Showing posts with label Books. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Books. Show all posts

Thursday, February 21, 2019

In which all paths lead to Beethoven 7

I've been reading an interesting book, which I'm reviewing for BBC Music Magazine. It's Good Music: What It Is and Who Gets to Decide, by the American academic John J Sheinbaum. Among many things it does is to articulate a shake-up in the deep-seated ways we tend to think about the music we listen to. Is the idea of "greatness" all-encompassing in our musical judgments? If so, why? Does it have to be? Do we listen to music because it is empirically "great" in some way - or because we think it is because others have judged it to be? And not to other things because they are...not? It's a chewy, academic read, but deep within the texts and analyses are some intriguing ideas and a good few home truths. It's got me thinking...

Good Music


Good Music

320 pages | 2 halftones, 25 musical examples, 8 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2019
Over the past two centuries Western culture has largely valorized a particular kind of “good” music—highly serious, wondrously deep, stylistically authentic, heroically created, and strikingly original—and, at the same time, has marginalized music that does not live up to those ideals.

In Good Music, John J. Sheinbaum explores these traditional models for valuing music. By engaging examples such as Handel oratorios, Beethoven and Mahler symphonies, jazz improvisations, Bruce Springsteen, and prog rock, he argues that metaphors of perfection do justice to neither the perceived strengths nor the assumed weaknesses of the music in question. Instead, he proposes an alternative model of appreciation where abstract notions of virtue need not dictate our understanding. Good music can, with pride, be playful rather than serious, diverse rather than unified, engaging to both body and mind, in dialogue with manifold styles and genres, and collaborative to the core. We can widen the scope of what music we value and reconsider the conventional rituals surrounding it, while retaining the joys of making music, listening closely, and caring passionately.

The same could be said of how we listen to performers. Is hero-worship the only way forward? What about collaboration? Do we have to listen to a performer only because he or she is "the best"? Is the whole idea of "greatness" a hangover from 19th-century thought processes in which the god-given gift was a cause for marvel and we had, post-Liszt, to sit in worshipful attendance?

It's good to question things. It's great. It's essential. We should never simply accept a status quo because it's a status quo - it's only by probing interrogation that we can work out what the heck is going on inside our own heads, as well as in the world around us. Then, maybe, just maybe, we can make some progress.

My starting point today, though, is Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, because it's my personal nomination for Greatest Symphony Ever. I adore its every note. And it's thought, by most and sundry, to be great...

There's a paradox to solve, meanwhile. On the one hand, if greatness is not a criterion for listening to someone or something, how do we decide what to hear? We could eliminate all the artists who indulge in individual behaviour we disapprove of. We might look, for example, for dead composers who lived a blameless life, maintaining in the 18th or 19th centuries all the standards we expect in the 21st - no extra-marital affairs, no lying or cheating, donating half your income to charity, adopting as many stray dogs as you can fit into your home, no holidays (or just non-extravagant camping), being a wonderful mum or dad or wanting to be one, supporting mild, centrishly-progressive politics, standing up heroically to extremism and enduring great torment for the sake of the Truth. Er, you get the idea. We would have very, very quiet concert halls. Though actually, we might hear some Beethoven, who had high principles and massive struggles and if he didn't always get things right, it was not for want of trying. We'd hear a lot of... his Symphony No.7 in particular because it has no political connotations and isn't programmatic and always resists any and all attempts to make it hackneyed, because it's an absolutely great piece.

That method is not much of a solution. We'd be very bored very quickly. What about performers? Here it's already not always "greatness" that determines who is heard the most, or applauded the most. Other matters often decide who gets the concerts (but let's not go there just now). If it's up to us to choose, we might pick others to listen to, for other reasons. Some of my favourite memories of piano recitals involve intimate performances of really interesting repertoire by performers known to a niche public, but little further - an all-Fauré recital by the marvellous Grant Johannesen at St John's Smith Square springs to mind, for example. I'd say that was 'great' playing. So it is about greatness, but not always greatness in the widely assumed forms.

But there's no doubt about it when you do hear a really great performance. I heard one last week - Benjamin Grosvenor playing Chopin's Piano Concerto No.1 in its chamber form, with the Doric Quartet - reviewed in The Arts Desk. And certain orchestral concerts have stayed with me for decades: Solti's Mahler 5, for instance, back in the late 1980s (mind-blowing to my student self), or Rattle conducting Debussy's La mer with the Berlin Philharmonic. And Andris Nelsons in Birmingham conducting...Beethoven's Symphony No.7.

Sir Georg Solti - mind-blowing Mahler
Once you've heard such a performance, it sets the bar high. Most of us want to seek out "great" performances because of how we find ourselves responding to them. They set our blood afire, our pulse racing, our imagination spinning, our emotions atingle, and they leave us glad to be alive and thrilled that we could experience this. And if, having experienced that, you then hear something that doesn't do it, you might leave thinking "why bother?".

