also like but it's based somewhere in the American mid-west and most purchases get sent there first!). You can search for a title or author and at once up comes a list of those outlets which have one to sell, everywhere from Leigh on Sea to Nebraska. You can write to the bookseller, or simply order and pay online and a day or two later the book is at your door - in this case, for the same price as two or three train trips from Mortlake to the British Library. I've also run to earth a long out-of-print biog of Turgenev by V S Pritchett and a lovely hardback of Turgenev's letters.

Now all I need is time to read them!

Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, a brand new book arrived in a parcel from Classic FM Magazine: 'Claude Debussy as I knew him' and other writings by Arthur Hartmann. I hadn't come across Hartmann before, but it seems he was a well-known violinist in the first half of last century and knew everyone who was anyone; he was also blessed with the ability to write beautifully about his acquaintances. Born in Philadelphia to Hungarian parents, Hartmann did, however, reinvent himself, writing his own press releases and making out that he too was born in Hungary - even, apparently, speaking with a phoney foreign accent and apologising for his English! (But we know musicians who do this even today...). It includes a number of letters from Debussy and Emma Debussy to Hartmann, as well as meaty chapters about Hartmann's teachers Ysaye and Loeffler. A treasure of a book, published by University of Rochester Press.