We all need a bit of escapism and there's still nowt like a good book to carry us away into another world. This has been a pretty interesting year for books about music, perhaps surprisingly so under the circumstances. A lot of them have crossed my desk and here is a selection of my personal favourites, with which you might like to fill your Christmas stockings.
Robert Schumann: Advice to Young Musicians. Revisited by Steven Isserlis
Faber & Faber
Cellist Steven Isserlis, a great Schumann devotee, has adapted the composer's slender volume of aphorisms for the budding musician and added thoughts of his own that amplify them for the 21st century. They are beautifully turned and succinctly expressed. "Nothing great can be achieved in art without enthusiasm," Schumann declares. Isserlis, noting that the business of music can sap that enthusiasm, responds: "That makes it all the more important, then, to remember why we wanted to be musicians in the first place: because music lives in our hearts. And we have to keep it there."
Schumann's Music and ETA Hoffmann's Fiction
Cambridge University Press
The former administrative director of the National Gallery, John MacAuslan, has produced a fascinating book (based on his recent doctoral thesis) about Schumann's relationship with the writings of ETA Hoffmann. The tales of Hoffmann pervade so much of the composer's early piano music - yet oddly seem not to be required reading for piano students - that no amount of exploration could ever be too much. Kreisleriana, for a start, will never sound the same again once you've looked into this. Bach, Beethoven and the writings of Jean Paul (on a novel by whom Papillons is based) are crucial figures too as MacAuslan traces, delicately and precisely, the thought processes of this most literary of composers.
Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music
Ignore the first part of the title. Only a publisher could have added such a tag to a book about the struggles for recognition of those fine composers - from the 17th to the 20th centuries - who happened to be women and had always to contend with exactly such sentiments as "sweet". Anna Beer tells the story of eight fascinating figures, in different locations, eras and societies. She blasts apart some myths, too: Clara Schumann is shown on walks outpacing Robert, and the supposedly waif-like Lili Boulanger parties all night. And there's resilience all round, from Fanny Mendelssohn's grit-like determination to Elizabeth Maconchy as a young mum falling asleep at her piano. Now plenty of scope remains for a Volume 2, and hopefully many more.
Beethoven for a Later Age: The Journey of a String Quartet
Faber & Faber
The first violinist of the Takács Quartet takes us on a forensically examined yet often very funny ride through his musical life and his ensemble's, shining it through the prism of the Beethoven string quartets, a lifelong journey in themselves. Dusinberre was recruited as a young violinist from Britain by the three highly experience Hungarians of the quartet after Gabor Takács-Nagy departed, not least so that he could be shaped into the leader they wanted: "Asked by András [Feher] about my professional chamber music experience, I described the handful of paid concerts my student quartet had performed while I was at the Royal College of Music in London before going to Juilliard. A highlight was our appearance at a Downing Street Christmas party hosted by the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher - from my account of this illustrious engagement I omitted my fifteen-pound fee and the fact that she had criticised our choice of too slow and lugubrious a tempo in 'Ding Dong Merrily on High'."
Franz Liszt: Musician, Celebrity, Superstar
Oliver Hilmes, trs Stewart Spencer
Yale University Press
The life of Franz Liszt springs off the page in Hilmes's well-turned prose - and what a topic it is, filled with characters larger than life and intrigues to match. Even if one might wish for more consideration of the music alongside the scandals and the soul-searching, Liszt can admittedly be tricky in this department because he was so desperately prolific. I'm inclined simply to suggest a lot of listening alongside the reading of this vivid and exact book.
Mozart's Music of Friends: Social Interplay in the Chamber Works
Cambridge University Press
The Juilliard professor and violist Edward Klorman explores the deeply civilised nature of Mozart's chamber music: the balance of conversational exchanges within the music and the cross-currents between the musical and the human at every level. In an age where the Enlightenment sometimes feels as if it must have happened to another planet, there is a lot to learn from the humanity and perfectionism in Mozart's music and the means by which it is achieved. This is one chiefly for the musicians, but its message can, should and does go further.
Music for Life
Faber & Faber
Most of us turn to music for support at emotionally challenging moments. In this personal selection of "music to see you through", Fiona Maddocks, music critic of The Observer, gives succinct thoughts on the emotional import of works ranging from the evident to the surprising, in categories ranging from humour to mourning. It's one of those short-sectioned, dip-in books, but Maddocks' writing is as exquisitely chiselled as the finest cut crystal and involves no need to ramble. Some of the pictures are fun (there's one of a car half-submerged in Venice's Grand Canal) and one wishes they could have been bigger and brighter. The book looks like a chocolate box, but its content is meaty.
Carols from King's
One occasional measure of a really good book is the thought "how come nobody did this before?" This is the young critic Alexandra Coghlan's first book and she has homed in unerringly on what is probably the strongest untapped Christmas present market in the British musical sphere: the beloved Christmas service at King's College, Cambridge, of Nine Lessons and Carols. Here she gives more than a history of that event. This is really a history of the Christmas carol and indeed of Christmas itself, with engaging, objective and often subtly humorous writing.
The Faber Music Piano Anthology
Collected and edited by Melanie Spanswick
This one is for the pianists - the budding pianists, the lapsed pianists, the would-be pianists, and the piano teachers looking for ideas and motivation for their pupils. Melanie Spanswick brings together a delicious collection of short pieces carefully chosen according to progressive level, variety and concision, but happily non-dependent on exam syllabuses. For those who need new choices for practising and sometimes feel a bit daunted by the quantity of options, and unsure of their difficulty, it helps to solve the problem in one easy package. Choices range from Für Elise to a Satie Gnossienne and from a Fauré Romance sans paroles to a Snuffbox Waltz, no less, by Dargomyzhsky.
Mozart: The Man Revealed
Elliott & Thompson
Classic FM's splendid presenter and author of several tomes about Beethoven (including a brilliant three-volume novel), John Suchet has turned his hand to Mozart, bringing the dizzying talent, impossible father, roller-coaster life and heavenly music to life in his typically readable, direct style. With a big Mozart year ahead - the 225th anniversary of WAM's death - this is a timely book that should appeal across the board.
The Noise of Time
Scary for any smaller-time novelist to find a literary giant such as Julian Barnes producing a book based on the life of Shostakovich, but this is a wonderful creation: the writing is as concentrated as vodka as Barnes envisages, meditates and in a way deconstructs the psyche of his subject within the claustrophobic atmosphere of Soviet Russia. The image of the composer waiting daily with his suitcase, expecting deportation, is very difficult to shake off.
1847: A Chronicle of Genius, Generosity and Savagery
Not a music book per se, but if you love to put music in context, you might find it irresistible. The Irish historian takes us on a rollicking journey through the international upheavals, inventions, conflicts, famines, personalities, beginnings and endings from January to December of one year. It's a cumulative portrait of a world in flux, taking in the rapprochement between a German explorer and a Native American tribe as well as circus presentations, the founding of the Mormon Church, the writing of "Oh, Susanna!" and the death of Felix Mendelssohn - and the mysterious did-they-didn't-they relationship between that composer and the "Swedish Nightingale" Jenny Lind. (Incidentally, a thorough study of the evidence by George Biddlecombe, published in the Journal of the Royal Musicological Association, has concluded that they probably did.)
[And if, after all that, anyone still wants to read Ghost Variations, you can get the e-book from the link in the sidebar or order a paperback, for which please visit the book's Facebook page for further details...]