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April 26, 2005
 

                                                                                               

England’s Haus Publishers, specializing in biographies, offers a paperback series called “Life and Times,” uniform in format (5x7 ž) and layout (copious pertinent illustrations, many in color and informative sidebars printed in red). They are distributed in the United States by International Publishers Marketing, 2281 Quicksilver Drive, Dulles, VA 20166. Seven musicians’ biographies were received for review: 

Bradbury, David, Armstrong, 170 pages.

Geck, Martin, Bach, translated from the original German by Anthea Bell, 178 pages.

Geck, Martin, Beethoven, translated from the original German by Anthea Bell, 173 pages.

Neunzig, Hans, Brahms, translated from the original German by Mike Mitchell, 177 pages .

Matthews, David, Britten, 182 pages.

Leon, Ruth, Gershwin, .169 pages.

Wehrmeyer, Andreas, Rakmaninov, translated from the original German by Anne Wyburd, 158 pages.

Meier, Barbara, Verdi, translated from the original German by Rosemary Smith, 178 pages.

The translated volumes were originally part of the monograph series by the German publishing house of Rowohlts. All the volumes are priced at $15.95

 

Bradbury offers a knowledgeable look at the jazz scene as it developed in Louis Armstrong’s time (1901-1971) as well as a sympathetic, well-rounded description of the events of his life combined with loving enthusiasm for his work. Armstrong’s many recordings are discussed and, where duplicate versions exist, compared. An appendix, “Further Listening” is an invaluable source of information. Geck’s books on Bach and Beethoven are chockfull of biographical information, quite amazingly compressed without loss of a narrative flow. The explanation of how the utterly Protestant Bach ended up writing a great Catholic mass is superb, as is the portrayal of the composer as practical man of musical politics as well as a great composer. Geck’s vision of Beethoven as a self-conscious “cultural hero” may be overdrawn from a biographical point of view, although it certainly accords with his posthumous reputation. Neunzig also expertly condenses the events of Brahms’s life, with extra concentration on his relationships with the Schumanns and Joachim and on the major compositions. Matthews, a young musical associate of Britten’s, is as enthusiastic about his subject as Bradbury is about Armstrong, and as knowledgeable. Although the events of Britten’s life are fully described, with frank recognition of his sexual proclivities, Matthews’s assessments of the works are a major part of the success of his book. The same cannot be said for Ruth Leon’s assessment of Gershwin’s music, which seems to rate the shows by how many hit songs they turned out to have, and overvalue the “concert” works, especially “Catfish Row,” his singularly unsuccessful orchestral suite from “Porgy and Bess.” Although none of the books discussed or to be discussed are based on original research, all but Leon’s read freshly; she makes everything seem secondhand. (NB: The early Gershwin biographer David Ewen is incorrectly referred to as David Ewan.)  Wehrmeyer uses many quotes from Rakmaninov’s letters and interviews to give a well-rounded picture of the man, particularly in his pre-Revolutionary Russian period. He describes the compositions, rather than judge them, and emphasizes Rakmaninov’s achievements as a conductor and pianist. Considering that it is the shortest of the books, it is amazingly satisfying as a biography. Meier handles Verdi’s biography with masterful concision; her discussion of music is judicious rather than penetrating. There is so much music to discuss, and so little room to do so here, that her choices seem a bit arbitrary. Still, she offers a splendid beginning introduction to the composer. With the exception of Leon’s Gershwin, the other volumes will prove of interest even to more knowledgeable readers.

July 21, 2005

Felsenfeld, Daniel: Benjamin Britten and Samuel Barber: Their Lives and Their Music. Amadeus Press, pp.180, $22.95

