BBC Music Magazine
Our critics cast their eyes over this month’s selection of books on classical music
Hearing Beethoven: A Story of Musical Loss & Discovery Robin Wallace University of Chicago Press ISBN 978-0-226-42975-5; 288pp (hb) £19.00
When Robin Wallace’s wife became deaf, he brought to bear on her case his specialised knowledge of Beethoven. Conversely, he used his wife’s experience as a tool to better understand Beethoven’s music. The result is a book which profoundly reflects on the nature of deafness, and also on the way the composer managed to work with his affliction, as opposed to despite it as is commonly supposed.
Wallace begins by shooting down myths – that Beethoven’s deafness was caused by syphilis, alcoholism, bowel disease, or lead-poisoning; sensory-neural damage plus conductive hearing loss were in his view the cause, and he questions whether Beethoven was ever entirely deaf.
He tries out one of Beethoven’s ear-trumpets, and finds the sound-quality good. But his thesis is fascinating. The grief in the Heiligenstadt Testament was over social isolation, not deafness: Wallace shows how the act of notating became central to Beethoven’s method of composition – ‘composing with the eyes’ and also with the body, through the physical bond between himself and his piano. The mystery of those massive repeated chords in Op. 110, and of the Op. 126 Bagatelles, is here brilliantly explained.
Michael Church ★★★★★
A Mad Love: An Introduction to Opera Vivien Schweitzer Basic Books ISBN 978-0-465-09693-0; 288pp (hb) £17.99
With numerous introductory guides to opera on the market, what makes this one stand out? As opera critic for The New York Times, Vivien Schweitzer offers an in-depth knowledge of the repertory, an insider’s perspective on recent productions, and an easygoing journalistic tone. This speedy romp through operatic history from Monteverdi to Adès is peppered with concise plot summaries and lively anecdotes about composers and singers past and present. Schweitzer does a good job of explaining how the music itself works – comparisons to contemporary popular music are deftly handled and often surprisingly illuminating.
Some readers may find Schweitzer’s narrative about the usual suspects – Handel, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner, Puccini and Strauss – rather familiar, but she devotes a whole chapter to 21st-century operas that are likely to be new to most. Plenty of attention is paid to the meaty debates that surround opera today: updating, race and casting, gender politics, even how to stage sexual violence in the #Metoo era.
Overall, this thoughtful book will make an enjoyable stocking filler for the person who knows a bit about opera and is curious to know more. Alexandra Wilson ★★★★
Schumann: The Faces and the Masks Judith Chernaik Faber & Faber ISBN 978-0-571-33126-0; 368pp (hb) £20.00
Though Robert Schumann’s life story is often retold, Judith Chernaik’s eloquent biography finds new light to shed. The subtitle – ‘The Faces and the Masks’ – is pertinent, but the book’s chief strengths lie in its clarity and empathy rather than the pursuit of any theories or angles.
Schumann’s personality emerges vividly: sensitive, taciturn and tongue-tied in public, happiest at home with his wife and children, and, from the sound of it, a terrible conductor. Incidents are revealed such as his early fathering of an illegitimate daughter and there’s evidence of when he contracted syphilis, a consciousness that underpins the tale like a ticking time-bomb – though it’s obvious, too, that mental illness ran in his family. Schumann and Clara’s protracted courtship is explored with a strong sense of how virulent and unexpected a betrayal Friedrich Wieck’s opposition was for them.
As far as Schumann’s final illness is concerned, Chernaik simply presents the evidence and lets us make inferences: she has explored the medical records kept by Dr Richarz at the asylum in Endenich, heartbreakingly charting Schumann’s progressive disintegration. Some of the musical discussion is perhaps less consistently satisfying, but the whole book makes a deeply moving read. Jessica Duchen ★★★★
The Silent Musician: Why Conducting Matters Mark Wigglesworth Faber & Faber ISBN 978-0-571-33790-3; 250pp (hb) £14.99
If you’re anything like me, you can occasionally be found standing in front of the stereo ‘conducting’ your very favourite works. Of course, there’s far more to the art of conducting than simply waving a stick around in time to the music, and Mark Wigglesworth knows more than a thing or two about it. The Silent Musician is not a manual for wannabe conductors by any stretch of the imagination – there’s not a diagram in sight. Rather, he provides an illuminating account of what it means to be one, how it feels, what’s required and why it’s a misunderstood job that has the potential to enrich and terrify in equal measure.
The most fascinating sections are those in which Wigglesworth discusses the relationship between conductor and orchestra, one that can be fraught with struggles and blessed with joys. His later musings on music itself – our relationship with it and how we listen – go way beyond the book’s premise of ‘Why Conducting Matters’, and you feel all the more enlightened for it. Michael Beek ★★★★