Books on classical music: Some essentials (3)

Two novels …

“The Noise of Time” by Julian Barnes. Barnes, the author of such remarkable books as “Flaubert’s Parrot” and “Arthur and George,” has based this novel on ostensibly non-fictional material. In an author’s note at the end, he sites two main sources, Elizabeth Wilson’s “Shostakovich: A Life Remembered” and Solomon Volkov’s ever-controversial “Testimony: The Memoirs of Shostakovich,” the cause of the so-called “Shostakovich Wars,” which you can Google and read about for days. Barnes says he treated the latter as a biographer might treat a private diary — that is, as not entirely reliable and unbiased. Which I thought was a neat way of going about it, and which others, no doubt, will think is like having your cake and eating it too.

The story is narrated by Shostakovich, sort of. The reader is put inside the composer’s head; we are aware of what he’s thinking. At the same time, those thoughts are relayed in the third person, so there’s also the feeling of the all-knowing author/narrator. There is very little dialogue. Just the composer thinking about what is happening and what has happened to him in the course of his life in the darkest days of the Soviet state. It’s all here, the “Lady Macbeth” scandal, the Pravda damnation, the Fifth Symphony as response and much more. The thoughts are arranged more or less in chronological form, so that when you finish the book, you feel you’ve read a kind of secret biography.

***

“Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer” by Wesley Stace. Stace is also a rock musician who works under the name of John Wesley Harding. This novel is not the work of a dilettante, however, but an intricately woven, deeply researched and absorbing tale of British classical music in the early part of the 20th century. Read the acknowledgements first, if you like, and be stunned.

It’s a murder story, basically, told by a music critic who was also a sometime collaborator of the title composer. He has been found dead in his home, an apparent suicide, just two days before the English Opera Company was to give the premiere of his new opera. His wife and her lover lay dead on the bed nearby. That’s just the start. Leslie Shepherd, our narrator, picks it up from there.

Here’s a taste of Chapter 1:

“I met Charles Jessold, the murderer, on 21 May 1910, the day after King Edward’s funeral. We were guests at a Hatton Manor Saturday-to-Monday, and it was on that very first evening that I had occasion to tell of Carlo Guesaldo, the composer whose story made such a lasting impression.

“I had just entered the room, a quick inventory of which revealed: three composers (one of note, two of naught), a conductor, and a miscellany of vicars, musical scholars and enthusiasts; not to mention Cedric Mount (our most esteemed member) and of course Antic Jackson who, despite arriving on the same late train from town, had managed to beat me downstairs. I was, as ever, the token musical critic.”

Books on classical music: Some essentials (1)

Books on classical music: Some essentials (2)

Books on classical music: Some essentials (2)

Having a few books of music criticism — the right ones, at least — is an essential part of any serious classical music lover’s library. Good music criticism teaches us how to listen to and think about music.

A great book to start with is Tim Page on Music by none other than my friend Tim Page.

It’s a terrific volume for many reasons, but one of them that I’m always struck by is his prose style. It is conversational in the best sense, but not “breezy” in the way that most people mean when they say “conversational.” No, Tim’s prose has a real warmth, grace and flow. You can read it out loud and it sounds well (probably because Tim does that himself before he publishes a piece). It addresses the reader as if he is as intelligent as Tim, and just as interested in the subject matter.

Sometimes considered a critical no-no, the first person pronoun is used by Tim in a masterly way. He makes its use thoroughly convincing because somehow he talks directly and intimately to the reader and the use of the “I” becomes modest rather than boastful.

Along with Martin Bernheimer and Justin Davidson, he is one of only three living music critics to have won the Pulitzer Prize.

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Books on classical music: Some essentials (1)

A little knowledge will help you enjoy classical music more than none. A lot of knowledge will help even more. Here are a few books that I think every classical music lover should have on their shelves for easy reference. If you prefer digital formats to print, that’s your business (though not all of the books I will list are available in digital formats). But I think print is more friendly to browsing, and all of these books reward it.

Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians by Nicholas Slonimsky. Long a standard reference work, Slonimsky’s Baker’s is notable for its scholarly exactitude and scope, with entries on musicians great and small, ancient to modern. Baker’s is a great work of synthesis, with work lists and bibliographies also included at the end of the entries; it is also beautifully written in an entertaining and concise English, which often contains a dash of dry wit. It’s the first place to turn to if you want a quick but thorough bio of Beethoven (in a little more than five closely written columns) or to happen upon some (present day) nonentity such as Francois-Joseph Fetis, “a pioneer in musicology,” Slonimsky informs.

Here’s a brief sample from his entry on Beethoven:

“From his entrance into Viennese Society he demonstrated his spirit of independence, his love of freedom, his refusal to be obsequious, in a world in which even such great musicians as Haydn had to practice subservience. No doubt, he deliberately cultivated his eccentricity. (He remarked that ‘it is good to mingle with aristocrats, but one must know how to impress them.’) His genius as an artist, and his noble generosity, won the hearts of music lovers, and caused them to overlook his occasional bouts of temper. With increasing deafness, however, his character altered; he gradually grew taciturn, morose and suspicious (traits aggravated by the sordid meanness of his brothers, Karl and Johann, who also settled in Vienna), and treated his best friends outrageously. When his brother Karl died in 1815, leaving a son to Beethoven’s guardianship, Beethoven undertook the boy’s education as a sacred trust; his mental anguish at the failure of this task forms one of the saddest chapters of the great man’s life, and still further darkened his declining years.”

The eighth edition, the last completed before Slonimsky’s death at 101, appears to be out of print, but is readily available both used and new on Amazon.

***

The Symphony: A Listener’s Guide by Michael Steinberg. This volume collects Steinberg’s erudite but infectiously written program notes — essays, really — that he wrote for the Boston Symphony, San Francisco Symphony and others on symphonies from Beethoven through William Walton. There are a few omissions for sure, but some surprising and welcomes inclusions as well, such as notes on symphonies by Gorecki, Piston and Tippett. In all, the book feels complete.

Steinberg always has the common reader in mind, even though he can get rather deep into analysis. But all the plain facts are there too, the stories behind the creation of these works. The book is enjoyable to read, which isn’t something you can say about many program notes.

Here he is on the last movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1:

“Beethoven surprises — and amuses — us by setting a slow introduction at the beginning of the Finale. In the first movement he had used a scale to make his way from adagio to allegro. Here he does the same thing, except that now he makes a joke of it, a simple but good one that is better heard than described. Nor has he, at this point, had the last of his fun with scales in this movement. The comic beginning nicely sets the mood for a high-spirited conclusion.”

This accomplishes what every program note should accomplish but that few do. It makes you want to hear the piece under consideration. Steinberg also published The Concerto: A Listener’s Guide, which we also commend.

(Read: Books on classical music: Some essentials (2).)