This book is addressed to readers who wish to approach the music of Britten and Barber for the first time, but who have little experience with any sort of classical music. It is divided into three parts, of unequal value, preceded by “How to Listen: A Quick Calculus,” a condescending but often useful discussion. Part I contains biographical sketches (they are no more than that, selectively plucking facts from more complicated situations) first of Britten, then Barber. Part II contains two short essays. “Dare Not Speak Its Name,” concerns the homosexuality of both composers, a subject that seems to rivet Felsenfeld throughout the book. (He is not judgmental, but there is a grave danger that the untutored readers he seems to be aiming at will get the erroneous idea that the musical content of their outputs was primarily determined by their sexuality.) “A Truly Perfect Failure” deals with the catastrophic failure of Barber’s opera "Anthony and Cleopatra" at the Met, an event that permanently traumatized the composer. Part III is the most valuable part of the book, “Listening.” An accompanying cd contains 13 tracks from Naxos recordings of the music of both composers: BRITTEN 1) the Passacaglia from "Peter Grimes," 2-9) Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings, 10) a scene from the "Turn of the Screw;" BARBER 11) Adagio for Strings, 12) Knoxville: Summer of 1915, 13) Second Essay for Orchestra. 90 pages of are devoted to (brief) background materials and texts designed to help the listener hear what is going on in the music. Timings are used for identification (“…especially at 0:17 and 0:39...") and Felsenfeld uses a large repertory of descriptive images which, if readers of goodwill actually applied along with their listening, certainly would enhance their experience. If the entire book is considered a preface to this section, it succeeds in its purpose.

July 24, 2005

Feinstein, Anthony. Michael Rabin, Amadeus Press, 248 pp., $29.95.

. Michael Rabin was born in 1936, son of George and Jeanne Rabin, respectively a New York Philharmonic violinist and a piano teacher. By the age of 15, he had recorded for Columbia, appeared on the Bell Telephone Hour and made his Carnegie Hall debut to great acclaim. The best acknowledgement of his prowess can be gleaned from an incident related by Feinstein: David Oistrakh overheard Rabin noodling a difficult Paganini passage in harmonics and told a friend, “what he’s doing, I can’t do.” Throughout the 1950’s and early ‘60’s he concertized extensively, but in 1963, addicted to prescription drugs, suffered a breakdown. A year later he slowly started rebuilding his career, but never to the full extent it had reached previously. In January, 1972, he was found dead in his apartment, his skull shattered by an accidental fall. Feinstein’s book relies heavily on information about his home life provided by Michael’s older sister Bertine. As is the case with most prodigies, it was his ambitious mother who kept his nose to a day-long grindstone of practicing, refused to let him play with other children for fear of hurting his hands, and generally micro-managed his everyday affairs (including his tours) well into his adulthood. Interviews with his sole long-term friend, violinist Lewis Kaplan, unrequited love, Adrienne Rosenbaum, and requited love, June LeBell provided more information. Feinstein’s research into printed documentation seems to have been done on a very selective basis, which is the most troubling aspect of the book. Billed as “the authorized biography,” it seems to have a secret agenda – in return for Bertine’s information, both Michael and Jeanne are sanitized. Although an amateur biographer and an amateur musician, Feinstein is a professor of psychiatry at Toronto University. Presumably superbly equipped to interpret the facts he presents, he does nothing of the sort. Young Michael is portrayed as a rather docile boy who enjoyed practicing and loved being in the limelight. Jeanne is not spared in detail, but is oddly exonerated towards the end of the book by offsetting her destructive behavior with her undoubted love for her two children. She certainly did not always act to protect him from his own stupidity. During his Australian tour, 16-year old Michael antagonized the press with unfavorable comparisons of Australia with the United States. Where was Jeanne (who went with him) when he needed her advice? In 1958, Feinstein informs us, “Michael Rabin was turned down for military service (no reason given).” No reason sought is more likely. The draft was not an informal procedure; however superficially, candidates were given physical and mental examinations, the documented results of which went into the final determination. If Michael was classified 4F (unfit for service), the reasons – no matter how unflattering – are surely in the records. A further source of information on Michael’s personality might have been gleaned from his contemporaries at Juilliard. I was one of them, and although in the two years we overlapped I never encountered him, rumors abounded concerning his adamant refusal to attend the required “Literature and Materials” classes on the grounds that he would make it, or not, on the basis of his playing. Arrogance is not an endearing trait, and the broadening of his musical culture certainly could not have hurt. The phobia which led to Michael’s drug dependence (that he would fall off the stage while performing) is thoroughly documented in the book, but no attempt is made to explain it. While the external facts of Michael’s existence are copiously dealt with, his story – ultimately – is the very common one of a child prodigy who has fatal problems existing as an adult. His full personality does not emerge from Feinstein’s rather cardboard portrayal of him, and given the author’s unique credentials for analyzing it in depth, his book represents a lost opportunity.

February 1, 2006

 

Haus Publishers’s “Life and Times” biography series now contains four more titles on music. (See the first review, April 26, 2005, above, for details.)  They are:

 

Bradbury, David, Duke Ellington, 183 pages.

