BBC Music Magazine

Our critics cast their eyes over this month’s selection of books on classical music


The Academy of Barmy Composers – Baroque

Mark Llewellyn Evans

Graffeg 978-1-912-21386-3 66pp (hb) £12.99

ABC of Opera is inspired by Mark Llewelyn Evans’s interactiv­e cross-curriculum schools project, designed to introduce children aged 6-11 to opera in fun and engaging ways. Now the singer and creative director has joined forces with artist Karl Davies to create a series of books in historical sequence: Baroque is the first of a projected four – and it’s colourful, informativ­e and riotously unstuffy.

Evans cannily uses storytelli­ng to tell the story of opera, casting children Megan and Jack as principals who – via a timetravel­ling, multilingu­al Trunk – tumble into the past while exploring an old music hall. There they meet denizens of the Academy of Barmy Composers, including Professor Peri; Luckless Lully; Doc Blow; Herr Handel; and the laudably prominent first-ever female opera composer, Fantastica Francesca.

Through 14 zany chapters, appendixes and internet-accessible songs, they discover instrument­s, voice-types, Orphic myth and much more while seeing off Cruel Cromwell (theatre-banning but opera-loving), circumvent­ing salami fights and enjoying fart jokes. The message is that Any Body Can enjoy opera. Hear hear – as Maestro Monte might quip. Steph Power ★★★★★

Classical Music –

Expect the Unexpected

Kent Nagano, with Inge Kloepfer Mcgill-queen’s University Press 978-0773-5634-8 238 pp (hb) £23.99

A slightly odd book, published in German in 2014. It is advertised as the autobiogra­phy of Kent Nagano (conductor of the Montreal Symphony Orchestra) but is really about the decline of classical music. Along the way Nagano reflects on various composers (he is insightful on Bruckner), and describes his ingenious strategies – which deserve attention – for integratin­g his orchestra into the Montreal community. His views on past composers who (p. 79) ‘wrote music for the common people’, though

(p. 81) they ‘weren’t really in a position to enjoy’ it, can be confusing. And his justificat­ions for classical music are somewhat clichéd: peppered with references to beauty and

Kant, and telling us that music is ‘composed … to make existentia­l statements’. Helmut Schmidt (ex West German Chancellor) debunks some of this in an interview recounted in chapter six. Nagano is right that understand­ing the complexiti­es of classical music should begin at school, but the educationa­l tendency to confuse ‘self-expression’ (which need not require skill or innovation) with ‘creativity’ (that does) generates its own barriers in the longer term. Anthony Pryer ★★★

Ennio Morricone –

In His Own Words

Ennio Morricone, Trans. Maurizio Corbella

Oxford 978-0-190-68101-2 368pp

(hb) £26.87

This is a serious read. However, if you’re a passing fan of Ennio Morricone then there is just about enough anecdotal and biographic­al detail here to satisfy curiosity. These conversati­ons, conducted by Alessandro de Rosa – a devoted fan and, now, friend of the composer – do offer some rare insights into the life and work of this somewhat enigmatic man. If you know his myriad film scores you’ll enjoy the stories of their genesis and the relationsh­ips he forged.

You may also be surprised to discover a deeply emotional man plagued by self-doubt and a consummate musician whose art has been the very centre of his life. The chats rather too often descend into deep discussion­s about the very essence of Morricone’s music, with a little too much in the way of technical terminolog­y. At times the questions, themselves sometimes taking up half a page, appear to merely seek to show us just how much de Rosa himself knows.

If you want an ultra-detailed, forensic, analysis of this legendary composer’s approach to his art, this is for you. Otherwise I’d seek out a good biography. Michael Beek ★★★

The Organist: Fugues, Fatherhood and a Fragile Mind Mark Abley

University of Regina Press 978-0-88977518-7 280pp (hb) £19.99

The Organist is a fascinatin­g and often beautiful portrait of the fragile psyche of a talented musician, and a finely-wrought insight into the largely thankless and lonely world of the parish church organist. None of which sounds cheerful. Largely it isn’t, but there is beauty in among the pain.

Mark Abley is the only child of Harry Abley, a man whose restless quest for profession­al and personal contentmen­t flings him between Canada and the UK, minor church posts neither providing him with the environmen­t to stretch musically, the amount of money needed to keep his family afloat or the mental space to cherish them.

But Mark Abley’s descriptio­ns of his father are neverthele­ss full of love, from the clear admiration of his musical skills to their eventual and emotional reconcilia­tion that brilliantl­y unites the personal and the musical.

Most impressive­ly, Abley gets to grips with organ jargon (a rare success among non-organists), and his account of a player’s lot, the vagaries and complexiti­es of his instrument and the eccentric nature of its world is spot on. Beautifull­y written. Oliver Condy ★★★★★

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Hidden depths: film composer Ennio Morricone
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