When a German critic (not Brahms, as often erroneously attributed) described England as ‘Das Land ohne Music’ (‘the land without music’),’ it wasn’t true then, and it is even less true when the legacy of such composers as Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Britten began to be known throughout the world. And certainly one area in which the UK has excelled is in an indigenous choral singing style, best exemplified by the nonpareil work of King’s College, Cambridge. Timothy Day’s fascinating study could not be more timely, as this year is the hundredth anniversary of the College’s Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. In a style which is fastidiously intelligent but always accessible, Day (for many years curator of Western art music in the British Library’s Sound Archive) traces the King’s College style from its Victorian origin (noted initially for its rough and ready approach, with the singers only having the barest essentials of musical knowledge), to the high level of professional endeavour that is the norm today. Day is also an authority on recorded music, and notes how the advent of the longplaying record in the 1950s and 1960s that disseminated the sound of the choir. Under the direction of the much-respected David Willcocks, the choir perfected the celebrated King’s sound which — with its clarity and feeling — quickly established itself as the status quo for English choral singing. I Saw Eternity the Other Night also addresses such issues as the background of the societies and communities that typified the approach described in the book – mostly, of course, middle-class, but stretching in appeal beyond what might be perceived as the natural fiefdom of such music. The author’s earlier books include A Century of Recorded Music as well as a study of Hereford Choral Society, which makes him the natural chronicler of this subject. Such is the authority of the book that it’s hard to imagine another study doing the kind of justice to the King’s College sound that Day accords it here.
Chopin’s Piano: A Journey through Romanticism by Paul Kildea Allen Lane, £20
When in November 1838 Chopin and Georges Sand took a trip to Majorca to escape from the rigours of the Parisian winter, they stayed in an abandoned monastery in the Palma mountains where the composer finished the creation of one of the key works of the piano repertoire: his 24 Preludes. This fascinating document – quite unlike anything that Chopin aficionados will have encountered before – looks at the history of the composer’s masterpiece and the various instruments on which it has been played, along with its many gifted interpreters. Kildea’s unorthodox book makes for a fascinating study, and the subtitle, ‘A Journey through Romanticism’, shows that by concentrating on one particular topic, the author has — inter alia — opened a window on to a whole musical field.