Clapton, Nicholas, Moreschi, 181 pages.

Honolka, Kurt, translated from the original German by Anne Wyburd, Dvorák, 165 pages.

Schipperges, Thomas, translated from the original German by J.M.Q.Davies, Prokofiev, 182 pages.

 

Bradbury’s Ellington biography is chockfull of facts but hardly displays the affection for the man and his work that shone through in his Louis Armstrong monograph reviewed above. The details of Ellington’s womanizing, symbiotic relationship with Billy Strayhorn (the description of his reaction to the news of Strayhorn’s death is the most moving incident in the entire book), acquisition and loss of collaborators (the more important of whom are given informative sidebars of their own) are not stinted. What is missing is an assessment of Ellington’s character (the picture that emerges from the book is rather negative, as has been the “buzz” for decades). It is greatly to Bradbury’s credit that he makes no extravagant claims for Ellington as a “classical” composer; the major “concert” works are rightly criticized for their lack of formal coherence. Ellington’s contributions to jazz and the Big Band culture are more than enough to ensure his reputation. Both Honolka and Schipperges skillfully distill the cultural and political atmosphere surrounding the lives of Dvorák and Prokofiev, and offer all the essential biographical details. Both Dvorák and Prokofiev, known for their instrumental and symphonic works, had operatic ambitions. Dvorák wrote 11 operas, one of which is a masterpiece (“Russalka”); there are 6 mature Prokofiev operas, of which “War and Peace” and the “Love for Three Oranges” are the most successful. There is something unproven about Honolka’s blithe assumption that Dvorák is a greater composer than his countryman and sometime rival, Smetana, and his positive assessment of Dvorák’s panoply of unsuccessful operas (you can’t keep blaming the librettos). He does discuss the composer’s successful incorporation of unusually innovative formal procedures (Eighth and Ninth Symphonies, “Dumky” Trio, et al.) which enhance, rather than impede, the beauty of his ideas and are often ignored in commentary on these famous and delightful pieces. The major lack in Schipperges’s book is cognizance of something obvious to even casual listeners of Prokofiev’s music, its variability. There is a high level of technical proficiency below which the composer never falls, but the qualitative difference between, for example, the strength of the Fifth Symphony and the weakness of the Seventh is never truly addressed. Nicholas Clapton is an experienced counter-tenor, which makes him an ideal biographer of Allessandro Moreschi, the last of the castratos. After a brief discussion of the history of the origins of the practice, and of the Spanish falsetistas, uncastrated men who sang in high voices (like today’s male altos and counter tenors), he focuses on the relatively sparse details of Moreschi’s birth in 1858, youth and the manner of his castration (it may have been intentional, to enhance his voice, or accidental – there is no definitive information) and his consequent enrollment in a Roman choir school. In 1883, Moreschi became a member of the Sistine Chapel Choir. In 1902 and 1905, he made a number of recordings for Fred Gaisberg, the only castrato whose singing was thus preserved. He died in 1922. As a member of the Pope’s personal choir, much more documentation of Moreschi’s activities and those of his colleagues remains. From this, Clapton weaves a fascinating tapestry of musical politics and infighting, always tempered with his enlightening remarks on vocal technique and repertory, and reactions to the recordings.

These books are distributed in the United States by International Publishers Marketing, 2281 Quicksilver Drive, Dulles, VA 20166. The translated volumes were originally part of the monograph series by the German publishing house of Rowohlts. All the volumes are priced at $15.95

 

May 24, 2006

 

Libby, Ted ,  The NPR Listener’s Encyclopedia of Classical Music. Workman Publishing, $19.95 (paper), $29.95 (hardcover), 980 pp.

 

