Our critics cast their eyes over this month’s selection of books on classical music
Carter David Schiff
Oxford University Press 978-01-90259-15-0; 266pp (hb) £22.99 The second edition of David Schiff’s previous book on Elliott Carter came out in 1998, and took us up to his large-scale Symphonia, completed the previous year. Carter was in his mid-eighties, but he went on writing music faster than Schiff could write about it until he was well past his 100th birthday, so the portion of this new book that deals with what Schiff calls ‘late late Carter’ is particularly welcome. ★e is uniquely placed to write about the composer, having known him for several decades, and he presents his credentials at length in a chapter that might better have been condensed into a foreword; but the bulk of the book is full of insight, presented in an elegant and witty style. Schiff is particularly eloquent on the modernist masterpieces of the 1950s and ’60s, with their intricate play on notions of psychological time versus real time, and of acceleration and deceleration. The book is addressed to the general reader, and does without music examples, but its musical analyses are often quite detailed. An indispensable volume for any admirer of this fascinating American pioneer. Misha Donat ★★★★★
Handel in London:
The Making of a Genius
416pp (hb) £25.00
This is a perfectly decent account of ★andel’s creative life in
London. Jane Glover provides a no-nonsense chronological account of ★andel’s operas and oratorios from Rinaldo to Jephtha, and she uses her contemporary sources efficiently – the waspish diaries of Lord ★ervey, letters from Charles Jennens who prepared the texts for Saul and Messiah amongst other oratorios, and the busy memoirs of a woman variously described as Mrs Pendarves and Mary Delany.
Yet the early Georgian period stubbornly refuses to come to life, and several questions are left unanswered. What was the ideology that underpinned patronage, in particular that of the ★anoverian Royal Family? Why did London tastes turn from Italian Opera to Oratorio? And what are the political and social themes that underpin ★andel’s secular and sacred works for the stage?
As you would expect from a professional musician, Glover is at her best when exploring ★andel’s scores, and there’s a fine and seemingly personal account of Saul. Sometimes her style is a little overripe – so a friendship is ‘vibrant’, and the South Sea Bubble is described as a ‘seething cauldron of financial trauma’. Nevertheless this is an agreeable addition to the burgeoning ★andel literature. Christopher Cook ★★★★ Inventing the Opera House
Eugene J Johnson
Cambridge University Press 978-11-08421-74-4; 346pp (hb) £39.99 In this detailed survey, Eugene J Johnson describes the circumstances that led to the creation of permanent theatres in Italy and the ‘novel social architectural situations’ that came with their arrival. The desire for operatic spectacle arose from ceremonies, banquets and processions that were associated with 15th-century feast days. Carnival encouraged the rise of commedia dell’arte, and makeshift stage platforms gave way to dedicated buildings. Johnson outlines the appetite for the new pastime, with examples of audience members queueing from 10am for a 7pm performance (not unlike modern day Prommers). Often, these early buildings were unsafe – several tragedies are cited. By the 17th century, the aristocracy moved their entourages from court to the opera house as Giacomo Torelli’s moving sets delighted the growing audience.
Johnson’s dense academic prose is sprinkled with photographs and illustrations of Italian theatres, as well as architectural plans and digital reconstructions of stage interiors. The content is technical throughout, but there’s just enough colour to hold the general reader’s interest. Claire Jackson ★★★ Singing in the
Age of Anxiety
University of Chicago Press 978-02-26563-57-2; 256pp (hb) £41.00 This beautifully written book considers an intriguing juncture in music history, exploring what befell German art song in London and
New York during the interwar years. From the onset of World War I, German cultural ‘exports’ across the Allied nations were deemed increasingly contentious
(in America, sauerkraut was relabelled ‘liberty cabbage’) and the performance of German music was prohibited. Yet, as German singers and pianists returned to the ‘transatlantic circuit’ in the 1920s, they brought with them their scores by Schubert, Schumann and Wolf – repertoire so recently dubbed the ‘music of the enemy’. And rather surprisingly, as Tunbridge meticulously explains, instead of dwindling from earshot, this music found enthusiastic new audiences in New York and London. In turn, the specific performance practices we now associate with lieder crystallised during this period, due in part to the flowering of recitals on cruise ships and in luxury hotels, and developing technologies in recording and radio broadcasting. Tunbridge brings exemplary scholarship and a warmly-accessible prose style to the book, making this a fascinating, hopeful study of how the ‘musical refugee’ of Lieder found unexpected shelter during anxious times. Kate Wakeling ★★★★
Catching up with Carter: the legendary American kept composing aged 100