If you are an admirer of the greatest of all French Impressionist composers (with Ravel running him a close second), your library will probably sport several biographies of Claude Debussy. So why should Stephen Walsh’s new attempt to assess the life and achievement of the composer be worthy of your attention? The answer — quite simply – is that it is one of the most astute and sympathetic studies of the composer that you are likely to read. In fact, Walsh’s own description, ‘A biography of sorts’, suggests the particularly astute balancing act he performs between celebrating the exquisite music and the turbulent life of this difficult, temperamental man. Walsh’s study, couched in elegant prose, never falls into the simply sequential. With fresh insights into such masterpieces as La Mer as well as little-known works such as Debussy’s unfinished opera based on Poe’s ‘Fall of the House of Usher’, this becomes at a stroke a definitive guide to the life and work of a great French composer.
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.
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
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.
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
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 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