Geared to the NPR listener, and by extension to the average consumer of classical music, this genial reference contains articles about composers (by name), librettists (by name), performers (by name), famous compositions (by name, separately from their composers), musical terms, musical forms, music festivals, and much more, with recommended recordings and a tie-in with Naxos Records that provides a website on which 525 selections, keyed to the text, are available. Libby writes in a breezily opinionated style, providing what add up more to high-end program notes than scholarly entries. This said, his factual information is amazingly accurate, considering the scope of his book, which presents received wisdom with considerable elegance even if he often melds opinions into statements of fact (Bartók may indeed have written “a surprising amount of second-rate music” but it behooves the writer of such a revisionist opinion to give an example or two, and to have said something similar about half the composers in his book).There are curious anomalies; a page on Samuel Barber does not mention his highly successful opera, “Vanessa,” (it is not given a separate entry under “V” either) and Copland’s “Billy the Kid” is hardly elucidated by an antiquated picture of the “Kid” himself. Libby’s experience as a music journalist enables him to make excellent judgments on musical politics (his assessment of Rudolf Bing, for example, is on the button).The trouble with every book that recommends recordings is that by the time it reaches print, it is already outdated. Libby tries to get around this problem by listing distinguished performances of great repute, although many of them are sonically outdated. You won’t “go wrong” with any of his recommendations, but you won’t enjoy the latest sound-reproduction technology either. In all, if you don’t expect too much of this book, you will get much more than you might expect from it.  

 

 

 

March 8, 2007

 

Jackson, Paul: Start-Up at the New Met: The Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts. 1966-1976.

Amadeus Press, pp.640, $49.95.

 

Paul Jackson has already published two books covering the Met broadcasts from 1931 to 1966. This new one covers the last six years of Bing’s stewardship, the move to Lincoln Center and the rise of James Levine to his deserved prominence. It covers the broadcasts, in great factual and critical detail, by what might be termed “grand themes” rather than chronologically: The First Season, Mozart Operas, The Latins, Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, Strauss etc. It is a dense book, very difficult to read from cover to cover. Jackson’s style does not help. Referring to a baritone who, on a given day did not bark, it is confusing to preface the remark with a few words about the Basenji, the African barkless dog, further complicating a welter of information. Once you become familiar with Jackson’s handling of his materials, a certain repetitive logic sets in. If you want to know who appeared in, directed or conducted which opera on what broadcast day, this thoroughly indexed book will provide complete information. Johnson also offers affectionate but to-the-point criticism of the major participant’s performances, with many references to their past (and future) work. Knowledgeable opera fans will agree or disagree with his opinions and have a fine time doing so. His assessment of the new operas commissioned for Lincoln Center is a bit skewed. Having proofread both Marvin David Levy’s “Mourning Becomes Electra” and Barber’s “Anthony and Cleopatra,” attended rehearsals in a professional capacity and seen them performed, there is no question in my mind that he overestimates the Levy and underestimates the Barber, even in its original version. There is a copious bibliography and references to books consulted for each chapter are also included. But the breadth of Johnson’s knowledge of opera history and performance history of each opera (not only at the Met) is astonishing. Had he needed to research every fact in this book he never could have finished it; his vast knowledge enables him to take an overview of his various subjects which is essential to knowing what to leave out as well as what to include. This book is highly impressive, but it will appeal most to devoted Metropolitan Opera fans who have experienced the Met broadcasts and are interested in every aspect pertaining to them.

June 16, 2007

 

“Unlocking the Masters” are published by the Amadeus Press. Each deals with a single composer; all include at least one cd with musical examples. There are four recent additions to the series:

 

Felsinfeld, Daniel: Tchaikovsky: A Listener’s Guide, pp.118, two cds, $27.95.

Hurwitz, David: Sibelius: The Orchestral Works, An Owner’s Manual, pp.190, two cds, $27.95.

Lederer, Victor: Chopin: A Listener’s Guide to the Master of the Piano, pp.146, one cd, $22.95.

Lederer, Victor: Debussy: The Quiet Revolutionary, pp.148, one cd, $22.95.

 

All these books are designed to induce the reader to desire hearing music by the featured composer. They contain pertinent biographical information, descriptions of individual works and, ultimately, analyses of the works on the cds that readers are supposed to refer to during the listening. The biographical information is well handled in all four books, although Hurwitz’s seems the most informative in terms of eventually listening to the music. Felsinfeld does not offer a biography, but rather incorporates details into his discussions of the music: Romeo and Juliet Overture, 1812 Overture, Violin Concerto, Nutcracker, Symphonies Nos. 4 and 6. “Tchaikovsky commutes the chant to the woodwinds at 1:26” (one minute and 26 seconds into the piece) is an analytical comment. Lederer provides biographical chapters for both his composers. Chopin chapters deal with the Etudes and Preludes, works for piano and orchestra, Waltzes, Nocturnes, Sonatas, Sonatas, Polonaises, one of a kind works (like the Barcarolle), Impromptus and Scherzos, Mazurkas, Ballades. A final chapter deals rather rhetorically with “The Importance of Chopin.” “This masterpiece ends on a mellifluous passage in which to two voices soar upward in sweet harmony (5:03)” is his description of the end of the Nocturne, Op.27, No.2. Lederer seems more verbally in tune with Debussy’s music than that of Chopin. His opening chapter, “Listening to Debussy” provides incentive to the reader. His use of adjectives is more pointed here, although if words could adequately describe music, there would be less need for the music. Chapters are devoted to the orchestral works from 1887-1899, keyboard works (four chapters altogether), Pélleas, songs, chamber music. His brief final summation, unlike the discussion of Chopin, indicates Debussy’s influence on the composers who followed them. Hurwitz’s vocabulary is by far the most accurate in its descriptive quality, although that is entirely subjective judgment. His book, aside from dealing in much greater detail, also expands into a discussion of the Finnish composers who followed Sibelius (the entire second cd is devoted to their music).