Do we have to apply the "why bother" scenario to repertoire too? If we did, it would be...boring. Wouldn't it? Some pieces of music I've heard so often that I literally don't mind if I don't encounter them again for 20 years (Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony tops the list, even though I adore Tchaikovsky). The notion that "greatness is everything" seems to have struck out, for far too long, composers of a second or even third rank who wrote music that is interesting, moving, worthwhile, but just not quite as good as ...Beethoven 7. Korngold's Violin Concerto wasn't performed in the UK until about 1984 and it's become a concert favourite not because it's as great as Beethoven 7 (not even I would suggest that), but because it is nevertheless beautiful and fun, violinists love playing it and audiences enjoy listening to it. Plain old enjoyment has a place.

Speaking of enjoyment, just have a look at, and listen to, what Kirill Petrenko can do with...Beethoven 7 at the great Berlin Philharmonic.

Back to Korngold for a moment. We had to be familiar with that concerto before it could catch on, not to mention dealing with the Hollywood stereotyping that worked against it for so many years. Familiarity has a huge place in what we think we know, if that doesn't sound too paradoxical - and sadly, so does prejudice ("film music is second rate", "ballet music is piffling", "Mendelssohn is too glib", etc), though few like to admit this.

Moreover, take our friend Mikolajus Čiurlionis. I went to Birmingham last Saturday to hear Mirga conduct The Sea (I haven't reviewed it because the artist Norman Perryman is a very old friend and I have one of his paintings; indeed, the background image on this blog is his doing). But I can't help noticing that apparently part of the puzzled reactions that have drifted around in that concert's wake was the unfamiliarity of this tone poem. Most people there had never heard it before. OK, so it was the UK premiere.

This Čiurlionis piece is not difficult listening, though. It's much of its time: there's a pantheistic, nature-worship side to it, a hint of Strauss in Alpine Symphony mode, a nod towards Scriabinesque grandiloquence, a whisper of Debussy, whose La mer might easily spring to mind. It's one long movement, about 35 minutes, beautifully coloured with clear, ambery orchestration, and it leaves you stirred, rather than shaken. Yet it wasn't wholly unfamiliar to me by the time I hopped on the train to Symphony Hall, because there are at least three versions of it available to listen to freely on Youtube and I'd availed myself of this. It's not impossible that that was why I didn't feel I had to concentrate on every bar, wondering what was coming next and whether or not it was a "great" piece, but instead I could simply enjoy the organic whole made by the music and painting together. I'm fond of ballet, as you know, and this is not so different. If you can watch dancing while enjoying the music, why not painting? The supposedly different mediums create one whole, a gesamtkunstwerk. So really, the notion that you can't concentrate on two things at once doesn't hold all that much sea-water.

And if it's not "great music", so what? It's a window into another corner of the musical world, a voice that is strong and pleasing. It's enjoyable, different and memorable, it broadens our experience and it makes us think. Is that not something worthwhile? Or does it have to be ...Beethoven 7 every single time? Look, you might not want to marry someone, but you can enjoy a conversation with him or her over a coffee, and even if you decide he's not your ideal date and you leave it there, you might hear something, learn something, have a laugh together. Social life would be pretty dull if you never just went for a cuppa with an occasional pal.

by Čiurlionis
The Virtual Reality exhibit in the foyer, incidentally, took things further still. It was essentially an animation of Čiurlionis's own paintings. It was tucked away in the foyer bar and it took me a while to find it, but then I had a go on it and it was gorgeous. You're absorbed into a magical world, a little bit like Nicholas Roerich's paintings, if more evanescent, even ineffable. Roerich, a mystical philosopher as well as artist, was the designer of the original Rite of Spring for Diaghilev and worked on the scenario with (or possibly for) Stravinsky, and I think he and Čiurlionis had much in common - or would have had if the unfortunate Čiurlionis had lived beyond the age of 35. Coming back to the reality of central Birmingham on a Saturday night (don't even ask) from being surrounded by fields of flowers and a boat ride along a glowing shore is a bit of a jolt. I hope this beautiful creation might be more widely available to view soon.

The natural end point of rejecting a piece of music because it's not 100% perfect is that you end up playing "Mornington Crescent" (the spoof game in the radio show I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue) with Beethoven 7. It goes like this. The Sea is not Strauss's Alpine Symphony. Why do The Sea when you can do the Alpine Symphony? But then, the Alpine Symphony is not regarded by some as a "great" work, but as an OK one by a composer who arguably did better with other pieces. Why do the Alpine Symphony when you can do Ein Heldenleben...yet again? But why do Strauss, then, when you can do Beethoven, who was greater than Strauss, the greatest of them all? Why do Ein Heldenleben when you can do...Beethoven 7?

The London Underground. Mornington Crescent is on the Northern Line (the black line) just north of the city centre.

Yes, all roads lead to Beethoven 7. And I love Beethoven 7 and I do think it's probably the best symphony ever composed. But I also have soft spots for about 3000 other pieces and would welcome, for instance, the chance to hear contemporary works like John Adams's Harmonielehre more often, let alone an occasional work by César Franck, André Messager or Lowell Liebermann - for any of which, guess where you mostly have to go? The ballet. (This season the Royal Ballet is doing both The Two Pigeons and Frankenstein, so you can hear Messager and Liebermann within a few weeks of each other.)

