Books on classical music: Some essentials (4)

By TIMOTHY MANGAN

Two autobiographies …

“The Memoirs of Hector Berlioz” by Hector Berlioz. Berlioz was the archetypical Romantic — sensitive, poetic, experimental, nostalgic, given to flights of fantasy, easily wounded, progressive, dramatic verging on melo-. He was also a terrific writer. In addition to the adventurous and colorful narrative — which includes his bewitchment with the Shakespearean actress Harriet Smithson, for whom he wrote the Symphonie fantastique, their marriage and not so eventual separation — and entertaining bouts of score settling, there are deep insights into the music. This must surely be one of the greatest autobiographies written by an artist.

Excerpt:

I had been greatly struck by certain episodes in the life of Benvenuto Cellini. I had the misfortune to believe they would make an interesting and dramatic subject for an opera, and I asked Léon de Wailly and Auguste Barbier — the powerful poet of the Iambes — to write a libretto around them.

The result, according to even our mutual friends, lacked the essential ingredients of what is known as a well-made drama, but I liked it, and I still do not see in what way it is worse than many that are performed daily. The then director of the Opéra, Duponchel, regarded me as a kind of lunatic whose music was a conglomeration of absurdities, beyond human redemption; but in order to keep in with the Journal des débats he consented to listen to a reading of the libretto of Benvenuto, and appeared to like it, for he went about saying that he was putting on the opera not because of the music, which he knew would be preposterous, but because of the book, which he found charming.

Accordingly he had it put into rehearsal. I shall never forget the horror of those three months. The indifference, the distaste manifested by most of the singers (who were already convinced that it would be a fiasco); Habeneck’s ill-humour, and the vague rumours that went around the theatre; the crass objections raised by that whole crowd of illiterates to certain turns of phrase in a libretto so different in style from the empty, mechanical rhyming style of the Scribe school — all this was eloquent of an atmosphere of general hostility against which I was powerless, but which I had to pretend not to notice.

***

“Words Without Music” by Philip Glass. A fascinating, jam-packed life, told without artifice. Glass is a down-to-earth yet questing soul, who early on became dissatisfied with his mere Western education and became a student and acolyte of world cultures, especially India’s. As a composer he was not only influenced by Nadia Boulanger and Ravi Shankar (he devotes compelling chapters to both), but also by the musical tastes of his father (who owned a Baltimore record store), and the visual, plastic and experimental theater art world of New York in the ’60s and ’70s, his milieu. He had to work in a variety of non-musical jobs until he was about 40 — steelworker, plumber, taxi driver — and he describes them without complaint; indeed, he seems to have enjoyed them. Whether you respond to his music or not, Glass’s discussion of his work will likely send you back to it again, with new ears.

Excerpt:

Something I have known from the beginning of my work in theater is that music is the unifying force that will take the viewer-spectator from the start through to the end, whether in opera, theater, dance or film. This force doesn’t come from images, movement, or words. If you watch television and put on different records, with different music, the same images will look different. Now, try it the other way around. Keep the music the same and change the channels. The integrity of the energy remains in the music and changing the image doesn’t alter that fact. People in the theater very rarely understand that, but Bob Wilson does. Any good theater piece, even one from Shakespeare or Beckett that wouldn’t seem to need lifting, would benefit from a good score.

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