Do these books succeed in their purpose? For some readers, merely reading about a composer will induce an interest in hearing the music. On this level (“program notes”), they all certainly do. The next level (“listener’s guide”) is more problematic. The analytical quotes above are not meant to demean their authors, but to point out how difficult it is to describe a musical event in words. The use of timings to identify portions of the recordings is fraught with difficulty. Every remark involves starting again from the beginning and requires certain amount of synchronization. To get people to try and hear what is happening in music rather than let it wash by them, are statements like  “the music moves from one instrument to another” or “up” or “down” the sort of information that makes a difference? The answer is unclear enough that, on an elementary level, these books may serve a purpose. In terms of real musical analysis, they are a joke, but even the most sophisticated college-level textbooks that offer technical analyses couched in professional jargon don’t really establish why a masterpiece is a masterpiece and a dud is a dud.

 

July 31, 2007

Milnes, Sherrill: American Aria, Encore (evidently added to the original title, “American Aria,” to identify the paperback edition), Amadeus Press, pp.370, $22.95.

 

During the American Revolution, Matthew Lyon was a Green Mountain Boy. Afterwards, he was a famously combative congressman from Vermont. He was Milnes’s great-great-great grandfather on his mother’s side. Milnes’s autobiography begins with this information, but unlike his famous ancestor, he seems to shy away from expressing his opinions strongly, even of the shabby way the Met dropped him after over three decades of deserved stardom. There have been all sorts of memoirs by opera stars. Some are introspective and full of wise advice. Others are deliciously nasty about the goings on in opera houses and (especially) about their colleagues. A few describe, in detail, the enormous effort it took to reach the pinnacle of their profession. Milnes’s does none of the above. He seems incapable of penetrating introspection (the reason cited for the breakup of two of his three marriages is basically “we grew apart”), too decent to truly badmouth his colleagues and too modest to take full credit for developing his fabulous gifts. His utter sincerity comes across and although his reticence can be respected, it does not make for very interesting reading. The most salient feature of his personality, at least as it comes across in this book, is his sincere respect for many colleagues, combined with an appreciation of famous actors and other prominent individuals he met in the course of his career that, occasionally, verges on hero-worship. Born into a family of farmers, whose members were very active in church music, playing instruments (piano, violin, jazz bass) and singing must have seemed perfectly normal to him. He slowly made his professional way, first as a member of Margaret Hillis’s Chicago Symphony Chorus in 1958. By the early 1960s he was learning his trade with Boris Goldovsky’s Opera Theatre, made his debut with the New York City Opera in 1964 and one year later, sang at the Met. The rest – his European successes, his 652 Met performances in 32 years, is part of the history of opera. His last operatic appearance was as Germont with the Montreal Opera in 1999, at the age of 64. Since then, he has been active as a teacher and coach. All of this is told, in the most matter-of-fact way, in his book, which also contains a list of his many performances (including full casts of the Met programs). Anyone considering a career as an opera singer should read this book. Milnes’s unspoiled approach to his work represents a point of view seldom encountered in the field, and is an important alternative to the more politic-oriented career moves of other singers. Of course, it helps to have Milnes’s ability and gorgeous voice.

August 30, 2007

 

Holman, J.K.: Wagner Moments: A Celebration of Favorite Wagner Experiences. Amadeus Press, paper, pp.231, $12.95.