If you prefer to end every journey at Mornington Crescent, then by all means do - but now and then it really doesn't hurt to get off the train at Kennington instead and explore south of the river. If we only listened to the familiar and the "great", then we'd never hear anything we hadn't heard it before - and without new music, or indeed music that is new to us, the art form would just dry up and die. That Mornington Crescent lark could be fatal.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Best music books of 2018

In today's Sunday Times I've rounded up six of the best classical music books of the year. Somehow 2018 was a bumper year for big, fat, beautiful ones - I've been ploughing through massive tomes on such figures as Chopin, Schumann, Debussy, Boulez, Handel and much more. 
I don't mind telling you that my top choices are headed by Alan Walker's magisterial new biography of Chopin. The other five cover a spread of different music, topics and approaches. I am very sorry that I had to leave out at least four others that really deserve inclusion. 
For some reason, it is not often that so many significant not-purely-academic and not-schlock books about classical music emerge in one year, and I hope this signals the fact that there's a real demand out there for fantastic writing on the subject.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Seven music books for Christmas 2017

Some personal recommendations for literaromusical gifts this Christmas - though please note, this is a personal selection so there may be quite a few others that I've missed. Listed here in no particular order. Enjoy.

by Simon Callow
William Collins
What made Wagner into Wagner? What drove him? Who was he, really, and what fuelled that gigantic ego - without which, let's face it, he wouldn't have been able to write such humongously ambitious music-dramas? Simon Callow, who wrote and performed a one-man Wagner show in the composer's bicentenary year of 2013, here dives into the agonies and the ecstasies of what it must have been like to be the great man. Putting aside the title's side-swipe at Leni Riefensthal and the 1936 Olympics, the book is a suitably lavish read, stuffed full of fabulous wordy, over-the-top descriptions, which you have to just sit back and enjoy.

by John Suchet
Elliot & Thompson
And the other great opera composer is here too. Hot on the heels of his volumes on Mozart, Beethoven and Johann Strauss, Suchet turns his attention to the life and prickly personality of Giuseppe Verdi, aka The Bear of Busseto. The dramas onstage are so intense that we sometimes forget that for their creator there was plenty off-stage as well, some of it desperately tragic (he lost his young wife and two children in the space of two years) - and that despite the status he achieved as national hero, Verdi tended to cover his own tracks and keep himself to himself. Suchet brings this elusive, deeply private individual to life - as much as anybody has ever been able to.

by Clemency Burton Hill
Headline Home
Presenter and broadcaster Clemency Burton Hill is one of our finest and most eloquent advocates for classical music in the wider world, and the fast-rising popularity of this book is testimony to her communicative gifts. The personal tragedies that spurred her into writing it have played a part, but so has the simple and excellent concept: one piece of music to listen to for every day of the year. And it's not all basic, obvious repertoire, either - there's plenty to discover, a good representation of composers who are women, a thousand-year timespan and friendly but never patronising contextualisation. Applause aplenty.

by Stuart Isacoff
Bantam Books Inc
A book about Van Cliburn? Wait a few decades and along come two almost at once. Isacoff's detailed and beautifully written volume arrived this year hot on the heels of Nigel Cliff's very readable but more journalistic Moscow Nights, which came out in autumn 2016. Isacoff traces the forces that shaped - and later destroyed - the great American pianist, symbol of the Cold War as he triumphed at the Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow in 1958, with their facets political, musical and personal: the KGB, the smothering mothering (he speculates as to whether Rildia Bee Cliburn was not just "the wind that filled his sails" but also "the albatross that sank him"), and the consuming force of musical genius itself.

by Christina Scharff
Routledge Research in Gender and Society
A thorough, elegant, academic exploration of what it's like to work in the classical music field today, looking at the effects of turning an art into a business or indeed, a saleable commodity, the persistence of racial and gender inequalities and the nature of entrepreneurship in the profession. This needed writing, to put it mildly, and it needs reading, absorbing and acting-upon, too. But I have to recommend it as an e-book because the hardback is, sorry to say, priced at £105, which is perhaps a little optimistic.

by Eric Wen
Dover Books
Schenkerian analysis fans, this is for you. Schenker sceptics, this is for you too. If you'll permit me a quick rant, Schenkerian analysis is being much maligned by a generation put off by the idea that he's old-fashioned, that he deals with dead white tonal composers (like, er, Mozart and Beethoven) and by, frankly, appalling teaching that distorts what he's all about. But two people have convinced me that Schenker is fascinating and fertile ground through which to discover the inner workings of the greatest music. One is Murray Perahia. The other is the author of this book, Eric Wen, who is currently a professor at the Juilliard School in New York. While others might leave you lost in the forest, he steers the safari truck through examples from Schubert, Haydn, Mendelssohn, Bach, Brahms, Mozart and Beethoven with a sort of virtuoso clarity and an infectious, unquenchable enthusiasm. (I use some principles of Schenker in my occasional creative writing workshops - it works rather well for books too.)

by Thomas Voigt
An essential stocking-filler for the Kaufmaniac in your life, now available in English translation for the first time. Authorised biography, yes, but that's the way the cookie crumbles. 

