New Music Books
"Gregorian Chant: Songs of the Spirit"
edited by Huston Smith
One of the most surprising musical fads of recent years is the craze for Gregorian chant, a musical form whose recordings were once largely restricted to the pages of the Musical Heritage Society catalog and the output of obscure religious labels. Now, chant in its various permutations is big business and something to be greatly hyped by mainstream record companies. Hopping onto the plainsong bandwagon is "Songs of the Spirit"--published as companion to a PBS special on chant. It's a handsomely illustrated volume of essays and thoughts on assorted styles of chant, complete with a compact disc of examples tucked into a sleeve in the back. This book should satisfy any curiosity on the subject for most people who are neither monastics nor musicians.
"Jon Vickers: A Hero's Life"
by Jeannie Williams
Although Jeannie Williams was not able to get cooperation from Jon Vickers for her new biography of the tenor, he should hardly be displeased with the result. What emerges from this life story is a great artist who is surprisingly simple, true to his beliefs from the very start, and dispassionately aware of the value of his gifts. Williams gives us a man who encompassed three of opera's most demanding roles (Otello, Tristan, and Aeneas in "Les Troyens") in one season at the Metropolitan Opera. Through accumulation of details, Williams conveys a sense of what made Vickers wild and gripping onstage.
"Johannes Brahms: A Biography"
by Jan Swafford
The brilliant biographer of quintessentially American, prototypically modern musician Charles Ives proves just as masterful in probing the life and art of a 19th-century German composer. Writing with passionate clarity that perfectly matches the genius of Brahms (1833-1897), Jan Swafford traces the emotional wellsprings of this secretive man's music without trivializing art into mere autobiography. A composer himself, Swafford understands and lucidly conveys Brahms's unique position in musical history: beloved by many, emulated by few, the triumphant yet melancholy heir of a tradition coming to an end in his lifetime.
by Peter Gay
In the last 20 years alone, Mozart has been the subject of two fine books: Maynard Solomon's meticulous study, which slides Mozart's rather mystifying psyche under the analytic microscope, and Wolfgang Hildesheimer's more sardonic effort, in which the author seems determined to strip every last bit of romantic varnish from the traditional portrait. Now Peter Gay joins the party with his own brief life. Weighing in at 177 pages, "Mozart" will never displace its deep-focus predecessors. But it's a delightful introduction to the composer, whose entire existence was, as Gay puts it, a "triumph of genius over precociousness."
"The NPR Guide to Building a Classical CD Collection"
by Ted Libbey
It's back: Ted Libbey's highly regarded guide has been updated and is now even more full of information than when it was originally published in 1994. As on his weekly NPR "Performance Today" segment, Libbey offers sage and witty advice on 350 core classical works that are essential to a music lover's collection. The discography has been updated to reflect important new interpretations and reissues of classic performances.
NEW Classical Music BOOKs
"The Four and the One: In Praise of String Quartets"
by David Rounds
Why have so many great composers reserved some of their most profound, personal music for their string quartets? This question has always fascinated musicians and chamber music lovers; in this book, David Rounds--a teacher, writer, chamber singer, and lifelong quartet addict--suggests an explanation: the instrumental combination resembles human voices, and socially the group resembles a family or a gathering of friends carrying on a conversation. Rounds remarks that the use of the same phrase to denote the musical form and the team of players indicates that a quartet performance is created by the participants' interaction as much as by the written notes. The author's premise, reflected in his title, is that in a quartet, four players and four instruments have to become one unit. To demonstrate the arduous process this requires, he enlisted the collaboration of the Lafayette Quartet, an all- women group in residence at the University of Victoria School of Music in Canada. Attending their rehearsals offered him, and the reader, a unique opportunity to follow their discussions and witness the emergence of an interpretation. The book begins with an introduction to the development of chamber music and ends with a guide to the quartet repertoire. Rounds's descriptions of the music are excellent, though his value judgments can be arbitrary; his hope is to kindle his own devotion to the string quartet in his readers.
"Callas at Juilliard: The Master Classes"
by Maria Callas and John Ardoin
Maria Callas conducted 23 two-hour opera master classes in 1971 and 1972; John Ardoin transcribed and arranged these working sessions on more than 70 arias. Far from the stereotypical self-serving diva putting in a personal appearance, Callas was remarkably practical and specific in her observations. Recurrent themes include diction (particularly the expressive uses of consonants) and the necessity of finding a natural flow for the accents of the words, scrupulously applied to the rhythms of the notes. Callas offered her own ornaments, cadenzas, alterations of word placement, and even cuts; all of these are supplied in musical notation among the copious musical examples in the book. Although she might have been expected to concentrate on soprano repertoire, Callas in fact covered not only arias for all of the other voice categories but also duets. Often what Callas asked for was more easily said than done, and the overriding impression is of how exacting the profession really is. (Fans of the Terrence McNally play "Master Class" will be interested to know that Callas actually was conversant with the tenor arias in "Tosca.")
"Shostakovich: A Life Remembered"
by Elizabeth Wilson
This book offers a unique perspective on one of our century's most complex, enigmatic, and controversial geniuses, set in the musical and political context of his time. It is a compendium of official documents, private letters, diaries, and interviews with Shostakovich's family, friends, and enemies (in Russia and elsewhere), as well as articles written especially for the book. The result is a fascinating first-hand portrait of Shostakovich the man as husband, widower, father, and friend, and Shostakovich the composer, who--by turns officially reviled and extolled--became a symbol for the suffering of his people. Indomitably creative despite constant fear, repression, bereavement, and debilitating illnesses, his ultimate tragedy was that the political "thaw" came too late for his failing health. Many of Wilson's respondents are musicians who knew that Shostakovich encoded his music with hidden subtexts to express his secret thoughts. On the other hand, his political statements, written and spoken under duress, were often ambiguous and contradictory, and Wilson quotes both conciliatory and hostile reactions to them.
"The Urbanization of Opera: Music Theater in Paris in the Nineteenth
by Anselm Gerhard; translated by Mary Whittall
Grand opera--the genre that flourished in Paris during the mid-19th century--has had a bad reputation for most of its history. Wagner dismissed it as "effects without causes." Characterized by gargantuan choral numbers, schlocky exoticism, and plenty of blood, it represents much of what we perceive as 19th-century opera without the depth of the period's best work. It is rarely performed today. Anselm Gerhard engages in a rich study of grand opera and places it in context. He demonstrates what there is to admire in a genre that led from tragedie lyrique to the achievements of Verdi and Wagner. Gerhard also explores the form's genesis, suggesting that grand opera's emphasis on violent historical events derived from the turbulent history of France after 1789: the 18th century's happy endings gave way to "horrifying" ones. But Gerhard doesn't oversell these operas; he assesses their virtues and their considerable limitations. He persuasively defends the accomplishments of the much-derided Meyerbeer. And though this book is intended for readers with some grounding in the subject, he helpfully includes synopses of these less-than-canonical works.