Impressive New Study of Debussy

DEBUSSY by Eric Frederick Jensen (Oxford University Press)  Many music lovers have shelves groaning with biographies of their favourite composers, and there is a daunting array of choices out there (even more, if you’re prepared to trawl the shelves of second-hand bookstores). But over many years, there has been one yardstick for the composer bio genre: the concise but extremely well-informed (and notably well-written) Master Musician series, of which this latest volume is a shining example. Much has been written about Debussy, but Eric Frederick Jensen manages to find fresh insights into the composer’s life while dealing frankly with the many problems which beset him (not least his health and sexual life). Importantly, the book includes the most recent scholarship concerning the composer (such as the unearthing of previously obscure compositions), and offers the most up-to-date record of the life and achievement of one of the geniuses of French music. Debussy was born into poverty and failed as a piano student at the Paris Conservatoire, but nevertheless became the most famous composer of his day with such scores as La Mer revolutionising modern music in a different but equally significant fashion to that effected by his contemporary Stravinsky. As well as dealing with the composer’s music, Jensen also addresses Debussy’s attitude to the other arts as well as his career as a music critic. And perhaps most valuably, the lively analysis of the music itself sends the reader to listen afresh to these endlessly inexhaustible masterworks.


Anything Goes: The American Musical

Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre  Ethan Mordden   As might be expected from the doyen of writers on the American musical, Ethan Mordden’s take-no-prisoners, massively opinionated (but highly enjoyable) history of the highs and lows of an authentic American art form will have informed reader disagreeing as much as they are metaphorically patting the writer on the back for his keen insights. As with his earlier books on the classic Broadway musicals, immense scholarship is combined with sardonic wit; you may not always agree with Ethan Mordden, but you’ll enjoy the argument. (Anything Goes: A History of American Musical Theatre by Ethan Mordden is published by Oxford University Press)     Late Life Jazz: The Life and Career of Rosemary Clooney  Ken Crossland & Malcom Macfarlane  Given her status as one of the key interpreters of the Great American songbook, it’s hard to remember now that Rosemary Clooney was once dismissed as a purveyor of the most banal of novelty songs (a period of her career that Clooney herself was wryly contemptuous of). But matchless interpretations of Gershwin, Rodgers, Porter and co. are what she is now remembered for, notably those with her non-pareil orchestral collaborator Nelson Riddle. And her passionate six-year affair to the latter (when both were marred to other people) is noted as central to her artistic and person life in this lively and non-hagiographic biography. (Late Life Jazz: The Life and Career of Rosemary Clooney by Ken Crossland & Malcom Macfarlane is published by Oxford University Press) 

Oxford Dictionary of Music: Tim Rutherford-Johnson on the 6th Edition

When I was asked to prepare the 6th edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Music, I was asked to concentrate on three areas: popular music and non-Western music (which had almost no coverage in the previous edition) and contemporary music (which was quickly falling out of date). For the last of these, I had room to add around 100 new entries on contemporary composers. Drawing that list up was one of the most enjoyable, but trickiest parts of the whole process. One hundred composers sounds like a lot, but there are more composers working in the Western classical tradition today than ever before. And they are working in more styles and come from more countries.  Continue reading

A New Look at Bach from Peter Williams

J.S. Bach: A Life in Music  Peter Williams Cambridge University Press: 978-0-521-30683-6 / 405pp / £16.99

The Journal of the London Bach Society has already described Peter Williams’ ‘innovative biography as ‘imaginative and fresh’, and Williams (himself an acclaimed scholar and performer) has illuminated new aspects of the composer’s life, utilising (among other things) a new examination of Bach’s obituary, integrating recently discovered information.

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Samuel Barber in the 21st Century

Samuel Barber Remembered: A Centenary Tribute  Peter Dickinson University of Rochester Press Many  middle-aged music lovers with a taste for powerful tonal orchestral music remember all too well the orthodoxy that ruled unshakeably throughout the 1960s. Such music was felt to be deeply unfashionable, and only rebarbative twelve-tone pieces (or compositions heavily influenced by this hegemony) held sway. The BBC under Sir William Glock was, of course, a bastion of this unyielding thinking, and composers such as Malcolm Arnold were shamefully neglected. A somewhat similar prejudice held sway in the United States, and few composers suffered this implacable demand for new fashion more than Samuel Barber. But how things have changed – and how unimportant such prejudices now seem, given that composers such as Barber and Arnold are now recognised as the Masters that they always were, while much of the once-fashionable music has fallen away. Continue reading

Music as Alchemy: Journeys with Great Conductors and their Orchestras Tom Service

Many a forest has been felled to produce unnecessary books on music, but that is most definitely not the case with this utterly fascinating volume from the ever-reliable Tom Service. It’s difficult to know what to praise first: the fashion in which Service conjures the very different (and often difficult) characters of the conductors involved in the variety of musical odysseys represented here. But it is not just the star names which are illuminated by Service’s lively prose – economical but vivid characterisation of everyone involved is the order of the day here. Also evoked with great skill, inter alia, is the experience of listening to great music, which is of course the raison d’être of the journeys described. But most of all it is the controversial and provocative question of just how great conductors achieve the incandescent results that they achieve with their orchestras which is the centre of the narrative here. How does Simon Rattle work with the Berlin Philharmonic? Or Mariss Jansons with the Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam? Or how does Claudio Abbado work his wonders every year with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra? Tom Service (who writes about music for the Guardian, and broadcasts on the subject for radio) attempts to supply the answers in this valuable book.

Music as Alchemy: Journeys with Great Conductors and their Orchestras Tom Service Faber, £18.99 hardback, £14.99 ebook




Orpheus in Manhattan: William Schuman and the Shaping of America’s Musical Life

Orpheus in Manhattan: William Schuman and the Shaping of America’s Musical Life by Stephen Swayne/Oxford University Press £27.50

Several decades ago, a performance of a relatively modern symphonic work took place at London’s Royal Festival Hall, which created something of a stir (at least as much of a stir as a classical concert is wont to do). The piece was In Praise of Shahn by a then-living American composer, William Schuman. Continue reading