Friday, August 24, 2007

Wild Oates!

Fantastic piece in today's Independent about one of my favourite authors, Joyce Carol Oates.

"Many writers are sad, bookish people who are comfortable writing. But as a writer you have access to people. It's your job as a mediator to respect those people – not to ridicule them." Forget prizes and adoration from the critics, Joyce Carol Oates knows why she writes. "A novel should extend sympathy," she says. "That is what a writer should try to do."

If you haven't read her yet, try Blonde, her imagining of the life of Marilyn Monroe, or We were the Mulvaneys. Or more or less any one of her other novels (more than 30, and that's just the ones under her own name...).

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Summer reading...

I've just heard that the redoubtable A.N. Wilson has written a novel about Winifred Wagner's relationship with Hitler. Entitled Winnie and Wolf, it's due for release on 16 August. Here's the synopsis from Amazon:

"Winnie and Wolf" is the story of the extraordinary relationship between Winifred Wagner and Adolf Hitler that took place during the years 1925-40, as seen through the eyes of the secretary at the Wagner house in Bayreuth. Winifred, an English girl, brought up in an orphanage in East Grinstead, married at the age of eighteen to the son of Germany's most controversial genius, is a passionate Germanophile, a Wagnerian dreamer, a Teutonic patriot. In the debacle of the post-Versailles world, the Wagner family hope for the coming, not of a warrior, a fearless Siegfried, but of a Parsifal, a mystic idealist, a redeemer-figure. In 1925, they meet their Parsifal - a wild-eyed Viennese opera-fanatic in a trilby hat, a mac and a badly fitting suit. Hitler has already made a name for himself in some sections of German society through rabble-rousing and street corner speeches. It is Winifred, though, who believes she can really see his poetry. Almost at once they drop formalities and call one another 'Du' rather than 'Sie'. She is Winnie and he is Wolf. Like Winnie, Hitler was an outsider. Like her, he was haunted by the impossibility of reconciling the pursuit of love and the pursuit of power; the ultimate inevitability, if you pursued power, of destruction. Both had known the humiliations of poverty. Both felt angry and excluded by society. Both found each other in an unusual kinship that expressed itself through a love of opera. In A.N. Wilson's most bold and ambitious novel yet, the world of the Weimar Republic and Nazi Germany is brilliantly recreated, and forms the backdrop to this incredible bond, which ultimately reveals the remarkable capacity of human beings to deceive themselves.

That should keep us busy on the beach - there's no way I'm waiting for the paperback. Order your copy now...

Wilson has recently reviewed Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows for The Times and makes it sound positively Wagnerian. Dumbledore as Wotan, perhaps???

Monday, April 23, 2007

Why people write...

The BBC's website has today posted an interesting little article about why people try to write novels.

I've just sent my No.3, as yet without confirmed title, off to my editor, the scariest moment of the year. Now, after spending yesterday imbibing the new Ian McEwan novel On Chesil Beach, I'm suffering intense attacks of humbleness. It's the most astonishing book, perfectly fashioned, as wonderfully balanced as the Mozart string quintets the heroine plays (ouch - my new MS features the G minor...resemblance, sadly, ends there). It's a piece-of-ivory examination, with McEwan's usual razor-edged detail, of a young couple's disastrous wedding night in 1962: the way that the course of a life can be determined by a gesture left unmade, a loving word left unsaid.

Now, the following is NOT a criticism. I'm just interested to see that the violinist, Florence, is portrayed as potentially frigid. Of course she's actually just very young, over-innocent, English, repressed...but could this be misinterpreted as yet another stereotyping of classical musicians as sad, sexless beings who can't loosen up?

Ironic if so, because a lot of professional classical musicians are rampant. Passionate, wildly sexed-up beings, with filthy senses of humour, who love the electric energy of the adrenalin rush in performance, the thrills of being on stage giving their all, the ecstasy of being adored; wine, women(/men) and song... Some have crazy lives and idiosyncratic ways of letting off steam. But frigid? lol.

That's one reason some of us write.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Commodities market

In other words, the London International Book Fair. I was going to write a long, philosophical post about how one grows up studying literature at school and revering the great authors past and present, then goes into the seething mass of languages and deals that make up the event in (this year) Earl's Court only to find that a book isn't seen as a work of art but as a commodity and how, as a writer, one suddenly understands that one is a commodity too, and how one does technically know this already but actually experiencing it is different..... But it's quite fun being a commodity, and I had some excellent meetings. So, fine.

Meanwhile, a big 'Indy-panic' the last couple of days, which has been even more fun than being a commodity! Watch this #.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Publication day!

