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
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 ★★★★★