 

This book consists of 107 entries, ranging in length from single paragraphs to several pages, about the relationship of the writers to Wagner. Each entrant is preceded by a brief identification, admirably written by Holman (who is the chairman of the Wagner Society of Washington, D.C.). Many of these entries were solicited by Holman from prominent musicians or respected professors at major universities. He also found and excerpted references to Wagner in the texts of giants like Debussy, G.B.S., Joyce, etc. The most striking aspect of the book is the uneven nature of these entries in terms of the reader’s interest in Wagner. Young Beverly Sills’s single appearance as a Valkyrie resulted in a hilarious incident; Carol Ann Bogash’s fascinating entry concerns her grandfather Louis, a cantor, whom she remembers singing the same opera at home with his friend Jacob Perelmuth, who, as Jan Peerce, sang Siegmund at a Radio City Music Hall concert Toscanini heard and appreciated, thus precipitating Peerce’s career. Yet many of the better-known names, as well as respected businessman who donate large sums to the “Arts” (especially the Washington Opera) but are non-entities from the musical point of view, contribute entries not much more profound or interesting than “Recordings and performances of Wagner’s beautiful music changed my life, maybe.”  Why anyone should be interested in such amateurishly-expressed opinions is a question readers must address before considering this book.

 

 

American Muse: The Life and Times of William Schuman, by Joseph W. Polisi. Amadeus Press, 616 pp., illustrated, $32.95.

 

When William Schuman died in 1992, his widow asked Joseph W. Polisi to find a suitable biographer for her late husband. Eventually, Polisi wrote the biography himself. To a certain extent, this may be considered an official biography, for Polisi had access not only to family reminiscences but to several of Schuman’s attempts at autobiography from which he quotes extensively. Although extremely favorable to Schuman as an administrator and to his music, it is a fair-minded presentation. Polisi quotes unfavorable reviews of Schuman’s music and criticism of his professional conduct by prominent people. The treatment of his tenure as head of Lincoln Center is particularly good, for Polisi (since 1984 head of the Juilliard School of Music) is sensitive to Schuman’s unenviable position as an idealist proposing expensive artistic projects to a board of business men concerned with the bottom line, and the description of the composer’s collaborations with dancers Anthony Tudor and Martha Graham is excellent. The book is essentially a well-organized unfolding of the events of Schuman’s life: his family background and early childhood, decision to be a composer, teacher at Sarah Lawrence, head of publication at G. Schirmer, President of Juilliard, head of the new Lincoln Center, life after retirement from arts administration. An appendix neatly describes several key Schuman works, with copious musical examples provided. The inner Schuman, the man behind the image, so to speak, is barely discernable in this biography. Perhaps it strikes too close to home, but Polisi, who devotes much space to describing Schuman’s great accomplishments at Juilliard (founding the Juilliard Quartet, the Literature and Materials program, the Dance Department) does not really delve into the politics of Schuman’s tenure at the school, which I attended from 1951 to 1953. Schuman insisted that Literature and Materials be taught by composers. All the composers were conversant with the “materials” of music; when it came to “literature,” it depended on their enthusiasms and when it came to early music and its technical aspects – the field of musicology – most of them had no idea what they were talking about. As an example of “materials,” Peter Mennin, my L & M teacher, assigned the composition of little pieces for string quartet and got the Juilliard Quartet to play them for us! On the other hand, he made total hash out of the explanation of isorhythm, a medieval compositional technique. Although polite always, Schuman made it plain that he had little use for Bernard Wagenaar, an urbane, charming Dutchman whose Fourth Symphony had been played by Toscanini. Wagenaar, although on the composition faculty since 1925, is not among the composers listed on page 99, nor does he appear in the book’s index. (The index is sorely incomplete; Hugo Weisgall, who appears on page 203 in an important context, is listed in the index for page 288 only!) When Schuman took the Lincoln Center job in 1962, Mennin succeeded him at Juilliard, without his blessing. Schuman had recommended Richard Franco Goldman, Norman Lloyd, Vincent Persichetti and Hugo Weisgall. I knew all of these men, who – at least at the school – were more or less Schuman’s creatures; the first two, if they wrote music at all, were indifferent composers. Some of them may have succeeded at the job, but one in particular, had an unpleasant personality that would have made him particularly grating in the position. Polisi is very partial to Schuman’s music in general, and makes the point that he had particular expertise writing for chorus. (In over 45 years as a music and record critic, I have not encountered a single Schuman choral work, so am unable to discuss them.) The works singled out for description in the Appendix certainly represent Polisi’s picks for typical Schuman: American Festival Overture, Third Symphony, Fifth Symphony (for strings), Violin Concerto, New England Tryptich, String Quartet No.4, Song of Orpheus, Ninth Symphony, In Sweet Music, Night Journey: Choreographic Poem for Fifteen Instruments. The following discussion will attempt to discover their place in the general repertory of American orchestras. There are few American overtures in the repertory, the most popular being Bernstein’s Candide Overture. While the American Festival Overture is certainly a worthy curtain raiser, it doesn’t have the brilliance of the Bernstein. There are a number of American symphonies that crop up on programs from time to time: Copland’s Third, rather overblown but probably the most popular, two particularly beautiful Second Symphonies by Randall Thompson and David Diamond that are rarely encountered, and Roy Harris’s Third, by far the best of his symphonies. Schuman’s Third belongs with them, for its verve, originality and splendid sound. There are few American works for string orchestra; Schuman’s Fifth Symphony makes a striking effect. There are two American works for violin and orchestra that often are performed: Barber’s popular concerto and Bernstein’s Serenade. Schuman’s concerto is a strong, major statement in the form but has neither the grace nor the graciousness of either the Barber and Bernstein, and will never be popular. The New England Tryptich, a three-movement work based on music by the colonial William Billings, is Schuman’s most popular orchestral work, deservedly. It is a clever reworking of Billing’s materials, brilliantly orchestrated. Schuman’s writing for string quartet is reminiscent of his orchestral style, rather than true chamber music. The Song of Orpheus is a lovely, lyrical work for cello and orchestra that belongs alongside the Barber Cello Concerto in the repertory. The Ninth Symphony, inspired by a World War II massacre in Rome, despite its high ideals, is a gray and stiff work. In Sweet Music, a setting of Shakespeare for flute, viola, voice and harp is totally unknown to me, so I can’t discuss it. Neither is Night Journey, but it was not well received. Schuman’s earlier scores for dance, Undertow and Judith, have an archaic stiffness about them. They cannot compete for repertory status with Copland’s famous ballets, Rodeo, Billy the Kid and Appalachian Spring.