ALICIA'S GIFT is out today! And I am sitting, unexpectedly, on a balcony in the sunshine, gazing at the Atlantic Ocean. British Airways, in its infinite wisdom, managed to change the time of our flight home yesterday without letting us know. Could be worse...

Friday, February 09, 2007

ALICIA'S GIFT has arrived!

It's here: the first copy of my new book! As you can see, it's about a little girl with a precocious talent for the piano... Aged three, Alicia sits down at her dad's battered old upright and begins to play by ear, and in the right key, a piece she'd heard at nursery. Her Derbyshire-dwelling parents, Kate and Guy, have to decide what on earth to do with her. Kate wants her to develop her talent to the maximum, but she also wants her to be at home. Guy wants her to be a normal kid. Alicia just wants to play her piano and walk her dog on the moors. Alicia's motorbike-fixated brother, Adrian, sees through them all. As Alicia grows up and her fame spreads, everyone wants a piece of the Peak District prodigy. But life, naturally, has ideas of its own...

ALICIA'S GIFT is available for preordering at here: beautiful quality, limited edition hardback! Release date is 8 March. The paperback will be out later in the year.

Monday, January 15, 2007

A bit of self-promotion

I've got a double page spread in The Independent today, a quick look back at 60 years of the Royal Opera. Odd to think that the organisation is exactly the same age as David Bowie.

Also, in case anyone still fancies a look at my first novel, Rites of Spring, is currently offering it at a 32 per cent discount. :-)

The next one, Alicia's Gift, will be out in hardback on 8 March...

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

book tags....

I've been a little slow in responding, but the other day Evelio tagged me for this:

Find the nearest book.
Turn to page 123.
Go to the fifth sentence on the page.
Copy out the next three sentences and post to your blog.
Name the book and the author, and tag three more folks.

Here goes...

"...There are directions for the printer and directions to be printed in the score. Messiaen said that the preface and all the fingerings had to be included. He also told the printer to mind the page turns."
(Yvonne Loriod talking to author Rebecca Rischin about preparing Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time for publication in 1942.)

The book: For the End of Time by Rebecca Rischin, Cornell University Press.

I'm tagging Viola in Vilnius, Helen and Jeremy.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Longfellow for Christmas Eve

(I was going to post a funny, facetious poem for Xmas. But this is so beautiful that I simply have to use it instead, even though it's not actually snowing...)


Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Out of the bosom of the Air.
Out of the cloud-folds of her garments shaken,
Over the woodlands brown and bare,
Over the harvest-fields forsaken,
Silent and soft and slow
Descends the snow.

Even as our cloudy fancies take
Suddenly shape in some divine expression,
Even as the troubled heart doth make
In the white countenance confession,
The troubled sky reveals
The grief it feels

This is the poem of the air,
Slowly in silent syllables recorded;
This is the secret of despair,
Long in its cloudy bosom hoarded,
Now whispered and revealed
To wood and field.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Literature for this day

This is from Ian McEwan's SATURDAY (published by Vintage Books):

There are those rare moments when musicians together touch something sweeter than they've ever found before in rehearsals or performance, beyond the merely collaborative or technically proficient, when their expression becomes as easy and graceful as friendship or love. This is when they give us a glimpse of what we might be, of our best selves, and of an impossible world in which you give everything you have to others, but lose nothing of yourself. Out in the real world there exist detailed plans, visionary projects for peaceable realms, all conflicts resolved, happiness for everyone, for ever - mirages for which people are prepared to die and kill. Christ's kingdom on earth, the workers' paradise, the ideal Islamic state. But only in music, and only on rare occasions, does the curtain actually lift on this dream of community, and it's tantalisingly conjured, before fading away with the last notes.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Heaven is... Oxford, and it's called Blackwell's. I can't work out exactly why this bookshop is different from all other bookshops - something to do with the layout - but I could spend all day in there, being tempted by all kinds of different books that don't leap into the hand in quite thesame way in any other shop.

I came out with a volume of Mallarme poems, but arranged so cleverly that it's hard to understand why it's not done more often. As well as copious notes, it includes both the original French AND an English translation, printed side by side. It makes perfect sense. Standard practice for opera libretti and Lieder in CD booklets, of course, but not elsewhere. Normally we have to buy just one or the other; and, if you're me, you either miss all kinds of words and nuances in the original through not knowing the language well enough, or you feel the lack of the poem's native music when it's lost in translation. I had a quick hunt to see if anyone had done the same for Rimbaud or Baudelaire, but they hadn't.

Oxford is wonderful. I often wish I'd gone there instead of the other place, where the wind comes straight from Siberia.

Friday, March 25, 2005

Fiction schmiction

I'm glad to see I'm not the only one who got 'stuck' trying to read JD Landis's 'Longing' - Richard responds to the book quiz by wondering how I got along with this. While I'd hate to throw cold water over a book that has evidently taken so much research, immersion and general blood and guts from its writer, I just can't get into it. That started me thinking back over the handful of novels I've attempted to read that are based on the lives of composers. The results are not encouraging - not least because I've always kind of fancied writing one myself.

I ploughed through Janice Galloway's 'Clara' - like 'Longing', it is of course about the Schumanns. I had my doubts about it, though most people do seem to have loved it and it is a great achievement, exquisitely written too. I felt that she dodged all the difficult issues, however - whereas Landis jumps straight in with both feet, speculating almost immediately about whether Brahms could have been the real father of Felix Schumann. My main complaint over 'Clara', however, was that although it is poetic, it is also over-intellectual and pretentious and although it paints the most fabulous picture of a Schumann who is totally, utterly, stupendously nuts, it never truly touches the heart. The same is true - as far as page 60 - of 'Longing', which on the other hand tries to be poetic but never quite makes it. Its self-conscious intellect, clumsy sexual symbolism and a style that attempts much but doesn't flow easily prevents any real identification with the characters. What's more, unlike Clara, the writer doesn't seem to have managed to assimilate his research into a fictional world of his own. Footnotes that take about third of a page spin you off at a tangent and there's nothing more offputting in fiction than constant reminders that it is based on fact. It's like flying a plane without retracting the wheels.

Most other novels about composers that I've read have been about Beethoven and Mozart. I hated Leslie Kenton's 'Ludwig' so much that it put me right off even trying John Suchet's multi-volume effort, though I've been told it's rather good. There was a book about Mozart writing Don Giovanni in Prague that was quite fun but, in writerly terms, somewhat amateurish. I haven't ventured into Anthony Burgess's 'Mozart and the Wolf Gang'...or a more recent book called 'Igor and Coco' (what more can one say?).

Here's the nub of the problem: either the fictionalised biographies of composers appeal to the head and not the heart - perhaps because of a perception that their potential market loves to be intellectually pretentious - or else they are just plain awful. The question is WHY? Is that what comes of trying to base a novel on fact? Or is it more the case that in musical spheres we all have our own mental images of our heroes and don't particularly like to take on board someone else's interpretations of them? I don't know, but I do know that the tempting scenarios that whisper to me from the 19th century need to be handled with extreme care and are probably best left alone.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Booked up...

I spent yesterday afternoon at an event associated with the London Book Fair, which is in full swing from today through Tuesday at Olympia. The Daily Mail Book Club sponsors a set of 'masterclasses': a conference hall of would-be writers gathers to scoop up pearls of wisdom from those in the industry. (Oh joy! I no longer have to go to the one called How To Get Published!!) Yesterday afternoon, two of my favourite writers, Rose Tremain and Graham Swift, were there to talk about contemporary fiction, though in the event the questions were more about the process of writing a book, especially the inner processes and the emotions associated with them. About 300 of us lapped up every word as Rose Tremain described finishing 'Restoration' on a diet of toast, yogurt and sherry and recalled how the pencil-scrawled draft of her second novel met a leaking bottle of olive oil in a suitcase on her way home from holiday.

Asked about narrative structure, Graham Swift described his approach as musical. He feels his way through the structure according to emotions, he explained (this is a rough paraphrase, by the way), and suggested that the emotional charge associated with different parts of the book is something close to music because it is beyond the words themselves; it has to exist as a driving force before the words come into being.

This does ring some kind of deep bell at the back of my mind and somehow relates to my pre-caffeine musings about the relationship between music and writing the other day. Would a composer set out to write a piece of music without having a pretty good sense of the kind of structure he/she wants to create?

For my new book, I've mapped out a detailed skeleton of What Happens When to guide me through the maze. RT and GS yesterday both said that they don't do this, however. A novel is an adventure and must be approached with an adventurous spirit, suggested Swift. They both have a good idea of where their story is going, but are willing to be diverted to some extent as they make discoveries along the way. I was reassured to hear that Malcolm Bradbury used to go for the skeleton approach!

Meanwhile spring is beginning here in London. The daffodils are coming out and Solti the cat is going nuts (even though he's been 'done'). It's a time for hope and for clearing out the filing cabinets and for thinking ahead rather than back. Nice...

Saturday, September 25, 2004

Reading & listening for the autumn

OK, OK, OK. I said I would be recommending books and CDs from time to time and a delicate correspondent has now told me that I don't do so often enough. So here is my latest selection: a mix of old and new, including both things I like that have landed on my desk this week and slightly older things that I've looked at again thanks to experiences like St Nazaire.

GREAT TENOR ARIAS: JUAN DIEGO FLOREZ (Decca). The latest release from my brand-new favourite singer. I've grown sick of starry opera singers who look good but actually can't do the business. This guy is different. He's an amazing vocal virtuoso with a wonderful high, bright, focused and open sound - and he's drop-dead gorgeous too. My birthday treat will be going to see him sing at the Royal Opera House in Don Pasquale. As I'm not habitually plugged in to bel canto opera, I'd managed not to hear him until June, when our Danish opera-buff friends, driving through the countryside near Aarhus, played us a tape of him singing Rossini at the Met. I nearly fell out of their Merc.