 

January 10, 2009

 

 

The Violin, An Illustrated History. Yehudi Menuhin, 301 pp., Flammarion, $50.00 (coffee table size).

 

This book is many things but it definitely is not an illustrated history of the instrument. It consists of musings on every aspect of the instrument and the playing of it by Yehudi Menuhin, a child prodigy and great musician, but also a great mystic with humanitarian instincts that seem frustrated by reality and  an ecumenical view of life that seems to include all cultures. He has a few pet theories that pop up repeatedly in the book. One is that Jews and Gypsies (forced to wander the earth), were able to take the very portable violin with them in their wanderings. He also feels that classical music training is restrictive because it does not include other world musics like Indian ragas or jazz (his appearances with Ravi Shankar and Sebastian Grapelli have an air of earnest embarrassment about them). Eventually, he probably answers every question the reader might pose about the construction of violins and bows and their use in producing beautiful music, but not in any logical order. He is at his best when he talks about the great musicians he met during his long career. His appreciation of Enesco, Kreisler, Casals, Rostropovich, Oistrach and other of his teachers and colleagues makes for interesting reading. His airy musings on the great composers are more open to question, but not the sincerity of his appreciation of their work. He is engaging when discussing the many composers he had worked with, like Elgar, Bloch and Bartók. A great story concerns Sibelius. Menuhin was engaged to play his violin concerto in Helsinki for the celebration of the composer’s 90th birthday. Sibelius asked him who he thought was the greatest 20th-century composer. Before Menuhin could answer, Sibelius said “Bartók,” whom he had known in Berlin as a student. (This is reminiscent of Poulenc, who expressed his appreciation of Schoenberg by saying he was interested in composers who did things differently than he did.) The book is profusely, if somewhat haphazardly illustrated. For example, there are two large pictures of string quartets. One is the Joachim Quartet, the other distinguished-looking group (p.249) is completely unidentified. Occasionally, there are factual errors. Frederick the Great gave Bach the theme for the “Musical Offering,” not the “Art of the Fugue.” The book is beautifully produced, with first-class shiny paper and well-reproduced illustrations. It comes with a cd of excerpts from Menuhin’s recordings, including several with Grapelli and Shankar.