MATTHIAS GOERNE sings SCHUMANN; and also WINTERREISE (both also Decca). You have to be a bit of a masochist to love Lieder. It certainly casts your view of your own psyche in a new light when you find yourself lying on your study floor snuffling desperately into your third Kleenex thinking 'Why do I put myself through this? I could just press STOP...' Listening to Goerne singing these phenomenal songs is like having the skin stripped from your soul. Winterreise is out now, Schumann will be available from 11 October.

BARENBOIM PLAYS BACH (Warner Classics). Daniel Barenboim has recorded the first book of The Well-Tempered Clavier, using the full range of the piano's expressive abilities to penetrate to the heart of Bach's spirit. While the 'early music brigade' are all-too-often trapped on the surface of the flypaper, Barenboim goes straight for the honey underneath.

GRAFFIN AND DEVOYON PLAY CANTELOUBE (Hyperion). The CD includes the Violin Sonata No.1 by Pierre de Breville and Joseph Canteloube's Suite 'Dans la montagne'. The Canteloube is a real discovery - absolutely beautiful. Its 'Jour de fete' is full of clever, light-touch effects and 'Dans le bois au printemps' is a prequel to the Songs of the Auvergne. Philippe's bow arm is particularly stunning and sometimes reminds me of Errol Flynn wielding his rapier in those Korngold-scored swashbucklers, and Pascal's even-tempered sensitivity and gleaming sound comprises its perfect partner.

SHCHEDRIN PIANO CONCERTO NO.2 (Hyperion) played by Marc-Andre Hamelin with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra under Andrew Litton. Shchedrin at his most dazzling, mingling modernist fireworks with what sounds like a trip to Ronnie Scott's, switching from one idiom to the other in the twinkling of a Hamelin finger. Coupled with an exceptionally touching performance of Shostakovich's Second Concerto.

I, MAYA PLISETSKAYA. Madame Shchedrin's memoirs of her days as prima ballerina assoluta of the Bolshoi in haut-Soviet times. It's a chunky volume and I'm looking forward to it.

NATASHA'S DANCE by Orlando Figes. Figes transforms the cultural history of Russia into a fabulous tapestry, bringing together elements ranging from music to the Orthodox Church, Pushkin to Akhmatova, Glinka to Shostakovich, Turgenev to Solzhenitsyn. Not only a marvellously informative history, but a fantastic read as well.


Friday, September 24, 2004

Encroaching shamelessness

I'm informed of the following: first, my PDF download section doesn't work. I couldn't figure out how to get it to work, so I've chopped it. Next, a pragmatic pal said "What's the point of having a website if you don't promote your books on it?", so, swallowing all my Best of British modesty, I have put up a new sidebar section with links to my books on

It's one of the big cultural differences between the UK and the US that in the latter, it's basically expected that you will be proud of your achievements, do all you can to further them and better yourself and the more you earn, the better. In Britain, we are oh so easily embarrassed. We are particularly embarrassed if we commit the cardinal sin of being good at something, of doing something that our friends and colleagues haven't done, of daring to shift above what could be perceived by others as our 'place' in life. We don't like to put ourselves forward or admit that we are ambitious. And heaven forfend that we should be paid for working hard at something we enjoy... this is a Very Big Problem for those of us who enjoy job satisfaction in the arts since we do have to pay the bills like everyone else...

So, yeah, I'm embarrassed to push my own books on my own website. But I can take comfort in the fact that the terms of the publishing contracts are such that I'm not likely ever to see another penny/cent from any of them anyway.

Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Happy Birthday Dvorak

It's Dvorak's birthday - he would have been 163 today... My article about him for The Indy came out on Monday to trail today's all-Antonin Prom, which included Sarah Chang playing the Violin Concerto with the Czech Phil conducted by Charles Mackerras. The second half was the New World Symphony, which is the basis of my article.

That symphony was in the first concert I ever went to, at the Royal Festival Hall in (I think) 1973. I still remember it. It was the Royal Philharmonic - then a powerhouse presence on the musical scene, not the demoralised, cash-starved basket-case it has become today - with Rudolf Kempe conducting, on a Sunday afternoon so that hard-working fathers like my dad could take their children along at an hour when they wouldn't be missing bedtime (WHY don't we have Sunday afternoon concerts now? As a kid, I'd have never heard any live music without them!). If I've got this right, they started with the Berlioz Carnival Romain overture and then Miriam Fried played the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. What I remember most from the Dvorak symphony was a) loving the tunes, b) feeling desperately sorry for the flautist, Susan Milan, who was sitting right in front of the very loud brass and timpani.

30 years on, I've interviewed Susan Milan, and also Miriam Fried's son, Jonathan Biss, a young pianist we'll soon be hearing a lot more about. But today I felt as if I was hearing the New World Symphony for the first time, thanks to Michael Beckerman of NYU, whose superb book New Worlds of Dvorak explores the work's connections to the composer's abortive attempts to write an opera based on Longfellow's 'Hiawatha' (a task later satisfactorily accomplished as a cantata by his young Black British disciple Samuel Coleridge-Taylor). Dvorak, always considered a 'Czech Brahms', says Mike, always wanted to be a 'Slavic Wagner' instead. This book has all the warmth, gentle humour and humanity that is so often missing from musicological tracts, and it made a deep impression when I first perused it when writing liner notes for Philippe's recording of the Violin Concerto, coupled with Coleridge-Taylor's (see link on left).

Now, though, I can really hear it. This symphony is pure symphonic poem. It's all there - the death of Minnehaha, the demoniac dance of the magician Pau-Puk-Keewis, the great famine...and if there should be any doubt as to Dvorak's operatic aspirations, the final chord is straight out of the Ring Cycle, the woodwind sustaining into the beyond after the strings have vanished. Incredible. That b****y bread advert wrecked this work for many years with naff associations; in fact it's one of the late 19th century's finest efforts. It is both sobering and inspiring to return to a work like this and suddenly recognise that you have never appreciated it before.

Bravo Dvorak! And happy birthday.

APOLOGIES MEANWHILE for long blogging silence. I'm trying frantically to juggle family duties with finishing a bunch of articles before going away to France on Friday. GOOD NEWS: my NEW NEPHEW was born on Saturday! He is adorable, and reputedly responds positively to the CD of Nice Soothing Tracks that I put together for his mum, my brother's partner Laura. I'm told it has become the Soothing Feeding CD. It's is full of beautiful slow movements from various concertos, plus a good few chunks of Faure. Luckily enough, it seems to work.

Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Publishers be damned...

I've just been reading Alex Ross's article 'Listen to this' from The New Yorker, which you can find on his Blog. It's a superbly written, perceptive, spot-on critique of the concepts and preconceptions that are too often associated with the word 'classical'; and it serves to underline several gripes I have with the outside world's attitude to 'us', especially the attitude of publishers and bookshops.

As Alex points out, when people hear the word 'classical', they think 'dead'. Music is alive. Try telling this to the publishers of books on music. Browsing through the few remaining shelves in shops like Waterstones and Books Etc devoted to music - almost all have cut back to the bare minimum - I look at the offerings and wonder what planet these people are on. One noteworthy thing about Alex's aforementioned article is that it is so well written. There are not many writers on music with such a fine grasp of style. That's possibly why, when they exist, they get snapped up by a public that does have a hunger for intelligent writing about culture in general. Norman Lebrecht also springs to mind - even if what he says raises your blood pressure, the way he says it is so well-turned that some of us forgive him virtually anything.

Music begins where words end. Therefore expressing the essence of a musical experience in words is unlikely to be adequate. Usually it is rather worse. The bookshelves, such as they are, feature volumes intended for university libraries and perhaps the private collections of what we in Britain commonly call 'anoraks'. Publishers perceive a specialist market for books on music in which anything basically 'accessible' (awful word) or 'readable' is wide of the mark. At the opposite extreme, the number of books on classical music addressed in their titles to 'dummies' or suchlike is staggeringly large. Publishers seem to think that to want to read about music, you have either to be so intellectual that you can't bear to step outside your ivory tower, or alternatively that you regard yourself as thick. Most of us are neither.

Music books are segregated in the music shops like women in an orthodox shul. I dream of the day when my biography of Korngold will live on a shelf of mainstream biographies rubbing shoulders with Kafka and Kokoschka, and my Faure book will happily cohabit with tracts on Foucault and Flaubert. Composers have made as great a contribution to the history of culture as writers and artists, but are seen as something to be handled with kid gloves, graphs and Schenkerian analyses, kept well away from the superbug infections of the mainstream. Music is boxed out, away from literature, away from art, away from real life. (It is also boxed out of absolutely everything by lazy marketing and promotion departments...) This is not only ridiculous but also damaging.

About a year ago I made a little academic discovery... The full story will be coming out in The Strad later this year. All I can say for now is that this discovery has been lurking in the depths of fin-de-siecle Paris for more than a century, but has so far gone unremarked. Perhaps that is because music, art and literature tend to be studied in isolation from each other. If experts on certain writers also bothered to look at the lives of certain composers who were close to them, this would have been spotted decades ago. And if experts on composers looked in any detail at their contact with the writers in question, who knows what could turn up? About 110 years ago in Paris, these segregations were unheard-of. Chausson was friendly with the artist Odilon Redon. Faure married the daughter of a well-known sculptor. Pauline Viardot virtually lived with Ivan Turgenev, an opera libretto by whom her friend Brahms once rejected (!). Most of them met at each others' salons. I rather enjoy Schenkerian analysis on occasion, but what can it tell us about the way these circles of artists fed off each other's creativity and what cross-fertilisations this could have produced that we enjoy, unknowingly, today?

Here are a few recommendations of books on music that are well written, well researched, serious and still enjoyable to read:

Edward Elgar: a creative life, by Jerrold Northrop Moore

Beyond the Notes, by Susan Tomes (as mentioned the other day)

Parallels and Paradoxes, by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said

Wagner and Philosophy, by Bryan Magee

Tchaikovsky, by David Brown

The Maestro Myth, by Norman Lebrecht